FLYING HIGH WITH GRANGE HILL
Francesca Martinez: Grange Hill's Comedy Sensation
Grange Hill For Christmas
The Gripper Stebson Years
The Michael Sheard Interview
Laura Sadler: 1980-2003
Sportsmaster to Headmaster: 15 Years of Mr Robson
Flying High with Grange Hill

CLOSE UP SPECIALS
The Curtain Comes Down: the demise of Grange Hill
Grange Hill Reunited
Grange Hill Moves North
John Ratcliff todayGrange 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...

 


John Ratcliff in Grange HillRegular 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 lifetime.

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 10 feet.

Doug the instructor with Annette Firman   Mr Baxter
Doug helps Annette Firman ride the Big Zipper
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Mr Baxter has a go
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"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 Say No".


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 his article!