MR. GRAHAM ‘SOOTY’ SUTCLIFFE
Arriving at the beginning of Series 2, Mr Graham Sutcliffe gained himself the nickname ‘Sooty’ and became a highly popular teacher at Grange Hill. Youthful, yet firm, he caught the eye of Cathy Hargreaves who was disappointed to find he was engaged to fellow teacher Miss Mooney. Played by James Wynn, Mr Sutcliffe was one of the mainstays of the early years of the series. Here, in our exclusive interview, James talks about his time at Grange Hill and how it lead to him finding an alternative career to acting.
How did you get your role in Grange Hill?
I ended up getting it because I had an agent and they asked me to go along for an interview basically. I went for what was going to be a Games teacher. You try and dress accordingly. It was in the days when people wore rugby shirts and trainers and so I went as what I thought the part was. Then I heard I’d got the part, and it wasn’t until the first day of filming that I met the Producer again. I said ‘ I don’t understand. Why isn’t my character dressed in sports kit and stuff?’ and he told me I wasn’t playing the Games teacher, I was the Drama teacher!
Had you done much acting before Grange Hill?
I’d probably done about 3 or 4 years by then in rep, fringe and student companies.
What did you think of the character of Mr Sutcliffe?
I thought he was nice to play. He was young, casual and friendly and all that. Most TV things cast people quite close to themselves; that’s just how it is. I don’t know if he was like me. I didn’t think too much about it if I’m honest. The scripts came and I tried to do them as best I could.
Did you find it difficult working with a young cast?
No, it was good fun. I liked them. I enjoyed it. None of them treated me like a real teacher. I got to know them pretty well in as far as you can if you’re 25 and they are 15. It was a really happy time.
Who were you friendly with in the cast?
The directors and some of the producers over the years I got to know really well. I was quite friendly with Brian Capron who played one of the teachers (Mr Hopwood) in the later series I was in.I guess he was more of a friend as he did about 3 series with me. I haven’t seen him in years, but if I did I’m sure I’d enjoy chatting to him again.
In the early ones Michael Cronin (Mr Baxter) and Michael Percival, one of the first teachers (Mr Mitchell) and Philomena McDonald (Miss Mather) I was quite friendly with. I got on well with all of them.
Did you watch Grange Hill at all whilst you were in it?
I’m not sure. I guess I did because I’ve got some on tape which my kids watched, so I’m familiar with them. I don’t think I sat down every week and watched it.
Did you have a favourite storyline you were involved in?
To be honest, if you’ve got something to do, and you’re involved in it, then you like it! That’s what actors are like. All actors want to be doing something, they don’t just want to be stood around watching the action. I enjoyed any of the plots I was ‘busy’ in. I liked the dyslexia storyline. You’re not very picky really ; you just want to be busy! If you’ve got lots to do, you make the best of it. I can remember all the storylines I was in ; mostly because my children pull them out and watch them when friends come over. They have a laugh at the stupid costumes and funny haircuts.
Do you feel the scripts and storylines still stand up today?
You’d probably have to ask my kids as it’s more relevant to them. I mean they don’t say what a silly story. Things don’t really change really. Kids form friendships, fall out and get into stuff. I don’t really think 25 years makes any different to the content of those episodes. I guess they do, otherwise my kids wouldn’t watch them, unless of course they want to laugh at their father; which they probably do!
What lead to you leaving Grange Hill?
I’d been in it for about 5 years. I was in about 50 or 60 episodes. I think they probably thought it was time for a change. For someone like me it was good experience; I’d learnt quite a lot doing it. I had enjoyed it very much and I learnt about telly. I went on to direct and produce on the other side of the camera, so Grange Hill was a really good thing to me. It was very helpful; I learnt about how to put things together just by watching. I looked at some of the directors and thought I’d like to be doing that. It was brilliant from that point of view.
What did you do after leaving Grange Hill?
I acted for a few more years after that. Then I think, remembering what I’d seen and heard and got a hunger for, I thought I’d be more interested in directing. Acting is fantastic if you are busy, but if you’re only half busy it can be quite dissatisfying. I suppose I’m saying I saw something else I thought I’d like to try. I saw these guys directing and thought these are the only people who are busy all day. Everyone else was really at their beck and call. You have a team of people working with you and you’ve got to get the best out of them. I saw people doing that ; some were very good and some not so good, but I was fascinated by the process. What do you say to someone to get the best out of them, when to someone else that could be exactly the wrong thing to say? I liked the look of the human side of that. I hope it helped having been in front of the camera too. When I went to the BBC they certainly seemed to think it would.
I’ve also been trying to write a book. We bought an ancient old house and restored it and it turned out to be the oldest house in England. Some people wrote to me suggesting I write about it. So, I’m writing the story of the house, the story of us moving in, the restoration and also the story of England because the house is so old! I’m not a historian but I’ve done a lot of research. It’s all quite light hearted; I’m trying to make it so normal people like my mum can still enjoy it and find it funny. I hope!
Would you consider going back to Grange Hill (or acting) at all?
I’d consider it. I wouldn’t pursue it. I’m not into doing what I did all those years ago; rushing round writing letters and sending out photographs. I think it’s highly unlikely as I’m not in the ‘swim’. When I was at the BBC I sometimes used to get asked to be in things when they couldn’t find anyone else, and I would do just for the fun of it. I’d consider it, but I think it’s so unlikely. Pigs might fly! But if it tumbled my way . . . . . . . yeah!
Do you still get recognised for being in Grange Hill?
Yes. Not the whole time, but barely a week goes by. Obviously it’s only people of a certain age. I can tell peoples age to about 10 years! It’s an interesting thing because we have a very visually retentive part of our brain ; you meet someone from ages and ages ago and you remember them. I guess that’s what some people think when they meet me. It’s quite fun sometimes. I don’t take it too seriously ; it feels like another life time.; two other life times actually! I think I’m lucky, I enjoyed it, but it’s no big deal.
Do you find it surprising that there is still interest in Grange Hill ?
I don’t know….. I suppose I do.
What do you think Mr Sutcliffe would be doing today?
Most people’s dress code gets fixed at about aged 20-25, so they are rather sad versions of themselves aged 50, dressing as they did years ago, with the same haircuts. I think he’d be like that. He was always quite matey with the kids as he had almost just left school himself. You can’t really do that when you’re 55, so I think he’d be terribly sad if he was trying to do that! Maybe he just grew old gracefully.
© 2016 Grange Hill Gold
Not to be reproduced without permission
Thanks to James Wynn