Roland Browning was Grange Hill’s ‘fat kid’. Bullied by others, only child Roland struggled to fit in at Grange Hill. Followed about by the ever helpful Janet, Roland’s time at Grange Hill saw him develop from an unhappy eleven year old to a more confident teenager. Erkan Mustafa speaks exclusively to Grange Hill Gold about playing one of Grange Hill’s most iconic characters, and the legacy of Roland Browning . . . . . .
How did you get the part of Roland?
I never even thought about acting. I was just a normal child attending school. The national press were advertising the fact that they couldn’t find a fat child at stage school to appear in Grange Hill. A teacher put me up for the role and said “Go on. You can do it.”. I turned up for my first audition. I was there with someone I grew up with ; one of my brother’s best mates. I didn’t know he was going; and he didn’t know I was going. And the rest is history basically. There were 2000 people actually went for the role and I think the reason I got it, was because I was quite a shy child at one point, and the fact that I wore glasses. I think that summed it all up.
Did the character develop along the lines of your own personality?
No. No way. I was always a completely different personality to Roland. He was a single child. He had issues. He was always seeking acceptance from his parents. They smothered him and basically spoilt him. In reality, myself and Roland are two completely different people.
Did you get on well with from the cast?
Just like any group that you grow up with, there will always be people who have personality clashes and people you don’t get on with. There were a couple of people who were a few years older than me. At my age now, 2 years older doesn’t make any difference, but when you’re 15,16, 17; it does. You’re going to have people you like, and people you don’t like.
How did you get on with the adults on set?
To me it made no difference whether I worked with an adult or a child. To me, we were just acting. The older actors had to realise that we were just kids; we weren’t professionals even though some people had been trained. We’re talking about kids of 14 and 15; they’re going to have fun; they’re going to get bored.
Because I had a character mother and father on set, I did scenes with those and when you have those ‘parent’ scenes you’re acting with adults quite a lot. There were times when I did do quite a lot of scenes with just me and the teacher, a parent or an adult on the show. My character had to see a child psychologist; there were scenes with just me and Mr Baxter. I did some scenes with Michael Sheard (Mr Bronson) and he gave us some really good advice. It’s one of the things you just deal with. To me, it made no difference working with a fellow child or an adult.
Did you get much reaction to your character from the public?
Immense, immense reaction from people. Half the time people would come up to me in the street and say ‘You should fight Gripper. You should beat him up’, the other half people would just come up and abuse me, thinking it was fun. They’d shout out strange obscenities, but that’s part and parcel of being an actor and playing a character.
No, the way I looked at it, at the time, I was just doing a job. I was acting. Looking back, later on in life, it had no effect on me. I was speaking to Mark Savage (Gripper), six months ago, and said even though my character was getting bullied, it was too funny the way we were doing it. A lot of fan-mail that I received was from people who had been bullied and people felt really sorry for the character, saying he should stand up for himself. He was a very sad character. At one point in the show I was 13 stone and he was getting bullied by someone who was much smaller, so at the end of the day he should have fought back. He did at one point, but he never won.
How do you think the character developed?
He became a lot more confident. That was because he had his girlfriend at one point. He’d found someone he was attracted to, and who was attracted to him basically.
There was also a point where he had scenes with Mr Baxter and the character got lost, but ended up becoming a hero. That was a changing point in his development, where he became a lot more confident.
I remember a scene I had in which Roland was supposed to be playing basketball. I had a conversation with Anothony Minghella (Script Editor) and said there’s no way Roland would ever be playing basketball. He said ‘The old Roland wouldn’t, but he’s now going to give it a try’. I felt that was quite good really.
Certain characters develop over time and by the time I left Roland was doing a lot of fund-raising, he was trying to help Zammo ; he came out of his shell.
You were a key character in the Zammo/Drugs storyline. Did you realise the impact that this story would have?
No. When I first heard about it, I was 15 or 16 and I thought this is a bit too much for a children’s show. In reality, only 3 years later, we had the whole beginning of the ecstasy movement. In certain ways it had an affect on certain individuals. It had an affect on people out there.
