JUDY PRESTON (1978-1979)
When Grange Hill began in February 1978 one of the lead characters was Judy Preston, a sensitive ‘posh’ girl who was worried about starting a new school. Played by Abigail Brown, Judy struck up a strong friendship with Trisha Yates, escaped from bully Jackie Heron and let the school hamster escape, all before leaving at the end of Series 1 to go to Brookdale. Though Abigail returned to play Judy again in Series 2, it was only for one episode. Grange Hill Gold spoke to the delightful Abigail Brown about being part of the original cast, her career since, and what happened to the actual Grange Hill hamster!
What lead to you going into acting?
I was quite shy in some ways when I was a child, so I was quite quiet. I think my parents thought a drama class would bring me out of myself a bit. Anna Scher ran her drama classes very near to where I lived. I was very scared to go to the class in the first place so I kept putting it off. Finally when I went, I really enjoyed it but I was still very much sitting on the side-lines for a while. Anna would be asking ‘Who wants to do this improvisation?’ and I would just be sitting there not volunteering. I think I just got picked for something anyway, and I did it and just really loved it! After that I did really enjoy it and I felt more confident about performing. I’m also a musician so I do really love that whole performing thing.
Anna Scher’s was known for having quite natural kids; not too kind of actressy or false. Anna had all sorts of kids there and I think she became quite popular with directors. They would come along and hold auditions there. They would watch a class and if they were looking for a particular part, Anna would put the kids up, to give them a chance to show what they could do.
Did you know any of the Grange Hill cast from Anna Scher’s?
Michelle Herbert (Trisha Yates) also went to Anna Scher’s and we were quite friendly. Lucinda Duckett (Ann Wilson) and Terry Sue Patt (Benny Green) were from there as well. I used to do quite a bit of acting in class with Susan Tully (Suzanne Ross), who did Grange Hill after I’d left.
What roles had you played before joining Grange Hill?
I’d done something called The Secret Army, which I had a few lines in and was really fun. I’d also done A Christmas Musical with Willy Rushton, when I was about 11, in which I had to sing and dance. I knew a bit about doing a bit of work and being on telly but obviously Grange Hill was different; I had much more to do and there were many more kids involved.
How similar was the character of Judy Preston to yourself?
That’s a good question! In some ways she was and in other ways not. Before I auditioned for Grange Hill, I had been at a Pimlico, a Comprehensive school, as a specialist musician and had experienced a little bit of trouble fitting in. Being called a little bit posh and things like that was quite similar. I actually left that school and ended up at the school Lucinda Duckett was at. So the character was a little like me; it had some of the same resonance as what I’d experienced myself.
Lots of viewers identified with Judy’s worries about starting secondary school. How did you feel in the same situation?
I suppose I was a little worried about going to secondary school. It was hard for me to know which one I was going to go to. I was very in to Music, and Pimlico, where I wasn’t that happy, was amazing for Music. I was very happy on the days we had music, but I wasn’t so happy on the other days! It’s hard to remember what I was feeling going from primary to secondary school, but I’m sure I must have been thinking about what the school was going to be like and whether it was the right place for me.
I would still say I was happier at primary school than either of my secondary schools! Lucinda and I went to the same primary school and it was very much a ‘free’ education. You were encouraged to do what you wanted to do and be creative. It was a hard place to leave in a way.
Did you get on well with the cast?
We didn’t have much to do with the adults. I enjoyed working with the actress who played my mother. I was very friendly with Lucinda Duckett anyway; we were best friends even before Grange Hill. I got on very well with her though we weren’t in a lot of the same scenes. Slightly disappointingly we weren’t really acting much together. In terms of other people, I really liked Michelle Herbert too.
I would say, a bit like my character, I was fairly studious and it was quite hard to get down to any work. It was hard to concentrate because some people weren’t so into that kind of aspect; people are different – why should they be? I remember at the time thinking I’d just like a bit of peace and quiet to get on. I’m not sure I did make that strong connections with everybody in the show.
You left at the end of Series 1, after your parents expressed a wish for you to focus on your education. Would you have liked to have stayed for longer?
I think you often wonder what the path not taken might have been like. I’m quite happy with where I am now and what I’ve done. It’s very hard to know what would have happened if I’d stayed on. It would have been fun to do a bit more I think. At the same time, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss doing some of the subjects I was able to study at school. I loved my Russian teacher and did Russian A-Level and adored that – it would have been a shame not to follow that through in the same way.
Judy returned for the final episode of Series 2. How did that return come about?
