The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

No Snowflakes Please, We’re Grange Hill

In an article for the Children's Media Yearbook 2018, Diana Hinshelwood looks at the rise and fall of Grange Hill.

Kids today, eh?  What are they like? No respect.  In my day, we didn’t … etc. etc.  Despite obvious differences in technology and taste in music, they’re more similar to us when we were at school than we think.

Getting your own back on teachers, making excuses for not doing your homework, trying to make your school uniform look cool.  Sound familiar?

How about student/teacher affairs, Bullying, Drug addiction? They may not have happened to us personally, but we were aware they went on.   And they still feature in our newsfeeds today.

Up until the late 70s, school life in drama was portrayed as a glorious Enid Blyton type jape all washed down with lashings of ginger beer. At best, it was St Trinians.  At worst, it was Billy Bunter.

And then, on February 8th 1978, Children’s BBC unleashed 'Grange Hill' onto TV screens and into the lives of school children all over the land.  Controversial from the start, it’s gritty mix of issues and messy friendships gave school children a voice of their own and reflected their real lives rather than the idealised versions that had gone before.  It cut across class - whether you went to Eton or the local comprehensive, the shared experience of school life was instantly recognisable. Children loved it.  Grown-ups hated it – which is of course an even bigger reason for children to love it!

The Establishment were instantly outraged at the depiction of unruly pupils, but despite their antipathy, the Home Office gradually came to see it as a useful tool for campaigning and highlighting issues, such as the powerful story of Zammo’s drug addiction and the “Just Say No” campaign that accompanied it.  There may have been anarchy in the classroom, but 'Grange Hill' was deeply moral.  Everyone got their come-uppance, though not in the judgemental, do-goody way of today. The BBC Hierarchy, however, remained implacable in their dislike.  I was once told by someone very senior that Children’s telly wasn’t real telly – which probably explains their alarm. 'Grange Hill' was very real.

At the time 'Grange Hill' was commissioned, BBC Children’s target audience was secondary school pupils and reached into the teens, so it was easier to tackle tough storylines.  However, the multichannel media revolution changed not only production techniques but viewing habits too.  The BBC found itself losing the young teen audience to new channels dedicated to youth programming.  YouTube and streaming gave them more choice in how and when they watched.  It was generally felt that there wasn’t much point in trying to keep them, so the age of the target audience for 'Grange Hill' was lowered to under 12, and finally to 9. Inevitably, the themes had to reflect that, and as the audience grew younger, the controversial issues were dropped and storylines were softened.

Social media had an effect too.  It created a platform to voice opinions freely, for the good and the bad.  While it is good to have a say, it also allowed self-styled critics to impose their particular views on others and hound those whose opinions differ.  The result is a society that is scared to take risks and cause offence, and not a great climate for pushing boundaries.

Health and safety was also a worry, and depictions of pupils overturning tables and carrying weapons played on fears of copycat behaviour.  Ironically, these modern concerns are the same as those held by the Establishment and BBC Hierarchy at the start of 'Grange Hill', but today’s risk-averse culture has created a nervousness about being held responsible for it.

All TV programmes have a shelf-life, so it would seem only natural that 'Grange Hill' should run its course and be replaced by something considered more “relevant.”  Only it hasn’t.  Currently there is a lack of content for 12-14 year olds as broadcasters pull back from creating it, arguing that this age group isn’t watching any more.  The BBC aren’t the only ones who did this – Channel 4 claims that teens are catered for through their family programmes.  To its credit, ITV have introduced teen led storylines to Coronation Street featuring drug taking and truancy and portraying teenage life in all its messy misery. All to predictable outrage.

But that is missing the point. 'Grange Hill' excluded adults and gave kids something of their own. In the 10 years since it’s demise, nothing new has come close to reflecting the real lives of our schoolchildren.   Because of the digital and social changes over the last 10-15 years, there is an opinion that a programme like 'Grange Hill' wouldn’t be made today. If so, that’s a great shame as the issues of bullying, peer pressure and rebellion are as prevalent as ever. School kids need relatable heroes and anti-heroes, and in our era of social media where nothing is as it seems, you could argue that there is a need for some gritty realism to challenge the new caution and risk aversion.

I understand that CBBC is now widening its remit to entice the teen audience back again.  To do so, it must hold its nerve against nay-sayers and offence takers.  Should 'Grange Hill', or a realistic school drama, be made today kids would love it.  Grown ups would hate it but isn’t that the way it should be?


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