It is impossible to think about Grange Hill in the 1980s without mentioning the character of Samuel ‘Zammo’ Maguire, the cheeky chappy whose life spiralled into heroin addiction in one of children’s television’s most ground-breaking storylines. Actor Lee MacDonald played Zammo for six years and helped to make Zammo one of the iconic characters of the 1980s. Nowadays Lee still works in TV, presenting several programmes, as well as running his own locksmiths in Surrey. Grange Hill Gold caught up with Lee, who talked exclusively to us about life as Zammo and the happy times he spent at Grange Hill.
What lead to you becoming an actor?
Initially . . . . it was because I had a sister who died when I was quite young. I went really quiet and just wouldn’t talk to anybody so my teacher said it might be a good idea for me to join a club, not an acting group, just a club, as it might bring me out of myself. So I went to Anna Scher’s Theatre Group when I was 7, purely not to act, but just to mingle with kids. That’s basically how it came about; because I lost a family member.
What roles had you played before joining Grange Hill?
I worked constantly from near enough the age of 8. I did quite a lot of Schools TV stuff which was popular in the 80s; where you used to sit with your class and watch, and I did a lot of stuff for them. Then I did a series with Mike Reid, called Noah’s Castle, which I’m trying to get footage of now from Southern TV. I played Mike Reid’s son and it ran for quite a few episodes. It had quite a few star names in it. Christopher Fairbanks was in it. That was the first big thing I did. Grange Hill came up when I was 11, and my parents said to me I couldn’t go to that audition because I needed to settle in at secondary school. So that would have been Stewpot’s year; even though I was the same age I looked a bit younger, so probably better that I missed that. Then I went to the auditions for Zammo’s year.
Did you audition specifically for the part of Zammo?
I did. It’s very vague, but I think they came to Anna Scher’s and picked a few out. It was sort of an open audition type thing. I think the Zammo character I just fitted in with. At the time I think they were looking for Jonah and Zammo, and the Zammo character was a tough character. At the time I was boxing, with a skinhead haircut, and it just fitted in with what they were looking for. The auditions are ongoing and you go back again and again; loads of auditions. I think from the start Zammo being a toughy was the reason I went for that character.
Did the character develop along the lines of your own personality?
Yeah of course it does. When you’re that age and the script is written in a sort of cockney accent, you go in and the whole character is your personality. It’s the same with most people who play parts in The Bill and stuff like that, it’s an element of their own character. At that age, 11, you just completely make Zammo your own. So Zammo was just, apart from being a lot more naughty, he was just a spin-off of my own character.
Early on there were a lot of fall-outs. It was stage school versus . . . . . .Sylvia Young’s Vs Anna Scher’s. There was a lot of people from Sylvia Young’s. I remember going to Wales and ringing my mum and telling her I felt quite segregated because there wasn’t a lot of Anna Scher people there, but a lot of Sylvia Young. I was the only one from Anna Scher with a main character and the rest were all stage school and kept together, but then that’s what you do when you’re eleven or twelve. I mean in hindsight it was just school play stuff but I did get quite upset by it. It did get better; I mean that was when I was first in it and there wasn’t a lot of people from Anna Scher’s there. We didn’t not get on, it was just that when we were away it got a bit lonely. But usually we got on brilliantly; played loads of tricks on people and stuff.
How did you get on with the adults in the cast?
We didn’t really mix with the adults at all. Not by choice, but we were chaperoned. So if you were under the age of 16, you were kept in a green room, so when you weren’t doing your filming you would literally come back and sit with your chaperone. We didn’t mingle at all. The only adult I did mingle with was the lady who played my mum, Jenny Twigg. She was lovely; she was a really nice lady. There was quite a lot between those characters because I was stealing off her ; the decanter and everything. She did go through a lot! I was doing a thing recently and people always remember that bit with the decanter.
Did you get much reaction to your character from the public?
Yeah. Massive reaction! The main thing from doing Grange Hill; I didn’t realise the impact it would have on people. When I was 15, we were doing a lot of personal appearances at the time for Mecca; kids discos and things. The new series of Grange Hill came out in January or February I think, and after that was out, the agent who was booking me said ‘Nobody wants you any more because it’s a drugs related character. So nobody wants to use you.’ I lost loads of work because adults didn’t want me at the club because it was drugs related. But that’s the power of telly . . . . more so in the 80s when there was only a couple of channels. Things were taken a lot more seriously than they are now. There’s so much stuff that kids watch now that is outrageous.
