Wednesday, 28 August 2013
I walked into the classroom, it was my first day at Granghill comprehensive and I was nervous… I scanned the room, 33 sets of eyes burned into me, trying to figure me out and it scared me ridged. I saw the empty seat behind the desk, it looked much bigger and more intimidating than I had expected, I smiled, trying to seem confident, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t.
I cleared my throat and stuttered. “H… h… hello” I began “My name is Mr LadyLand and I will be filling in for Mr Bronson, now take out your books and carry on from where you left off on Friday”
That wasn’t so bad I thought, most of the kids got out there books and started working, a few did not, including one very familiar boy, sitting at the back of the class… He looked different from the others, wiser somehow… Why did I know him? And why did this tune keep playing in my mind... Da da daaaa... Then it hit me… This was Lee MacDonald! Lee MacDonald, Samuel ‘Zammo’ Maguire in the BBC kids drama Grange Hill from 1982 – 87, during what had to be its highest profile and most popular period… Zammo was the good boy turned drug addict, in one of the most dramatic story lines the series would ever have, spurning not only a national ‘Just Say No!’ anti drugs campaign, but a song and even a trip to the White House…. And he was in my class, while the others worked I pulled my chair next to his desk started quizzing him…
So Lee, what was it like being a child star?
“It was really weird… I did a series with Mike Read, the guy from Eastenders, when I was about 8 or 9, he
I used to run home [from school] to watch Grange Hill ‘cos it started in 76’ and I wasn’t in it till ’81, so I was very familiar with the format and to audition for it was unbelievable! It was a massive process, audition after audition and then getting told I got the part of Zammo, it was unbelievable… Wow…”
Did you attend a theatre school or club?
“Yeah, I went to Anna Scher’s, where people like Linda Robson, Pauline Quirk went to and a few of the Eastenders were associated with it, but it was just an after school drama club. I only went ‘cos I had a teacher who said there was a club near where he lived and did I want to come up after school and stuff. It wasn’t specifically for TV but it used to get producers and directors coming down, and then Grange Hill which was for me was unbelievable.”
How did you juggle acting and school?
“They said as long as I kept up my school work - every year I would be assessed by my teachers - and if my schooling was still up to sctrach, ok, if it wasn’t, then they would pull me out so I had to make sure my school work was on par with everyone else in the class.”
So you still went to a main stream school?
“Yeah, ‘cos filming would only be 6 months in the year and during that time you would spend a week in school and a week at Grangehill and then ½ day at school and a half day at grange hill, so it would be really weird. A normal day for me would be jump on a train and go to North Acton to rehearse and then get on the train back and go my normal school so it was a bit bizarre, but really fun.”
How did your mates react to you being on Telly?
“They were all right because I started doing it near enough when I started school. Then Grange Hill started round about when I started secondary school so, it was fine ‘cos they were used to it from year 1, by year 2, it was a regular thing, me going off out and them watching me so nobody really noticed. There was never any bullying or animosity, it was just the done thing that I did and everyone was really really good with it.”
Even with your pretty heavy drug storyline?
“Ahh… That was when I was leaving anyway, I was in Grange hill for a year before so that was when I was coming to the end of my normal school years I did that storyline, anyway and on the back of that was the Just say no campaign.”
Ahh… The legendary ‘Just Say No’ song, how did that come about?
“They came and asked if we would sing on a record, and we thought we was just raising a little bit of money for rehabilitation centres, and then next thing we knew it was in the charts at number 28! and then next week it would be 12. Then all of a sudden we were in the top 10, then we were 5, but then Madonna released a single and we stopped at number 5, but on the back of that we went to the White House and to 5 states in America; we sang at Yankee Stadium, we met Nancy Regan… I was only 16, it was like Wow! Like massive thing. And I remember being at home watching the news with my parents and it was all on the news at 10, news at 6, pictures of us flying to America, it was unbelievable!”
How could you take it all in?
“When your 16 and your involved with all that you don’t really… I look a back at pictures and stuff and found this documentary that was filmed of it and its like wow.. You know you didn’t realise the chances you got or the things you got the chance to do.”
I had the single! I told him, wondering if I still had it somewhere to sign.
