Hill's visit to an outward bound adventure centre in Wales was one
of the most fondly-remembered escapades of the 1980s. Over two episodes
in 1983, Zammo, Roland, Fay, Annette and the rest would all face the
challenges of being away from home, confronting their fears and bonding
with each other - not to mention outdoor pursuits such as canoeing
and assault courses.
But the outdoor activities presented more of a problem for the
adult actors playing supposedly fearless instructors! John Ratcliff
played an instructor called Doug in the episodes, and here he recalls
having to confront his fear of heights to face The Big Zipper -
a huge aerial slide, while the young stars of Grange Hill lapped
up the experience...
readers of Ratcliff's World will be aware of my willingness to have
a go at almost anything. As a stuntman I have had to face new challenges
on a frequent basis, both on state and screen, and when I auditioned
for a part in the BBC Grange Hill series I nodded in the right places
when they explained my role - and landed the part. This is the golden
rule when auditioning - stifle any nerves and appear calm and collected.
When asked if you can do something, just say yes, and then make sure
you learn how to - at least by the time filming starts.
My appearances in this hugely popular television series were
at a time when the stars of the show included pupils Zammo and Roland,
and Mr Hopwood, a schoolteacher. The latter was played by the brilliant
Brian Capron, who was later to shock all soap fans as the murderous
husband of Gail Platt in Coronation Street.
I was playing the part of a PE instructor at a real-life outward
bound centre near Aberdovey in Wales, and although the acting requirements
were fairly straightforward, the physical side was to test me to the
limits. Several of my scenes were at the top of a tree and I would
have to face up to my morbid fear of heights. Naturally I hadn't mentioned
this at the job interview.
The storyline had 25 13-to 14-year olds taking on The Big Zipper,
an aerial wire runway that ran from the treetops to the ground in
about 30 seconds at adrenaline-pumping speed. The irony was that
although the kids were to pretend they were scared rigid by the
challenge of the descent, in reality they could hardly wait to have
a go. Meanwhile I, the so-called expert instructor, was regretting
the full English breakfast and facing the acting challenge of a
Reaching my position was a nightmare. In advance, and as an enticement,
the director had promised me a magnificent view of the Dyfi Estuary
from the top. I was more worried about how I was going to get up there
in the first place. A monkey bridge consisting of three ropes, one
for each hand and one for both feet - think about it - was the only
means of reaching the tiny little platform that from the ground appeared
to be just a dot at the top, under the sky. This was to be my base
camp for most of the day, as the boys and girls arrived one by one
for their flying experience. I was to click them into a safety harness
and reassure them that they would soon be at the bottom, safe and
sound. But almost as soon as I had reached the platform, the wind
had risen to a level where the treetop was swinging on an arc of about
Doug helps Annette
Firman ride the Big Zipper
"This is fun", said one little actress as I murmured something
like "Feel a bit queasy". I had my arms wrapped around the tree
trunk, with my eyes closed most of the time, but when the cameras
rolled I had to remember my fearless reputation and somehow managed
to act out my lines and send each child on his or her way. No-one
was more relieved than I to reach terra firma at the end of theday
and while the cast marvelled at the sheer joy and excitement of
their Zipper Run, I made a mental note for any future high-flying
roles that was echoed in the title of the 1986 hit single, "Just
Despite his unease, John's appearance in Grange Hill was to be well
rewarded. While filming in Wales he met his wife, make-up artist Cecilia
Welch, who worked on several episodes of the series. They have now
been married 24 years and have a son. And bigger things would follow.
While playing Doug the instructor, John was making records with EMI
and in 1983 discovered the chart-topping band A-Ha, whose lead singer
Morten Harket would become one of the hottest teen idols of the mid-80s.
Twenty-three years later, A-Ha are still together and during their
career have sold over 50 million albums!
As for the Big Zipper, we don't know whether it's still there,
but the Outward Bound centre in Aberdovey is still going strong.
If you fancy your own Grange Hill experience, check out the centre's
website at http://www.outwardbound-uk.org/common/centres.html!
* John Ratcliff is a successful music producer,
operating out of his own studios in Somerset. The above article was
first published as part of "Ratcliff's World", John's weekly
column for a Somerset local newspaper. Find out more about John and
his music business by visiting www.sprintmusic.co.uk.
Further "Ratcliff's World" columns can be found at John's
personal site, www.johnratcliff.com.
Many thanks to John for kindly allowing GH Online to reproduce