I didn’t at all. I was quite young at the time, 15, and they mentioned about doing a drugs storyline and it was obviously done by Anthony Minghella, whose gone on to do the English Patient. It was very well done. I went to visit rehabilitation centres. The guys who played the drug addicts in Grange Hill, one was called Paul, they were working alongside. A couple of the extras who played the drug addicts were addicts themselves, so it was all really real and they would give me advice. The impact ; I never knew it would be so big. On the back of that was the ‘Just Say No’ record which reached number 5 in the charts. None of us expected that; we just did the single to raise money for drug awareness and drug rehabilitation centres. Then to go to the White House and do the ‘Just Say No’ campaign in America was massive. Really, really enjoyed it; it was good fun.
Do you think the storyline has impacted on your profile today?
Of course, yeah. I’m still getting work on the back of it now; wrongly or rightly. I’ve got my locksmith’s shop in Wallington and I get people come in all the time and I get work out of it. I’m actually sad, I’ve got a mention of my Grange Hill stuff in my Yellow Pages ad. I get a lot of work from estate agents in their 30s, who say ‘Is it really you? Do you wanna do some work for us?’. I just went for an audition for Sky Properties Abroad Channel and the woman there said ‘Basically, your audition was ok, but the reason I gave you the part was because you used to be Zammo.’ So I’m still getting work on the back of it; sad as it is! Still jogging me along now!
Yeah! I could talk about it all day long! It was all Grange Hill, even before I was in it! I used to rush home to watch Grange Hill! I had a brilliant time doing it. I know most people look upon those years fondly so if people come in and ask if I’ll chat about it, I have no problem at all. I loved it, what I did. It’s not hindered my later life. A lot of people get the hump because people go ‘Oh you didn’t go on to do stuff’ or whatever, and people find that difficult. But for me, I’ve gone on and did what I wanted. I wanted to box, but I had a car accident so I couldn’t box anymore. The acting stuff was whilst I was at school, but on the back of that I’ve got a shop that’s doing really well and I’m travelling round the world doing presenting work because I was Zammo, so I could chat about it all day. I loved it!
Grange Hill won a BAFTA during the 1986 series, and for many this is regarded as the golden era of Grange Hill. Why do you think this series was so successful?
I don’t think it was any one character that was successful. The reason I think it was, was that at the time you only really had BBC and ITV. They were the only channels you’d come home for and it was all very adult orientated, except for that slot, three till half past five for kids. Grange Hill was the only programme that tackled real life. It was all cartoons; stuff like Roobarb and Custard, but with Grange Hill, kids could come home and relate to that and watch that. We were talking about it recently for BBC3, and some of the stuff in it was outrageous ; the Gripper stuff. At that time it was real cutting edge, inside a Comprehensive School. In it they pick out characters; your fat guy, your black guy, your racist one, so everyone can relate to a character within that. I think Phil Redmond did it brilliantly. That was the reason it was so popular in that kids could say ‘I’ve got one of them in my school’ or ‘We like him’. The impact was that it was reality of what their school was really like.
The later 80s was when it lost the edge, not because our lot went, or because of the younger people, but I only remember ‘our lot’, a bit of Ziggy and Robbie afterwards, but after that it all goes a blur. I mean Grange Hill is still showing but you get parents who’ll say ‘Grange Hill’ to their kids and they will say ‘What’s that?’, and they’re ten or eleven. The impact is lost completely. At ten or eleven, you knew Grange Hill, five past five, after John Craven! You knew when it was on, when the repeats were on! I think more so then.
People who are in their 40s now, were probably the prime audience for Tucker /Todd. And that was when it had a massive impact, because nothing else had been on like it before. It lost its appeal in the late 80s I think.
It’s well known that you didn’t sing on the Just Say No single, but do you credit yourself as having a top ten hit?!
To be honest, I never mention it, because anyone who’s our age knows we had a hit record anyway. . . .and it normally gets ribbed. I never said about having a top ten hit . . . but it’s nice. My brother used to act and sang on the Orville ‘I Wish I Could Fly’ single. A few years ago on TV there was the ‘Top 10 Worst Ever Singles’ and we were at number 3 and 5. My mum phoned up and said ‘I can’t believe my two sons are on two of the worst ever records!’. It’s a brilliant thing to have done, but I don’t mention it too much!
Did you expect the ‘Zammo’ tag to stick with you for so long?
