When Grange Hill began, way back in 1978, one pupil was late for her first day and ended up being escorted to her first class alongside Tucker Jenkins. Ann Wilson (played by Lucinda Duckett) was that pupil, and during her first and only term at Grange Hill, managed to get herself voted onto the school council, and stand up to school bully Jackie Heron.
Grange Hill Gold managed to track down Lucinda Duckett, who kindly granted us an in-depth interview. Here she shares her memories of her time at Grange Hill and sheds some light on the origins of the well loved schoolyard drama.
How did you get into acting?
I attended a drama group near my home called the Anna Scher Children’s Theatre. It was just a very casual after-school thing. You paid 10p and joined the group – there wasn’t a waiting list then. It was good fun, and Anna herself was (and still is) a wonderfully charismatic and inspiring woman.
I had no idea that joining Anna Scher’s might lead to professional acting work. In fact I didn’t even hope it would. The real reason I did drama was to get away from the alternative – Brownies – because I hated uniforms.
It was ironic that I ended up in Grange Hill, where I had to wear … a uniform!
How did this lead to your part in Grange Hill?
I think the BBC just asked Anna Scher to put forward a few likely candidates. I remember going to the producer’s house, also in Islington, with three or four others from Anna Scher’s. They included Michelle Herbert (Tricia), Abigail Brown (Judy), Terry Su Pat (Benny) and, I think, one or two others. We just read some of the script out loud and that was it. It was very casual and relaxed. Afterwards, they told us we’d all got parts. We just didn’t know which ones!
What did you know about Grange Hill before you started filming?
Nothing, except that it was about a school. The show was originally called Grange Park but, around the time we started filming, they changed it to Grange Hill after discovering there was a real school called Grange Park. I remember it being very difficult for a while, trying to get used to saying “Hill” instead of “Park”.
Was Grange Hill what you expected it to be?
I don’t remember having any expectations, one way or the other. I think I hoped it would be fun, and it was.
What did you think of the character of Ann Wilson? And was she similar in any way to yourself?
I felt she was a bit too much of a goody-goody sometimes. I used to wish occasionally that she could be louder and naughtier and cheekier, like Trisha was.
Yes, there were similarities between Ann and me. Like Ann, I wasn’t rebellious at school but, also like her, I wasn’t a total square either. I had a few friends, but I wasn’t a class-leader, like Tricia or Tucker.
Ann was terribly terribly nice and helpful to absolutely everyone, and would put herself out a lot to do the “right” thing all the time. In real life I was a much more ordinary – and flawed – teenager.
Still, I came from a stable, middle-class family and had no real dramas in my life, which pretty-much reflects the type of character Ann was. I didn’t put on an accent for the programme – I genuinely spoke like that – much to my embarrassment now.
To be honest, I think most of the performers in the first series were chosen not particularly for our acting ability but because our real personalities were not too far off the characters we were chosen to play.
Do you think the character of Ann was well written – or do you think the writers could have found more for her to do?
Yes, I do. I think all the characters were well-written. That’s one of the main reasons why the series has endured so long.
Ann had plenty to do, and I don’t think the writers skimped on her at all. I noticed in the video we got of Grange Hill that quite a few of Ann’s scenes in the original series had been edited out, probably because she didn’t develop into a long-term character.
When the second series of Grange Hill arrived, Ann Wilson had disappeared. Why didn’t you stay for further series?
I was invited to stay on, but the next big block of filming was due in the school holiday. The BBC preferred to do it this way because in term-time they had to provide private tutors for us, which was expensive and time-consuming. It was easier all round if they could film in the holiday as much as possible.
The problem for me was that my dad had just taken a job in Asia, and that holiday was planned to be our first family visit to Malaysia. There was never a question that I should go with them, rather than staying in Grange Hill.
They wrote me out of the script by saying my family had moved to Asia.
Did you get on well with the rest of the cast?
Yes, although we tended to divide into separate groups of girls and boys a bit. Remember, most of us were only 13. We also split into school groups: all the kids who went to the same stage schools tended to hang together, as did the ones from Anna Scher’s.
Viewers tend to forget that the extras in Grange Hill were on set as much as the main characters. Some of my fondest memories are of people who had very small speaking parts in Grange Hill – everyone got to know them just as well as the kids who had the bigger roles.
The crew gets forgotten too. They were super people, and always incredibly nice and kind to us.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your Grange Hill days?
I knew Abigail Brown (who played Judy Preston) before we did Grange Hill because we went to the same primary and secondary schools. I’m still in touch with her now, but not with any of the others from Grange Hill.
Not really. We had private tutors on the set and by law we had to have two or three hours’ lessons with them every day, so Grange Hill didn’t affect my school work much.
I think it would have been a lot harder and more disruptive if I’d stayed in Grange Hill longer, though. I think that’s why my parents were quite keen that I shouldn’t be in the show long-term.
It wasn’t particularly difficult being at school after the show aired. No one made a fuss and I wasn’t treated differently. Being on television wasn’t a particularly big deal to them. I think that’s why it was such a shock when people outside school – total strangers – recognised me and made a fuss. When they asked for autographs, I didn’t know if they wanted my character name or my real name. It was a bit surreal and odd.
Was Grange Hill anything like your own school experiences?