“Yeah, It is mad because I remember going to Tenerife and there was a group of girls walking down the street singing ‘Just say no’ and it was madness, it was unbelievable.”
Do you think the video did work?
“Yeah… I had a lot of fee back and a lot of letters from viewers that watched it and were mortified by what happened, because the reason they chose Zammo was because he was such a good character, so rather than go down the same old route of choosing a bad character to get involved it drugs, they picked Zammo because he was a well-loved character, he was loved by everybody and he was the one who went off doing drugs…”
“Oh golly yes! I used to hate them girly eyelashes!”
And he was in a good relationship.
“Yeah with Jackie, she was lovely, she still looks exactly the same now!
Although at that time I was boxing and it was my main thing, I did the acting which was something I was just lucky to get in to, but the boxing was the main thing, so I was concentrating on that more than anything. I went to see a promoter when I was 21 and offered quite a lot of money, putting bums on seats because of who I was but then I had a car accident a couple of months afterwards and was told I couldn’t box anymore, so that’s when everything really went wrong… I lost interest in everything and that’s when I got a proper job and went to work for a lock smith and that’s what I’ve ended up doing now.”
Yes, I got my keys by you once in Soho…. I couldn’t believe it!
“St Annes Court, yeah? Ha! That was a turning point in my [career] ‘cos I was working for someone, I was there two years and it was like what am I doing? No disrespect for people who work for people, but I just felt this is not what I want to do, so I saved up some money and we bought the shop in Wallington and the ive had the business now for 13 years.”
You do still act though..?
“Yeah, I do bits and pieces. The idea was to get the shop put someone in it and then get into stuff, but then I’ve had a child who’s 5 and I’m dedicated to my little boy, I love him to bits , me and his mum have split so I’ve got him really every other day and every other weekend which, for a bloke is a god send and at the moment I don’t want to go off doing other stuff, he’s 5 and I cherish these years ‘cos they go so quickly. I want to look back and say that I did everything I could to be there the whole time.”
Does your new girlfriend remember Zammo?
“Not as much, she was on the tail end of our year, but whenever we go out I do get noticed. It’s madness that people still talk about it and take pictures and stuff like that. People ask if I get bored talking about it but it was the best years of my life so I’ll talk about it all day long, I loved it.”
Good for me I thought….
“She said she gets a lot of “You’re going out with Zammo!” at work. She said all the guys still think it’s a big thing, but I don’t think about it, I just do my keys and look after my little boy. But people have massive memories from that era and, blimey, it was quite a captive audience really, ‘cos it was only BBC1, 2 and ITV, there wasn’t even Chanel 4 when we first started. At that time there were only cartoons on and Grange Hill was the first programme that people could relate to, it was real and there was real stuff happening, it was a bit controversial at the time and a lot of parents didn’t let their kids watch it, even my mum was a bit funny about it and about me doing it.”
I was going to ask about your parents...
“Yeah, you see stuff now that the kids watch and its unbelievable . [In our day] it was 3:30 or whatever ‘till 6 o’clock, I think Grange Hill was on at 4:35pm, just before the BBC news, and that was it - an hour and a half or two hours and then nothing… kids have got it made now!”
Do you think ‘Just say no’ would work today?
“Oh no… The drug situation has changed completely with kids now since I was in it, I mean it’s just so rife, it’s just a nightmare… Kids go out and it’s not drinking, is ecstasy or whatever, there’s loads of stuff now, it’s frightening, isn’t it? I don’t know where you would go with that type of storyline now, when I was young drugs were a no no I mean heroin was definitely not about. I had to go to a rehabilitation centres to see users… It was a different world to me. I mean I’m out of touch with that now, I mean I’ve got no teenagers that I’m aware of, my brothers boys 15, and he says it’s quite rife with all the kids and they’ve got access to drugs all the time, so I don’t know how you would go with a storyline like that.
When they came up to me and told me about the part, Anthony Mingella (who did the English patient) was the script writer on Grange Hill then, so I think it was his big story before he went off to other stuff. I had a chat with my parents about it and we was completely unaware of heroin or even drugs, ‘cos I was quite sporty and all my friends were boxers, I didn’t even drink till I was 23 so as a teenager I had no involvement with any of that at all so it was really alien to me.”
