diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nice lads like Zammo don't take heroin. Or so we thought, until that shocking teatime when he appeared slumped in the toilets round the back of an amusement arcade. Poor old Roland just hadn't spotted the clues. Gaunt faced-youth popping in at all hours. Mysterious demands for instant cash. Feeble excuses about needing to buy a bike. And then it all ended so unpleasantly, after hours, spilled out across the floor by the sinks. To those of us of a certain age in 1986, this was shocking stuff. And now it's "culture".

Last night, 25 years on, the British Film Institute screened that particular classic episode of Grange Hill to a paying audience. They're running a short season of 80s children's TV drama, based particularly around the series Dramarama (no, me neither), and on this occasion threw their net a little wider. That episode of Grange Hill, the first ever episode of Press Gang, and a one-off Dramarama piece. An audience of mostly thirty-somethings turned up. And oh yes, so did some of the stars.

That's Lee MacDonald that is, sitting on the edge of the stage with a smile. He looks just like he used to, only 42, and without any dodgy gear scattered across his lap. And next to him that's Erkan Mustafa, who doesn't look at all how you think you remember him until he starts speaking, and then he couldn't be anyone else. Zammo and Ro-land, two classic characters from my (late) childhood, here to introduce their seminal episode. Unfortunately no sign of Jackie or Janet, but you can't have everything.

The sausage in the opening titles earned a giggle. And then we were into the drama, setting the scene at the arcade, plus a parallel story about two girls sneaking out to an all night party. Nothing from the school itself, this was one of those set piece episodes taking the drama elsewhere, reflecting society outside. The party tale hadn't dated well, with the girls swanning around like they wanted to be in Dynasty but had been kitted out at Miss Selfridge. Their parents bickered unconvincingly, as the script demanded, but with an unspoken menace which suggested there was a child-beating scenario around the corner. Always one for slipping in the controversial where you least expected it, was GH.

Lee remembered how the producers had first proposed his smackhead storyline, and checked up front that his parents were OK with it. How he'd gone to rehabilitation centres to learn some background for the role, and how he never sang on the "Just Say No" record because he's tone deaf. How he's getting back into acting again and has a couple of films coming up. And how he'd not seen this particular episode for at least 15 years, but still can't get through a day without someone reminding him of his Zammo heritage. Erkan meanwhile reassured us that going to the White House was indeed a big thing, and that yes he has met up with the lovely Janet since.

Next up was Press Gang, from the very beginning, as lead writer Stephen Moffat established the characters he'd lead through the following five series. A ridiculous premise, as if any local newspaper would ever staff a junior version with unstable adolescents - indeed almost as ridiculous as ITV ever making another children's drama aimed at 17 year-olds. I hadn't seen the show before (I was out at work by 1989) but I am forever being told that I look like that bloke out of Press Gang, so it was useful to check. Tightly plotted, nicely rounded, and full of actors who were destined to go on to bigger things. Like that Dexter Fletcher, for example, and good grief he was here in the auditorium in person too. With a shock of hair resembling Medusa, he gabbled happily about the good times and how everyone now thinks he's American even though it's only an accent he put on for the series.

Three children's television legends for a fiver - you don't get that sort of special offer every day. And a three-part retrospective placing youth screen culture in a historical context - how very South Bank was that? Keep your eyes open for other intriguing video screenings at the British Film Institute - you never know when they'll choose to indulge the TV generation again.

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