School closures, grieving students and social media slang: Phil Redmond on his plans for Grange Hill – the Movie

From Brookside’s bodies under the patio through the Emmerdale plane crash per Luke Morgan’s rape in Hollyoaks, Phil Redmond has always known how to frame a story. Sitting in his home office, flowing grey locks now thinning a little, the 72-year-old scouser who masterminded them all is gesturing over Zoom to a wall where a 2019 Daily Star front page hangs: “Bring Grange Hill Back to Save Britain.” Next to it is a print of the comic-strip opening credits still so revered that, a maggio, Richard Osman got “the Grange Hill sausage” (which appeared, to consternation, in one frame of them) trending on Twitter. Two sheets of paper, but testament to the series’ enduring popularity 13 years after its cancellation – hence why Redmond has just finished the script for a Grange Hill film due in late 2022.

“It’s astonishing how many people tell me it was their favourite programme. Especially politicians,” says Redmond, before roaring with laughter. “David Cameron told me his favourite character was [school bully] Gripper Stebson. It breaks the ice when you’re trying to get them to do things.”

Redmond – Sir Phil since last October – has spent much of his time since selling his production company Mersey Television in 2005 as a media studies professor at Liverpool John Moores, and chair of National Museums Liverpool and the UK City of Culture Expert Advisory Panel. But the urge to tell stories never deserted him: Highbridge, the first in a proposed trilogy of state-of-the-nation novels, emerged in 2016 but only partially scratched the itch. And so he returned to his first, greatest creation.

Irritated by an article speculating – inaccurately, in his view – on the likely careers of Grange Hill alumni including Zammo McGuire (Lee MacDonald) and Tucker Jenkins (Todd Carty), but thrilled by the show’s second life on social media (un meme splicing Beyoncé’s Single Ladies video to the theme tune went viral), he reconvened with former collaborators last February to consider what had really happened to the school, its current intake and former pupils. Casting will begin soon and he hopes members of the old guard will return to play parents and grandparents alongside a new generation of pupils.

“We’ve been through four school-rebuilding programmes in my lifetime, but it’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about getting the best out of every pupil. How will ripping schools out of communities solve anything? Or making catchment areas so big that kids have to travel miles to be with their friends? That’s the thesis of the movie: it’s decided the school is costing too much to maintain so it should be knocked down, the land sold and proceeds used to build a new one and replenish local coffers.”

The battle between parsimonious authorities and students troubled by the school’s uncertain future allows Redmond to voice long-held concerns about left-behind communities clinging to schools as rare hubs not yet underfunded into extinction. The film will also show how children handle grief (it will be set in a post-Covid Britain, with many students having lost elderly relatives), discuss social media and the purpose of education itself, as the ageing head fights a losing battle against a deputy eyeing up a promotion to run the proposed “superschool”.

How would a new generation of Grange Hill students react to all this? “I’ve always had a strand about kids having the same emotions and fears, aspirations and phobias as everybody else. They only lack the life experience. Rather than riots in the dining hall, this time their voices are heard through social media, a rebuttal unit run by the school geek against council propaganda.”

Redmond is cagey about further specifics, but promises the film will reflect the canny balance of knockabout humour and serious, issue-led drama that made the show work. Putting it on television, anche se, was never an option: TV has “lost its wide ambition”, with the prospect likely too thorny for traditional broadcasters (although the BBC is reviving another school drama, Waterloo Road, next year) and too parochial for streaming services.

Will Grange Hill still reflect the concerns of children today. “I’ll give the same answer I gave when I got asked that at 29: I used to be one! Childhood doesn’t really change. What changes are fashion, haircuts and slang. Once you’ve got the theme and the tone, it’s all about casting – the actors bring you what’s right at the time, you’ve just got to let them be natural.”

This commitment to naturalism underpinned the appeal of Grange Hill: the relationships between children and teenagers were written with frankness and honesty, told literally from the kids’ viewpoint (cameras filmed from the children’s eyeline) and performed by working-class, comprehensive schoolchildren using their own accents. The approach was as groundbreaking as the issues it tackled when Redmond worked alongside script editor Anthony Minghella during the programme’s mid-80s pomp.