I think the storyline was handled really, really well. And really well acted by Lee. I know when Lee got approached, he thought ‘Well, I’ve got to do my research’. He came up trumps; it was so well written. Obviously at the time we had a great, great writer, Anthony Minghella, who went on to bigger and better things, God rest his soul. At the time it was Anthony’s baby, to cover that whole story and he just supervised it so well.
This lead to the ‘Just Say No’ campaign. What are your memories of that?
It was exciting; going into a recording studio, never done that before. Fly to America ; never done that before. At the time there was some animosity on the set because only certain people on the set got invited to America. That got certain individual’s backs up. Looking at it now, we were the chosen ones; we were lucky to get it.
There was some animosity, and when we came back it was like ‘them and us’ on the set.
I was like a normal school kid; I never went to stage school or belonged to an agency. There was always animosity between stage schools at one point and I think at the time there was arguments about ‘You only get invited because your mum’s a chaperone’ or ‘You only get invited because . . . . . ‘ lots of reasons. The way I look at it; the demographics of the group that went there was right. You had the four main characters who were involved in the storyline; Lee (Zammo), Melissa (Jackie), Mmoloki (Kevin) and myself. They had to be politically correct and they took Amma (Cheryl) and Alison (Louise) and Ricky (Ant) because he was a major part of the record, and Joann Kenny (Jane) because she played a major part in the video. Wherever we went, they played the video of ‘Just Say No’, so they had to bring those characters there as well. The BBC had to take a ceratin group and unfortunately others were left behind.
We have to ask you about Roland’s ‘friendship’ with Janet. Were they actually even friends and how did you get on with Simone who played Janet?
You can ask as much as you like about Roland and Janet. Me and Simone (Janet) had a wonderful relationship. We gave each other Christmas presents. I didn’t do that to many other members of the cast, but me and Simone always did. We always got on well.
In terms of the character, I think Roland really really did like the fact that someone cared for him and basically he’d push Janet away, knowing that she’d come back. Janet was such a helpful character; even though she got on Roland’s nerves, I think he loved it really. That’s what he wanted; he wanted somebody. He didn’t have any friends. Deep down inside, he really did want her.
I’m going to be seeing Simone for the first time in about 20 years, this month, and it’s just going to be amazing. When I tracked her down, I had to ask ‘Are you the real Simone? How will I know? Can you tell me your middle names?’ and she said ‘Will you remember all twenty of them?’. I said ‘no’ but I could remember the first 3, so I said those and she said ‘ You’re probably the only person who would remember those’. So that’s really good ; I’ve spoken to her on the phone a couple of times. We keep saying we are going to meet up; we will do some time this month.
I said to Simone, without Janet, Roland wouldn’t have been anybody. The fact that ‘I want to help you Ro-Land’ was a catch phrase. Without her character, Roland would not have been so popular. People don’t realise that. I said to Simone that I thank her for that and she told me to shut up!
Did you expect the character of Roland to stick with you for so long?
Oh yes. At the end of the day, it had 15 million people watching at it’s peak. That’s a hell of a lot of viewers. The fact that I’m always going to look like Roland, unless I become slimmer of the year and change my whole body image means people will always recognise me as him. I live with it every day. Even today, I was shopping in my local supermarket and someone was saying ‘Do you know who that is?’ and I was saying ‘Who? Who? Who’s that?’ Because of my sense of humour I can play on that.
I’m alright with it as long as people aren’t rude. I can’t tolerate rudeness in people. Especially being asked for an autograph when I’m eating. It really bugs me. Just general courtesy, an ‘excuse me, sorry to disturb you’ is all it needs. I get asked ‘Were you Roland in Grange Hill?’ and I say ‘No, I’m Erkan from Stratford.’ That always gets a giggle.
Whatever I’ve done in the past, people still always say to me ‘Grange Hill’, and I think if I’d carried on acting I’d probably still get recognised for Grange Hill. I left Grange Hill in about 1986, so that’s some time to still be recognised from the show! Some people say lines from the show, which I find a bit strange.
What are your favourite memories from your time playing Roland?
As I tell everybody else . . . leaving it . . . but that’s only my joke! There’s so many good memories, especially of the people I became friends with and that I remain friends with. Certain episodes. The very first episode we ever filmed was the Chessington Zoo episode. It’s quite strange that that was the first episode we ever filmed and it was also, as actors, one of the most fun. It was funny ; it was realistic. When you were released from the school buildings , it was like you were being released from prison for the day; you’d just go mad. The episode was just really, really funny. It was 50 minutes long and it had to be edited to 29 minutes. There were some great scenes that were cut, that were really really good. It’s a shame they didn’t have 45 minutes of it.