I wondered that too! The production team must have had some idea about it. When you’re a child / teenager you don’t really know these things. It was an honour to be asked to come back and it was lovely for me. Having had to leave possibly slightly prematurely, not completely at my own decision, it was really nice to see everyone again and to be in another episode.
When I was about 16 I did do a BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s “Love In a Cold Climate” with Judy Dench, playing a character called Louise Radlett when young. I was only in one episode as my character then grew up! But it was fun and I had to learn to ride side-saddle.
I still would say, if I’m entirely honest, that I still have a bit of an acting itch that hasn’t entirely been scratched! Some of the violin work I subsequently did, some of my most favourite things to do were working for dance companies that had a theatrical staginess about them. I played in a quartet for London Contemporary Dance for a long time and we got a chance to join in the dance warm ups or be on stage sometimes and I would always love that. I liked it when I could be a little more involved in that way; bringing the acting and the music together.
Do you have a favourite episode, storyline or moment?
I really enjoyed the whole thing with the hamster! It was a bit bizarre in a way – quite off the wall! I don’t think you’d have that on telly these days. I liked the slightly quirkiness of that episode. I liked the whole science lab thing and the bit in the pet shop. I enjoyed having the little hamster, though they’re not my favourite animals I must say! I did end up with that hamster. I kept asking what was going to happen to it when we finished and I did get to take it home! It didn’t live very long; I don’t think they do! I remember it escaping under the floorboards and biting me, so it wasn’t a great ending to the hamster thing!
Episode 3, where I get bullied, sticks in my memory too. I wonder if seeing the bullying put anyone off going to high school – I hope not!
Do you recall any bad memories of your time there?
I really can’t. There was sometimes quite a lot of hanging around waiting, but I didn’t really mind that. I found hanging about on set quite exciting.
What is it like watching yourself back on screen?
I haven’t really watched it for a while! I showed my kids and they all took it with a ‘Oh god Mum!’ kind of thing! It’s amazing to have a record of what you might have looked like, or been like at that age. My parents didn’t really go in for taking lots of photos, so it’s amusing to see how I look like my son at that age. I think I’m kinder on myself now than I was then. After the show, when it first came out, and we got to see it, I remember thinking ‘Oh my god! Is that how I come over?! Do I really talk so fast?’ When you’re young and a bit nervous you talk a bit quicker! I think I was a bit critical of myself then, but with time I’ve softened!
What have you been doing since you left Grange Hill?
I went to music-college to carry on studying the violin and then went in to the classical music profession. I did a lot of work touring, playing with various different orchestras. Then I played for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, so toured with a dance company. I was just remembering the other day, I was in a show with ‘Second Stride’ (a slightly more wacky dance company) and I got the chance to play the violin and have a character – that was really fun. It was rather horrible; based on a book ‘Badenheim 1939’, about these Jewish people who don’t really realise they are about to go to a concentration camp and think they’re just having a nice kind of holiday. It had some really great music on the violin. It was fun, being a bit more part of something theatrical. Then I went to the Baroque violin, which is authentic instrument stuff! It’s a more specialised form of playing the violin, playing things like Bach and Handel. I spent a long time doing that.
Over the last 20 years I’ve grown to do more stuff with singing, so trying to bring more of the singing, music and performing together. It feels like it’s all joined together! I’d say singing and violin now is what I do, but not tonnes of it as we have a little small-holding and look after a few animals and grow veg. I’ve done quite a mix of things really!
Is it a surprise to be remembered for Grange Hill 40 years later?
Yes! It’s quite easy to dismiss what you’ve done. It is surreal that I’m talking about what I did 40 years ago. I didn’t really think it would last in that way, with websites and reunions. I never would have thought that.
What do you think Judy Preston would have been doing if you’d stayed at Grange Hill?
That slightly fuses into something Lucinda was saying after one of the Grange Hill events; which was that it was a shame they never put the music that I did into the actual show, with my character. I don’t even know if people knew about the music. It would have been interesting to see the character involved with music in the way she went. In a way, that character wasn’t really fully me at all. There was an element of her that I didn’t really engage with or understand. The person who played my mother was very different to my actual mother. Judy was slightly wet, in a nice way, but could have done with a bit more ‘oomph’ about her. Definitely not a ‘cool’ character in the way that Trisha was, or Tucker.
How do you look back on your time in the series?
I don’t look back on it that often, but because of the 40th anniversary I’ve looked back a bit more recently. Grange Hill was a very interesting experience and fun. It’s all rather surreal that it became that popular. It’s almost unbelievable how it captured so many kids’ imaginations or realities.
Thanks to Abigail Brown
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