For Grange Hill fans, Sheila Chandra is best known as ‘Trisha and Cathy’s friend’ Sudhamani Patel, who struggled to convince her family that her ‘western’ friends were a good influence. However, Grange Hill is just a very small part of Sheila’s career. After leaving Grange Hill, Sheila went into music, having a top ten hit with ‘Ever So Lonely’ as the lead singer of Monsoon. After becoming a solo singer, Sheila became one of the world’s leading artists on the Asian Fusion music scene, with Billboard Magazine stating in 2001 that ‘In the past five years a new round of second generation British Asian Musicians have emerged · all owe a debt to this singer’s pioneering work’. As well as numerous albums, Sheila has also published a book ‘Banish Clutter Forever’. Grange Hill Gold is proud to publish this exclusive interview with Sheila, in which she talks about her time playing Sudhamani and how her career has developed since leaving Grange Hill behind.
What lead to you going into acting?
I was at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in South London from the age of 11. They had an agency and regularly sent all of us on auditions. I hadn’t intended to do any acting. I was an extreme introvert so it wouldn’t have been my choice, but that’s the way things happened.
What roles had you played before joining Grange Hill?
I hadn’t done any acting before Grange Hill because I was spectacularly bad at auditions. I used to get so nervous and just freeze. I think I just didn’t like being judged (which is the whole point!)
Yes, I auditioned specifically for the part of Sudhamani. In those days, black actors didn’t tend to audition for roles that were not specifically written for their ethnicity much, although that has thankfully changed a little.
In any case, I think Sudhamani’s back story would have come up with any role I played because the BBC were keen to tackle real issues that children faced and with an Asian female actor the temptation to explore her background is obvious. In other words, any character I played would have ‘turned into’ Sudhamani in some way, anyway, I think…
As I’ve said, I was spectacularly bad at auditions. And by the time the Grange Hill one came along (it was for the second series so we all knew how big the show was) I was sure I had zero chance of getting it. There was only one other girl auditioning for the part (there being few Asian girls at stage school in the early 80s) and she kept missing her cue when we were reading from the script. So I just larked about, and poked her under the table when it was her turn, and giggled. I was gobsmacked when I got the role.
How did you feel about your character?
She was a bit boring, to be honest. But I wasn’t a great actor, so it was probably best that I didn’t have too much responsibility!
Who did you get on well with from the cast?
I was an extreme introvert as I’ve said, so I found it hard to be around so many extreme extrovert performer types. I did hang around with Donald Waugh (Hughsey) a fair bit because he was also in a musical in the West End and I was just discovering singing. And you’d find yourself with the people you played your scenes with quite a lot. I remember Lindy Brill (Cathy Hargreaves) singing to us – she had a great voice.
Did you realise quite how much impact Grange Hill was having at the time?
Oh yes! Many of my friends were forbidden to watch it because it dealt with real issues. Parents were shocked that it wasn’t all the ‘Billy Bunter’ and 50s-style ‘jolly hockey sticks’ Enid Blyton sort of stuff about boarding school (where everybody was white, middle class, comfortably off and basically a ‘decent sort’) that they were used to. The grittiness came as a shock. Those early series of Grange Hill seem rather tame in comparison what we watch now, but at the time it really was ground-breaking and we knew it.
Sudhamani had several story-lines based upon her family’s cultural beliefs – something that was very rarely discussed on children’s television at the time. Did you feel this and other ‘issues’ the show dealt with were well handled?
With my character, the show’s producers didn’t have time to get into the nuances. It was good
that they touched on cultural issues at all. I think it would have been better if it had been an ongoing theme for Sudhamani – but they might have feared they’d alienate the core audience for the show if they did that. And they’d probably have had to do a lot more research to pull it off effectively.
I did feel that they handled issues well in general. That was why my generation were such fans of the show.
I did get recognised because I looked exactly like her in my own school uniform, but I really didn’t pay much attention to it. I wasn’t a major character so it wasn’t a big thing for me.
Did you expect your role in Grange Hill to be remembered 30+ years later?
No, not at all. It was a very minor supporting role and I don’t think I was very good…
What are your favourite / least favourite memories from your time at Grange Hill?
The ice-cream eating contest in the BBC canteen! Five bowls each, but we had to go back to filming and called it off…. Shame, I think I had a real chance of winning.
You’re best known for being a singer; was this always your plan?
Singing is a vocation. My voice broke when I was 12 and from that moment there was nothing else I wanted to do. Everything else was secondary. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it, having absolutely no contacts and no way in, but I got there. I think I drove the Grange Hill chaperones mad by going off into the corridors at the rehearsal rooms and singing to hone my technique instead of hanging out with everyone else. But they were echoey! Too good to miss…
Would you have liked to have explored acting further after Grange Hill?
I got some acting offers after I became a singer, but it never appealed to me. The life of an Asian/Black actor is a hard one. Roles are few and far between so competition is fierce unless you’re also a writer and can get things commissioned. Also I’m mixed race, I was born in England, and I’m not Hindu or Muslim − so although some of the issues Sudhamani faced were like mine, others weren’t and I felt a bit of a fake trying to portray full-blooded Asians to be honest. Directors would automatically assume I had the right cultural knowledge, which I didn’t.
‘Ever So Lonely’ being in the Top Ten around the world in 1982 is probably the biggest one. On a more subtle level, I was a full-time Asian Fusion artist in the 80s, years before the term ‘World Music’ was invented. And I know my work influenced those labels who later worked in the genre to come up with it.
I didn’t release any singles as a solo artist (from 1983 onwards). So I didn’t have to play mainstream pop games. I was free to make the work I really wanted to make – which is a rare privilege. Few other artists have the luxury of being onstage entirely alone (with the odd taped drone) and holding the audience in the palm of their hands.
Tell us about the work you do now (including your book).
I have a vocal injury as a result of being badly intubated after a car crash in 1991. I was still making albums after that but it limited my vocal stamina. And then I developed Burnt Mouth Syndrome (neurological pain in the mouth triggered, in my case, by talking and singing) in 2010. There is no known cause or cure.
I wrote a book on home organising which is perfect for creative types or people who work from home called ‘Banish Clutter Forever’ (Ebury/Random House 2010). I had been brought up in an incredibly chaotic household (in terms of ‘stuff’) and learned bad habits. But I like order. And I discovered the secret of being tidy without any effort. Friends that I helped thought my method was so good that they persuaded me to write a book.
I can no longer sing and I hardly speak at all either because it’s painful for hours afterwards. I communicate via email, or handwritten note. But my back catalogue of 10 albums will always be there for people to enjoy.
People mention it as though I should be embarrassed that I was a serious artist who started out as a child actress, on what they assume (if they’re not English) was a soap. I rather enjoy having defied the stereotype though.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your time on Grange Hill?
No I had a big rift with my family in my 20s, in large part because I wanted to be a singer. I cut off all contact with them, and with my friends because I didn’t want them dragged into the feud. I wasn’t close to anyone from Grange Hill by that point anyway. We sorted it out about 10 years later but I didn’t catch up with everyone I’d known before I left.
Sadly, a close friend of mine made contact with Terry Sue-Patt last year, and Terry said it’d be nice to have us both to dinner. I kept putting it off, partly because I live in Somerset and wasn’t in London much, but also because of the ‘not talking’ thing. And then it was too late…
Do you have a message for the thousands of Grange Hill fans out there?
Happiness in life comes down to being who you really are, and doing what you were born to do.
You can find out more about Sheila by visiting her website here www.sheilachandra.com
Thanks to Sheila Chandra – a truly obliging interviewee.
(c) 2015 Grange Hill Gold – Not to be reproduced without permission