So it wasn’t method acting then? How did you immerse yourself in the part?
“Most of it was in my head, what I imagined ‘cos I could only go to these rehabilitation centres and watch
videos of heroin addicts, I met and spoke to some too, then I’d try and work it and form my own character from what I’ve seen. And hopefully it worked. No one really knew how a drug addict should act, so it didn’t need to be spot on, but hopefully I when I look back now I think it was quite a true enactment of a drug addict…”
And the makeup?
“Yeah! Loads and loads of makeup, it had to be topped up all the time and bags put on. As the story line progressed the makeup got more and more, ‘cos normally you would just a bit of a dab, a bit of makeup put on, but then as the time went on I would be there for a fair bit of time, putting little sort of blisters on my face and darkening my eyes, stuff like that so I was in there for about an hour.”
“That was the first time that they’d ever done a pan out with no music, the episode finished with no theme tune, it just panned to a close up to my face… I can remember filming that… one with a piece of silver foil in my hand and Roland coming in and finding me.”
Did anyone ever think you were really on drugs?
“Oh loads and loads of people, I was doing P.A.’s at the time for Mecca, we were doing two night clubs a night, four a week, it was like that was up until I was 15, really busy and where most of my income was coming from, but then when the drug story line came along, one of the main directors of the place said we cant have you in our clubs , I said are you kidding, but he said we can’t have drugs, people are going to think you’re a drug addict and all my PA stopped…”
Do you think you’re typecast even after all these years?
“Yeah, when I did the Bill and stuff like that I would walk in and I would be Zammo, which would alienate me from any character they had, I mean you walk in and they have a preconceived idea of who you are and well it’s Zammo, yeah, it did hurt me a lot, I probably stayed in Grange Hill too long, but if I was going to carry on acting the drug story completely ruined any real chance of that. We had viewing figures of over 12 million, but now there are so many different shows, so many films, so many channels, so if I did want to as there are but for now I’m just too busy with baby, my relationship and the shop.
Eastenders is great, it’s the only programme I would give a bit of time for and go into, I don’t chase anything, my agent must really get fed up ‘cos she would say “There’s an audition for you in town, can you get there?” And I would say,” I can’t just shut the shop, I just can’t do that”, she must wonder why shes representing me, but maybe when my sons a little bit older, got my equity card, never say never really.”
Have you kept any memorabilia?
“Naa… stupidly I never kept any of it, I have been sent a tie but when I left I gave it away, in hindsight I wish I’d kept it - not that it would ever fit me again! But it would be nice to hang up in a wardrobe or somewhere, or even get it framed – Yeah, it would be lovely to get the jacket, but no I haven’t got it.”
It’s been quite a few years now but, do you see any of your old co-stars?
“Yeah, I do a lot of stuff with the guy who played Roland, we did some '80s gigs in the summer. He’s down in Brighton working for a video company, interviewing celebrities and gigs and festivals, I think he’s doing OK. And I keep in touch through FaceBook, [old co stars] will comment under a picture of something. There are about 4 or 5 from my era who are all on FB, we keep in contact and I’ve met up for a couple of drinks. I mean we all lose contact with school mates, it’s the same. I mean I’ve got friends that I thought I would have kept in contact with forever , but as we’ve grown older we’ve grown apart, were not the same people and you haven’t got that much in common anymore.
I love Facebook and luckily I haven’t had many bad comments as I am open to abuse because of who I am, but one of the guys has had and he’s had to come off completely because he kept getting abused by friends of friends, you hear it all the time, don’t you, cyber bullying and all that, but touch would it’s been great for me. I love it!”
Wow, what an amazing life and career, but I had one pressing question left, one that could not go unanswered… One that I just had to know, that was burning inside me… One question that, even if it was to cross the boundaries of etiquette and politeness, I had to ask… And that question was…
Your 45 years old… What the hell are you doing in my classroom…?