No, it’s really weird because I remember leaving Grange Hill and being quite sad because I’d grown up with the Zammo thing. I’d been through school with it and it was good with the girls! I’m not exactly Brad Pitt so it helped out on that respect. I got a load of girls from it! I had this thought that I would leave and would never be recognised again, but it never really died down. I’m always out and someone will come up to me. More so over the last 2 years, since the Bring Back Grange Hill programme on Channel 4. But not a day goes past without somebody mentioning it. Then of course there was the Cirque Du Celebritie thing that I did for Sky One before Christmas and that put me back in people’s minds, but it never really went. People still talk to me about it, and I could rabbit on all day! I’m glad it’s stayed with me, because I enjoyed the character as well.
What are your favourite memories from your time playing Zammo?
Some of my best memories are with Lee Sparke who played Jonah. My best memories after Jonah left, are of just doing the drugs storyline, solely because I was on my own doing that. Most of the scenes were on my own or with Erkan (Roland). But the funnier times I’ve got are the ones in the really early days. Even though I said it was a bit segregated with the stage schools, they are my best memories because Lee Sparke and I had some really fun times on the show.
Do you have a favourite episode?
I loved the Zoo episode. It’s my favourite ever episode. That was such a good episode. There’s bits of that, which we recorded but never got shown because it over ran. But it would have been even more funny. When we were on the bus, there were a load of middle aged people waiting for the bus, but we changed the number of the bus, so all these people put their arm out and the bus just goes past. But that was never shown as it was over-running.
That episode was just my best. It was the first episode we ever filmed; our first shot together. It’s surprising, because I’ve watched that again and again and Lee Sparke (Jonah) and I have got a really good little bond between us, and worked really well together. And we’d never met each other before then. It works really well ; little grins between each other. I keep on smiling about it now, because I had such a great time doing it.
You knew it was coming. Unless you were written out early, you’re in it until you leave ‘school’. We stayed in an extra year and probably for casting purposes I shouldn’t have. I probably should have left before the Sixth Form if I had wanted to pursue a career in acting. If you leave when you’re about 14 or 15 you change slightly, facially, but when I left I was already 18 so I already looked like an adult. I’d turn up for auditions after that and people would just recognise me as Zammo, and they have a pre-conceived idea that you’re not right for what they are doing. We were fortunate not to leave in the Fifth Year; they said could we stay on an extra year and we all said that was fine, but you knew, just like normal school, you get to Sixth Form and you’re off!
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your time on Grange Hill?
I speak to Erkan Mustafa (Roland) quite a lot; probably about once a week. We meet up. We’ve done some stuff for E4 recently. We do probably two shows a year doing the links in-between videos and stuff. We all met up about a year after the Justin Lee-Collins reunion. But you all move on; you’re all doing your own thing. A lot of them are not in TV work now, they’ve got families and things and they all come from different parts of London. We all say we’re gonna meet up, but you’re all busy doing what you’re doing, so you don’t really. I’m getting married in Vegas next month and Erkan’s invited to that, but I don’t think he’ll be able to come. It’s a little bit far!
Tell us about Lee MacDonald today. How are you different to the Lee Macdonald who was in Grange Hill?
To be honest I don’t think I’m that different. I’m still a really cheeky chappy. I’m nearly 40, but I don’t think of it. You always think you’re in your 20s. I’m like an older version of Zammo now ; that sounds really sad doesn’t it?! As I was then is pretty much what I’m like now. I joke about, I don’t take things too seriously. I’m very similar to my Zammo days, just a few more wrinkles!
It’s been announced that the first 4 series of Grange Hill are set to come out on DVD in November. Are you keen to see your episodes released on DVD?
I’d love them to come out on DVD! I want to show them to all my nieces and nephews and stuff because they were such good times. Not because I’m in them, but because some of them are ‘classic’ episodes. It’s a shame not to bring them out. They should have done it a long time ago. I’m gonna rush and get them. I’ll keep them all. I can’t wait to get them and watch them all again!
To be honest I will be involved in absolutely anything and everything that’s going on. The way that the film goes; I keep speaking to my agent and there has been speculation that’s been going on for a long, long time about that. I don’t know how it would work to be honest; but if I was asked, I’d jump to do it!
Celebration wise I don’t think anyone knows exactly what’s going on, but I think they are probably going to ask Todd and Susan Tully, purely because of Eastenders as they are quite high profile. I’m sure there will be some sort of reunion. There’s got to be! But I think some people will be really difficult to track down. It would be nice to do something.
Do you have a message for the thousands of Grange Hill fans out there?
It’s just really nice to think that people are still as interested in it as I am!
Thanks very much to Lee MacDonald for taking part in this interview.
Interview © 2007 – Grange Hill Gold
Not to be reproduced without permission.