No, very different. I went to a traditional all-girls grammar school in London, full of bright, middle-class, studious girls who were mostly quite trendy and bohemian. We didn’t have a uniform, and the teachers (mostly women) were nothing like the ones in Grange Hill.
Did you think that Grange Hill would make such an impression, and still be here 26 years later?
Absolutely not. I don’t think anyone – not even the writers and producers – could have imagined the show’s phenomenal success and longevity. In the autumn of 1977, when we first started filming, no programme in history had lasted 26 years because television itself hadn’t really been around that long.
I remember when we filmed that first series, no one was even sure it would last beyond the first 13 episodes. At that stage it was still an experiment and a bit of a gamble.
The director, Colin Cant, and executive producer Anna Home seemed really thrilled, even a bit surprised, when news came through that the BBC had agreed to a second series. No one had assumed Grange Hill would last.
Why do you think Grange Hill has been so popular?
It’s hard to say. I was just an actress – I’ve never thought of myself as a commentator. When it first aired, though, I remember Grange Hill was the first show ever to deal with the real issues (bullying, truancy, shoplifting etc) that most real schoolchildren faced. Up until then it was just Blue Peter and Magpie and so on.
I suppose the real challenge for the producers and writers has been to keep it relevant to those real issues, even as they change. Clearly, they’ve succeeded or the show wouldn’t still be here.
Another clever aspect of the show is that every viewer can recognise themselves, or part of themselves, in at least one character. Even when I was only 13, I noticed we had every “type” in the script: the posh one, the poor one, the overweight one, the small and weedy one, the shy one, the cocky one, the bully – and so on.
Have you watched any of your episodes recently? What did you think of them?
Yes, I have. A couple of years ago my husband tracked down a video of Grange Hill on the internet and I watched it for the first time in some 23 or 24 years. There were some episodes that I’d actually never seen, because I missed them when they were originally aired (I can’t remember why) and we didn’t have video recorders in those days.
It was odd to watch the show as an adult. As a 13-year-old I was embarrassed by it (aren’t 13-year-olds embarrassed by just about everything?) and felt that my performance was utterly dreadful, that I looked awful, my voice was odd and, above all, that my acting was the most wooden of everybody’s. I wanted to cringe and hide.
But looking at it more objectively now, I think I wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought at the time. In parts, my performance is even reasonably ok. It was a very pleasant surprise!
Is it strange to think that work you did over 25 years ago, is still very highly regarded and well remembered?
Highly regarded? Are you kidding? I am staggered than anyone remembers it at all. To be honest, I rarely give it any thought. Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve forgotten more about the show myself than some of the keener viewers have!
What is your strongest memory of your time on Grange Hill?
Umm. No one particular memory, really. It was good fun, mainly. I used to love our rehearsal days (we rehearsed in a hall at Baden-Powell House, the scout and guides headquarters in Cromwell Road – another irony as I just couldn’t get away from those uniformed Brownies, however hard I tried)! We all used to go to Pizza Hut afterwards, which was a treat for me at the time.
I also remember that the height difference between me and Todd Carty (Tucker) was a problem. Although he was exactly a year older than me (we share the same birth date – 31st August) he was a lot shorter as I’d just hit puberty and he hadn’t yet. Because of this, there were a couple of scenes where he had to stand on a box for our dialogue to be filmed.
The scenes we filmed were partly at a real school in NW London, and partly at the BBC’s television centre in Shephard’s Bush. I loved the TV centre. Doctor Who was recorded in the next studio to us, and it was brilliant to sneak in there when the cast and crew were on breaks, to look at the set. I was never frightened of Doctor Who after that – the set and costumes were sooo plastic and un-frightening in real.
We also liked going to the BBC canteen and looking out for people we recognised from TV, like Penelope Keith and the presenters from Nationwide. They clearly thought we were just a bunch of kids on a school excursion. Grange Hill hadn’t been aired yet, so there was no reason anyone else should recognise us.
Has Grange Hill been a help or a hindrance to your career?
Neither. I tend to keep fairly quiet about it. Grange Hill, and acting generally (I was also in a film before that), helped to give me self-confidence which has been useful in my career – and in life – but otherwise it hasn’t made a difference, especially as I rarely talk about it.
Are you proud of your work on Grange Hill?
I suppose so. I don’t think there’s a great deal to be proud of. I didn’t do anything amazing to get the part – it was luck, really. And once I’d got it, all I did was to say some well-written lines and do what I was told. It wasn’t that hard and I don’t think there was anything particularly clever about my acting.
Still, I’m proud to have been a part, albeit an extremely small one, of something which became such a British institution. It’s nice to have been there, especially at the beginning.
What have you done since you left Grange Hill?
I became a journalist as soon as I left school, training on weekly papers and in Fleet Street. I moved to Sydney in 1988 and continued my career with newspapers. I left the cut-and-thrust of newsroom life a few years ago and now train journalists for a major newspaper company in Australia.
I’ve done a lot of travelling over the years and have had some wonderful adventures.
I am married to Tim and we have two daughters: Tiffany, 4, and Isabelle, 2. I am expecting our third child in July.
I turned 40 last year and I have to say, life gets better and better as I get older.
Interview © 2005 Grange Hill Gold
Thanks to Lucinda Duckett for her participation in this interview.