Wednesday, 14 August 2013
I tottered on to the set in my 6 inch stiletto’s, hoping that I wasn't going to fall out of the tiny top they’d given to me to wear. I passed many familiar faces as I positioned myself where the director had sent me. The director shouted action, this was my cue, I walked forward and comedically stumbled, falling onto the lap of an old gentleman who’s glasses immediately fell off as my ample bust was thrust in his face… The director shouted cut and we all resumed our places and while the make-up lady readjusted the make-up of the not so old, old man… I went into a haze, here I was on the set of a Carry On movie, the ghosts of the past where all around, I closed my eyes, I could picture Jack Douglas’ comedic falls, Hatty Jacques looking disapprovingly, hear the “Yak yak yak” of Sid James, the “OOOh Matron” of Keneth Williams, that distinctive cackle of Barbara Windsor, a perfect Kenneth Connor “Phwaaaaar” and the “That’s your cue love” of Jacki Piper…. Hold on?? That wasn’t a dream? I turned around and there she was, star of the Carry On’s “Matron”, “At Your Convenience”, “Up The Jungle” and “Loving”… Oh my god, it WAS Jacki Piper!
I quickly played my part and as soon as the director was happy searched for Jacki, she was sitting in a corner, quietly reading her script, she was still so attractive and young looking, it was crazy to think that the movies had been made over 40 years ago!
I asked he if I could disturb her, she was ever so nice and charming and was happy to do so, although I’m not sure she expected the grilling that I was about to give her...
My personal favourite of the films was ‘Carry on up the Jungle’, it starred Jacki as June, the saucy temptress that lured Terry Scots character onto a very naughty path, so my first question had to be, you starred in four of the best Carry On films with some of the biggest Carry On stars, who and which was your favourite?
“O gosh I don’t know really. I mean Carry on Up the Jungle was always very special for me because it was my first one but really whenever you’re involved in a job you know you’re just completely into that particular film so I enjoyed each one as I was doing it but I think Jungle had a special place in my hear because it was the first one probably.”
Funnily enough it was on the other day!
“They’re always showing them”
They are but Jungle is my favourite one I have to say. One thing about it, Bernard Bresslaw playing Upsadaisy..
You know today it would never be allowed…
“No I know but I think my entire career has been politically incorrect!”
This made me giggle and led me to my next question.
I was just wondering why do you think that the public, even the most right on, embrace Carry On even though it is the one of the most politically incorrect series of films?
“I think it’s noslagtia, sentimentality and I think because one of the reasons may be because they did use the same actors again and again and so the public formed a fondness for those people and they recognise them, it’s like when you used to do rep theatre and you know the people in the town when you were in the rep, because it was the same people, they get very fond of you because they get used to seeing you from week to week and you know it was the same with the Carry Ons, it was a team and people became fond of the team”
Was there any, were there any conflicts or rivalry on the set? Or was it as fun as it seemed?
“Possibly but there were very very subtle and I wouldn’t have been aware of them, I mean we just used to laugh all the time”
Did you get to ad lib?
Absolutely not you had to stick absolutely to the script but off camera when we weren’t doing the filming there was a lot of ad lobbing and naughtiness going on. It was just hysterical really.”
I asked her if she had any funny stories she could tell me…
“When I was filming with Terry he fell out of his loincloth [in the love scene by the lake] and everyone was laughing, we didn’t know why and we carried on with the scene.
The director turned to the make up lady Nora and said “Oh you never made it up Nora” So we didn’t know that that had happened, we could just see when we were doing, this was a tender loving scene and everyone was rolling about laughing. We had no idea what was going on…he didn’t know...neither of us knew, so we didn’t stop, we kept going with the scene, we were aware that everyone was shaking, we couldn’t think why, why they were laughing, its supposed to be this beautiful tender love scene, but we didn’t find out til afterwards.”
Oh that’s brilliant, I replied… Perfect story!
Are there any Carry On stars that you wish you worked with? Are there any of the other films that you would have liked to have been in?
“The only one is Jim Dale. I was supposed to have worked with him right at the beginning and he was going to be Jungle Boy. When they were casting me they were thinking of me with Jim Dale but he was in America or something and couldn’t come, so Terry Scott played the part and although I would loved to have met and worked with Jim Dale, I think he may have been more real as Jungle boy but no, but I’d have liked to I never did work with him. He was never, he was never working in the ones I was on, I think he worked on the ones prior to me joining the team really. So I would like to have met him but anyway I didn’t, so there you go.”
