Until I was ten, portrayals of school in fiction seemed stuck in the 1950s or even further back. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ serialised on Sunday teatimes on BBC1 or ‘Just William’ on ITV in the same time slot; ‘Winker Watson’ in ‘The Dandy’ and Jimmy Edwards’ cane-happy headmaster in ‘Wacko!’ Caps and blazers, catapults and mortar-boards – all rooted in the Billy Bunter/public schoolboy tradition that hadn’t altered since the Edwardian era. And then came ‘Grange Hill’.
There had never been anything like ‘Grange Hill’ on children’s television before. There’d been many a TV series in which the leads had been children or juveniles, but none in which the school day formed the basis of every episode, and a school day set in an inner-city comprehensive of the kind most of us watching attended. When Phil Redmond’s brainchild was first broadcast in February 1978, we were introduced to a cast of characters who were all beginning their first day at ‘big school’, just five months after I’d been through an identical experience myself. It was the most relevant TV programme I’d ever seen to my own life at that time.
There was gobby Trisha Yates, mild-mannered Justin Bennett, vicious little creep Mickey Doyle, chubby smoker Alan Humphries, whiny posh-girl Judy Preston – but standing head and shoulders above them all were our instant heroes, Tucker Jenkins, played by Todd Carty, and his sidekick Benny Green, played by the unforgettably named Terry Sue-Patt.
Inexplicably, the football-mad black boy with the characteristic afro was found dead yesterday at the age of just fifty. Police are apparently not treating his death as suspicious. This is extremely sad news for those of us who belonged to the original ‘Grange Hill’ generation. The thought that little Benny was fifty is startling enough; the thought that he is no longer with us is a further sobering reflection on the passage of time.
Benny Green was one of the first children of West Indian-descent to be a regular character on a kid’s show, especially one made by the BBC. He suffered racist bullying on occasion, orchestrated by those hurling insults that would now either be edited out of repeat screenings or would be prefaced by a warning. But that was the reality of the time, and ‘Grange Hill’ mirrored that reality with a candour and honesty that was unprecedented; it upset parents and prompted many an outraged letter to ‘Points of View’ that cited its overnight success as a bad influence on children, yet children knew the playground and classroom were already like that.
Gradually, once the likes of later iconic characters such as Roland Browning and his sadistic tormentor Gripper Stebson grew up and graduated, the show descended into what was effectively a pubescent soap opera; but for the first five years or so, ‘Grange Hill’ was as groundbreaking a piece of TV drama as ‘Coronation Street’ had been in the early 1960s. And dear old Benny Green was pivotal to that.
Terry Sue-Patt, your fellow schoolboys from the class of ’78 salute you.