Was there any storyline you didn’t enjoy doing?
There was no storyline I didn’t enjoy doing, but there’s one thing I hate, and I cringe about it now. I can’t stand listening to ‘Careless Whisper’. They made my character dance with his girlfriend, Fabienne. Roland wouldn’t dance and they made him dance to that song. Even now if I hear it I just cringe!!
There was an episode where there was a school disco and they were playing Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ (another song I can’t stand!). There was an episode where we sing Captain Sensible and dance to it ; God how cringing!
What do you think Roland is doing now?
He’s living in France and he owns a restaurant. I’ve written an episode about it. In an interview, somebody asked me if there was an episode of a Grange Hill school reunion, what would happen? I do a hell of a lot of writing, and so I did this 45 minute reunion story. The first scene would be a hand writing out letters (though it would probably be email or Facebook now) saying ‘did you want to meet up again’. Basically the whole thing is Roland showing people how he developed and how he came on. He invites Gripper there and says to him ‘ I forgive you for what you did’. It’s about forgetting the past, and it’s the past who made us who we are today.
It’s still on my laptop. I wrote it about 4 years ago; it’s quite funny reading it. A lot of characters get invited to the reunion, and people don’t actually know who sent the original letter. That’s what the whole episode was about.
You come up with conversations and it just spurred me on. I’ve written a couple of pieces and taken things around, not just about Grange Hill. I wrote a 6 part comedy, aiming for Channel 4. I took it to a friend of mine who was the head of Light Entertainment at Channel 4. I’d already sent him my script and he said to come in for a chat. He said ‘Sit down and watch this’. It was basically another comedy, exactly the same as what I had written! They even had the same name for the restaurant that I’d wrote! It had taken me a year to write six episodes, and so I was thinking had I told anyone about this?
A few years ago, Channel 4 reunited some of the cast for Bring Back Grange Hill. What was that experience like . . . and what did you think of the finished programme?
At the time I already knew it was happening, so there was no surprise element. A friend of mine runs SchoolDisco.com and I already knew what was happening. He told me that they’d already been approached to hold an evening with the cast of Grange Hill. I’d already performed ‘Just Say No’ at School Disco, three or four months prior to that. My friend had got me down there Djing.
The actual show came across a bit strangely. It’s a bit of a mish-mash to be honest. The show was about Justin Lee-Collins not about any of the kids from Grange Hill; like any of the ‘Bring Back . .’ shows he’s done. It was about him and his sense of humour, which is fair enough.
It’s a real shame that the BBC has let down the public when it comes to the 30th anniversary of Grange Hill. It should have been a huge thing. They could have done a whole evening. In May last year, I approached the BBC with an idea and they said no. I was talking to Ricky Simmonds (Ant) and said we could have a programme here. Simon Vaughan who played Freddie in the show is a TV producer, so we already had a producer on the team. The whole concept was a 40 minute show of celebrities, who grew up watching Grange Hill, talking about their favourite characters and being interviewed by their favourite characters. The Kaiser Chiefs, Denise Van Outen, Johnny Vegas all agreed to do it. So I already had people on board to be interviewed, back at their own schools. You would think that they could have done a huge night of TV about it; they do Dad’s Army nights, Doctor Who nights, Blue Peter nights . . . . . They could have had a whole night of the public voting for their favourite characters in the show. You could have ex cast members being interviewed. But the BBC turned it down and I feel they’ve let the public down.
I lost touch with Lisa York (Julie) for a long time, but with the Bring Back show, we became friends again. We didn’t grow up too far apart; about a 5 minute walk from each other. We don’t even really talk about Grange Hill ; it’s just where we grew up really.
Ricky Simmonds (Ant) and I have remained friends since we both left. Me and Ricky have met so many times, and we speak at least once a month.
Lee Macdonald and I get on really well now. We ask about each other’s lives. I never thought all those years ago that we would even be friends. I don’t get over to see him much, but I’ve met his wife and I was invited to their wedding. That’s quite a nice thing.