Yes, Terry Scott wasn’t exactly your archetypal Tarzan was he?
“I think Terry Scott was so funny as Jungle Boy, I can’t imagine it being funnier, it was a piece of inspired casting as I think Terry Scott was so comical.”
You’ve said that Hattie Jacques never liked to watch her won rushes back. How did you feel about yours?
“No I didn’t like watching mine either, I hated it – I still hate watching myself because you know you cant help being critical and I liked to be unaware and natural, I think having a mature view and thinking as an older person, you should watch your rushes and learn from it, but I was only 22 and I never really thought much of my performances. I was always very very self critical and so she and I used to rush off straight off to lunch and everyone else would go and watch rushes.”
So, who do you think was the most vain – who wanted to watch them?
“Oh I’ve no idea but I think that is the professional thing to do and I think they all did it apart from Hattie and I. We didn’t like seeing ourselves so we used to shoot off.”
Well I don’t blame you
“Most people hate hearing themselves on tape recorders or seeing themselves, it’s a very normal view not to watch, like watching yourself and it’s your job as well, you know? It’s quite hard because one’s so self critical. It’s not so bad now because I look back and it’s like watching another person and I think it’s quite fun, you know it’s not like me. I don’t watch them but I had to watch when I did the commentary on the DVDs. I’d never seen them for 30 years or something. I had to go to the studio and watch them, I found them quite funny and charming and I could stop being self critical and enjoy them really.”
Did you laugh?
“I did, I did it was long enough ago to switch off the critical button and just enjoy it.”
I looked over at our set, it was meant to be a holiday villa in Spain, it was in fact a backlot in Kent… I wondered did she ever go to any exotic locations and were they all filmed at a studio?
“No they never spent any money on the Carry Ons! They only time we ever went on location was when we did Carry On at Your Convenience and we went to Brighton for 4 days. We were put up in this hotel, we were filmed on Brighton Pier and things like that but apart from that we never, no, we were never… I mean the Jungle was built in Pinewood!”
You can kind of guess can’t you? I replied
“I mean that they were not a great budget film, everything was done very very quickly and cheaply and amazing that’s why they made money”
Very True, I thought. So much has been written about your co-stars, what were they really like?
“Well I just worked with them professionally, I didn’t know them privately but I just thought they were just lovely – I was the new young girl in the films and they were so lovely to me, so kind to me and because I loved it, I couldn’t quite believe I was there really. It was all amazing and I just used to sit there, listen to them all talking and just used to laugh all the time with their funny stories, so I was never aware of any turbulent private lives, I knew them there on the set from 9 to 5.”
“Yes, and I really enjoyed their company. We were all working as well…”
You just hear so many horrible things about them and people always seem to want to spoil the fun, ruin peoples perception of wonderful comedy geniuses, like Kenneth Williams…
“I know, he was a genius.”
And spoil it for everyone…
“I know..I can’t be part of that I’m afraid. People ask me to make comments and go on programmes about them and I say no sorry, you’ve come to the wrong person. No I won’t join in that, so I just thought they were great and if they did have flaws, so who hasn’t got flaws, show me a person with no flaws… we’ve all got them!”
Do you have any memorbillia from your time on the Films?
“No not really, I suppose I should have done. I think when we were doing them, there wasn’t such a great well trend for it. Number one, I didn’t know they were going to become so famous and iconic, we didn’t know that, it was just another job. I mean don’t forget I’d been working from when I was 18, still working now, not nearly as much. I didn’t sort of know it was going to have quite the long life that they have had. There wasn’t – I don’t think there was the market for memorabilia back in 1970, there wasn’t all this market for it, so no not really. Just imagine if it was now, it would be unbelievable There’s a load of memorabilia now, so yes but I didn’t really have a business head on me, I was just doing another job. It just wasn’t the same then. People weren’t sort of selling all these bits of things from films, we all just sent photographs in the post to people for free. I never used to charge for photographs, it just wasn’t done then.”
Ah but they had the poster art, which one was your favourite poster?
“Well I suppose I do like the one where we’re all sitting in the lavatory cistern Carry On at Your Convenience. I think that’s very clever and there’s a nice one of us all sitting in a bed for Carry On Loving. Yeah, I think I like us all sitting in the toilet cistern. Sounds like fun.”