Alongside stories of smoking and sexual awakening, there was social commentary. Benny Green’s (Terry Sue-Patt) footballing talents couldn’t cover for the scruffy uniform his family could barely afford. Gripper Stebson (Mark Savage) picked on a Sikh student and mixed with skinheads. Above all, there was Zammo’s descent into drug addiction, which provoked questions in the House of Commons and tabloid headlines warning of potential copycats; it also took the cast to the White House to meet Nancy Reagan and into the Top 5 with tie-in single Just Say No.

The show retained its edge into the 90s: comedian Francesca Martinez played a character with cerebral palsy who refused to be treated differently to her peers; homophobia, teenage motherhood and suicidal thoughts were also addressed with care and conviction, before it lost its way and audiences dwindled.

Grange Hill’s present-day descendants are legion. Series from Ackley Bridge e Jamie Johnson per Sex Education e Skins owe it a considerable debt for redefining how ambitious, bold and relatable television for younger viewers could be. “The difference is, those shows look at the characters in the precinct, not the influence of the wider community,” Redmond says.

Born and raised in the Liverpool suburb of Huyton, the son of a cleaner and a bus driver, Redmond drew on his own disappointing experiences at St Kevin’s, one of Liverpool’s biggest comprehensives, for the resolutely unsentimental Grange Hill. Having studied sociology at Liverpool University, he took up screenwriting in his early 20s after a spell as a quantity surveyor that, a decade later, would give him the financial and logistical nous to buy and kit out the cul-de-sac that became Brookside Close.

Redmond has always been about the long game: Zammo’s heroin storyline took two years to resolve, the Jordaches’ domestic violence storyline on Brookside, tre. And while he’s happy to rib Cameron, he’s too canny to pass judgment on someone he will surely have to deal with – even Nadine Dorries, now DCMS Secretary and not, I venture, the greatest advert for Merseyside. “I think you’re being slightly unfair," lui dice, laughing. “She’s an unknown quantity in that position – maybe she’s making the right noises, but not in the way people want them to be said.”

He has already written to her about Channel 4, which he still resents for the shabbily handled demise of Brookside in 2003. Dorries’s grasp of C4’s funding may have seemed shaky at a recent select committee, but Redmond is well informed and opinionated enough for the both of them.

“What the hell’s Channel 4 per adesso? It serves no purpose, but rather than flog it off for a devalued price, why not retain the remit, sweep out the costs of transmission, management and buildings and give the ad revenue to the BBC so we have one big, sustainable public service broadcaster?"

He has thoughts, pure, on the BBC. “It belongs to the people, so you need to keep them on board and willing to pay for it. The licence fee should be replaced by more of a cultural precept on every landline and mobile phone contract: the more you use online content, the more you’ll be contributing to the BBC.”

Dorries can expect a pugnacious encounter with a man whose disillusionment with central government is total: the phrase “levelling up” prompts a derisive snort.

“I’ve been in the levelling up agenda since I came into television – it’s why I set Brookside in Liverpool. Like the ‘big society’, it’s a great idea with a crap slogan. There’s no north-south divide, it’s just London versus everybody else. People in Cornwall or Hereford have the same fundamental issues as people in the big conurbations, but they can’t get a hearing and communities are dying. Most people didn’t believe in HS2, but they reacted to the cancellation of the north-east leg because at least it had been something. You can’t be surprised when people lose faith.”

Perhaps Grange Hill – the Movie will reach out across the regions and generations. I ask about the legacy of the series. He mentions a recent Guardian interview with Garbage’s Shirley Manson, who credits it with saving her life when school bullying drove her to self-harm. “She was saying what I used to say during all the big controversies,” says Redmond. “Grange Hill never claimed it would solve your problem, but it was a touchstone – something to guide people through rites of passage and say: ‘You’re not alone.’”

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