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

The Curtain Comes Down: the demise of Grange Hill
Grange Hill Reunited
Grange Hill Moves North
Francesca Martinez - Grange Hill's  Rachel - makes One of Grange Hill's strengths, especially in recent years, has been its portrayal of illness and disability. Secondary school is tough for anyone, so imagine what it must be like when you suffer from cerebral palsy?

Well that's exactly what Rachel Burns had to deal with. The character appeared in Grange Hill between 1994 and 1998 and in spite of her disability Rachel was always one of the girls. Now Francesca Martinez, the actress who played her and who suffers from CP in real life, is using her biting sense of humour to carve out a new career for herself as a stand-up comedienne. And the audiences love her!

So what is the secret of Francesca's success? Well in short, she's never let her problems stand in her way and has spent her life wisecracking her way through prejudice. In Bliss magazine, she spoke of her experiences. "Whenever we went to the hospital, I was angry that everyone spoke to Mum as if I wasn't there. So when one patronising doctor asked if anything funny happened to me during the night, I replied; 'I grow another pair of ears and get green spots all over my head'. He was gobsmacked. My folks sent me to a mainstream secondary school and I didn't face any prejudice there. If anyone asked me why I shake I'd say I'd been struck by lighting! And to anyone who asked why I talked funny, I made out I was from an exotic country and had a strange accent!"

Francesca enjoyed fitting in at primary school, but at secondary school bigoted classmates shunned her. "Everyone was becoming aware of their looks and it wasn't cool to have a disabled mate. One girl even said 'if only we were lucky enough to get a taxi to school!'" True to form, Francesca put this individual firmly in her place; "Well if I could walk that far, don't you think I would?" she replied. Sadly though the taunts continued. Even a teacher refused to recognise Francesca's limitations, leading to a stand-off in the school canteen on one occasion.

But then, Francesca's world was to change for the better. A teacher rang her at home to say that Grange Hill were looking for a disabled girl to join the series - why didn't she audition? She did, and Francesca beat off 40 other girls to star as Rachel.
- In case you were wandering...the correct term for my condition is sober!

- Glenn Hoddle thinks disabled people sinned in past lives. Well I've had some great past lives. The time when I was an axe murderer was really something!

- It's hard coping with a disabled body. You feel isolated, unattractive, you lose all your confidence. That's why my boyfriend goes to the gym! - Would I like to be normal? No - the world would be a boring place if we were all disabled. But the world Cup might be interesting - and England might win!

- People always think that disabled people always complain about access. I'm just the same - I want access to drugs, I want to go into rehab like all the others. But my illegal options to finance a drug habit would be limited; I couldn't be a bank robbery getaway driver - there'd be no disabled parking space.

- The other day at a party I bumped into a friend of mine. Doesn't red wine stain?

She made friends among the cast easily, and soon viewers were stopping Fran in the street wanting her autograph. When she left Grange Hill in 1998, acting work dried up because no directors wanted a disabled actress.

So how did Fran get into comedy? Well, her father wrote a film for her in which she was to play a stand-up comedienne. Although the film never got made, Fran enrolled on a comedy course while researching the role. She was taught a comedy technique known as "rant and rave", and that brought out the wit in Fran. She lampooned Glenn Hoddle's infamous remarks about disabled people having committed sins in past lives: "I've had some great past lives," she began. "The time when I was an axe murderer was really something!" After Fran's five-minute stint the others in the group couldn't stop laughing!

That led to greater things. After doing a few comedy gigs she was offered a spot at The Comedy Store in London. This would either make or break Fran's career, and there was an awkward hush as she was helped onto the stage. Clearly people were not expecting a disabled girl to make them laugh. But her opening line stunned the audience: "In case you were wandering, the correct term for my condition is...sober!" Then followed a string of observations which won over the crowd.

Since then, Fran has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival and won Channel 4's So You Think You're Funny. She has also won the Daily Telegraph Open Mike award for her poignant observations. So what now for the future? "I'm hoping to get financial backing to make Dad's film. Sometimes I can't believe how much I've achieved!"

* For more information about cerebral palsy, call SCOPE on (020) 7619 7100. Or click here to visit their web site.