There isn’t anything funnier than people sitting on a toilet. Ha ha!
Is it true, I heard a gossip that you would help Renee Houston tape back her ears.
“Yes it is true because I just said, I may have said that before to somebody but I did. We became great friends, she was lovely”
Were you ever tempted to do it? I suppose you didn’t need to do it did you?
“No because I was 22, 23 whatever I was but she used to get me to put a bit of sellotape behind her ears. I was her new best friend when she came on to do Convenience so we got on really well, I’d need cover my face now!”
That wasn’t true… She looked amazing! My phone interrupted our conversation, it was the library where I worked part time… Oh god I hated my other jobs… I wondered…What had she done before acting?
“When I was paying my way through drama school way back in Birmingham when I was 18, 19, I used to work at the university in the Library at the Birmingham University.”
Wow, coincidence! Crazy! After comparing notes on the Dewey system and kick stools, I decided to get back to Carry On.
You were always cast as the pretty young thing, did you ever hanker for another role?
“Well I haven’t always played pretty young things at all, I’ve often played quite plain Janes with glasses and wigs and all sorts of things, I’ve quite often played quite character parts. I did a tour of Hobson’s Choice as Maggie Hobson. I had all my hair pulled back with a severe wig on and not at all pretty, quite plain, a strong character I was playing then and a lot of drug addicts’ mothers and I’m very good at weeping, a lot of weeping mothers in television programmes. “
But was there any jealousy on the carry On set because you were very young and very pretty.
“Well I’ve no idea, not that I was aware of. I had to say I swanned along having the most wonderful time and there were never any tensions that I was ever aware of to be honest with you. Maybe there were but I never knew anything about. I have to say I was very short sighted – maybe I missed a lot, but no it was great, it was just great. Everyone was happy, it was part of the team, it wasn’t a star system there at all, Peter Rogers didn’t believe in a star system, you were part of the team.”
That may have had something to do with it.
One thing I have to ask because obviously we all have heard the stories of Sid James. Was there any flirting?
“Not with me and you know, Barbara Windsor wasn’t really in the ones I was in. But he was just lovely, he was always putting bets on the horses and laughing and very very lovely to me and just very kind and fun, you know, he was fun.”
And what do you think is your favourite memory of your time on the Carry On films?
“Oh gosh.. I really can’t.. I don’t know. There was so many, I really don’t know. I mean the laughter really, and the fact that we used to go and have lunch in this lovely dining room and all those people in Pinewood restaurant being frightfully smooth and elegant, and we were this table in the corner shrieking and laughing and food being thrown about – absolutely screaming laughter over there and there was no table I would rather have been on. I was very happy in this St Trinians type table rather than being on one of the glamorous ones.”
Did the glamorous one’s ever look at you funny? – you know sort of like we’re the professionals and you’re, you’re just here to have fun?
“No, no not at all. I think they all probably wanted to be on the table as well – know what all the jokes were about, I honestly think that.”
NowI know it’s not about the Carry On films, but I have to ask you about your time in ‘the rise and fall of Reginald Perrin’, what was it like working with Leonard Rossiter?
“Yes, I did a commercial with him as well, in 2 series of Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin. He was the most professional hard working person I have met. At lunch we all used to go to lunch and have a sandwich and go to the pub or wherever we were filming or whatever. He never seemed to stop, he was always talking to the director, working on his script, talking to the producer. He never ever switched off. He was amazing, he was completely dedicated to his work. I never saw him switch off really ever and that, he was always fully concentrating on his performance and everything, the best he could get out of the script, whatever, he was amazing.”
I’ve read a lot about him and I’ve that he was this consummate professional.
The director started shouting for us to all be on set… I stood and straightened my clothes… Did I? Yes, I had tome for one for question…
I asked who, of all our present day actors, who she thought would make the best Carry On star?
"I would cast Hugh Grant to replace Leslie Philips as his comedy timing is brill.
I think Frank Skinner has a real Carry On face and manner and would be a great member of the team."
I wanted to hug her, but I thought best not to, so I just thanked her for the chat and ran back on set, feeling more
confident and content… And determined to watch my rushes….