When I left Grange Hill it was only really Ricky who I kept in touch with, and Amma Asante (Cheryl) for about 12 or 15 years. Ricky and I lost touch for about a year, but then something sparked it off again and there was no change in our friendship. That’s what it’s all about ; you don’t have to be in each other’s pockets all the time to remain wonderful friends.
I’m starting to arrange this cast reunion, which started off as just a joke with John Holmes (Gonch). John said it was about time we all met up again, so I said I’d see what I could do. That’s snowballed into quite a lot of people going to be attending. It’s ranging from George Armstrong (Alan) to people from much later, that I didn’t even know on Grange Hill.
It’s going to be quite strange for us, the class of ’86; we had our reunion a couple of years ago. But this just snowballed. Once I’ve got Todd Carty on board, it’s all there. Most people don’t want any publicity or any press involved, but I could probably film some of it and do it as a podcast.
It’s a shame that Michael Sheard has passed away because I know, damn well, that he would have loved to come to the reunion. The love that he had for the show was amazing.
So many people, who went on to be really successful started on the show. Look at Alex Kingston, who has gone on to do loads of stuff. Naomi Campbell was an extra on the show.
In fact, I asked her out when I was 13, and I got turned down! She doesn’t know what she’s missing!! When I met her many, many years later, I asked her if she remembered me. She said no, and I pointed to myself as if I was sex-god and said this is what you could have had!
Nobody really remembers the cross over between Tucker’s year and my ‘year’; the Mark Burdiss (Stewpot) era. They remember Pogo, but if you ask people they will say they only remember Roland and Zammo. That’s why me and Lee do our own Roland and Zammo thing; we do music shows (mainly because my friend is the booker) but also a couple of charity nights. We did one for the Rainbow Trust and then in October something in Luton for a special baby care unit. In January we’re doing something for Mercedes. So there could be a whole corporate line. I said to Lee we could be doing alright out of this!
There’s even talk of a Grange Hill convention that I’m discussing with someone at the moment; a meet and greet day, with a Q and A and show some episodes. It would get a good response, but its just a case of getting the Grange Hill fans to know about it. Word of mouth is not enough!
There’s a girl called Tracey who used to be in Grange Hill, who I tracked down and we met up in a pub in Islington, only to bump into Mark Burdiss (Stewpot)! So we spent the whole evening chatting about the reunion! Then just as I’m walking back down to the station I bumped into Melissa Wilkes (Jackie) who I hadn’t seen in about 14 years! How bizarre is that? That’s another person I’m meeting up with next week. It’s really surreal that these people I haven’t met in ages have just appeared!
The first 4 series of Grange Hill were released on DVD in November, but subsequent releases have been cancelled due to poor sales. Would you like to see your episodes released?
The question is how far do you go? There’s so much. That’s why it is never going to be rerun, because there is huge costs involved for any broadcaster. I think they should have release series 1-5, but I think the BBC’s timing was wrong.
They should have done a whole Grange Hill 30th Anniversary celebration. Then announced it on the BBC, then axed the show, then there would be a call for it.
But never say never. It took them ten years to decide to put it on DVD, but they can put something like the Red Hand Gang on DVD easily! So never say never!
How do you look back on your time at Grange Hill?
All fun! It was great fun; it made me the person I am today. It gave me some good memories and some bad memories. I never really wanted to be an actor and doing Grange Hill, that made for 10 or 15 years of my life, think I was going to be an actor. Now I know I get more pleasure from writing than acting. But it was all good really. I’ve come out with great experiences. I’ve done things that other people have never done in their life, but most of all, I’ve come out with some good friends.
I find it bizarre that some people don’t look back on their time at Grange Hill fondly. It’s because they think they are better than Grange Hill. At the end of the day, if they didn’t enjoy it; fair enough, but Grange Hill set you on a path. Don’t be ashamed to talk about your past, because it’s your past that makes you what you are today. I say that to everybody in life!
Do you have a message for the thousands of Grange Hill fans out there?
Just say no! No, really, I just hope that they enjoyed watching Grange Hill as much as we enjoyed making it!
Thanks very much to Erkan Mustafa for taking part in this interview.
Interview © 2008 – Grange Hill Gold
Not to be reproduced without permission.