JUSTIN BENNETT SPEAKS OUT! WE TALK TO ROBERT CRAIG MORGAN
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Robert in 1978... Every school has a Justin Bennett, says Robert Craig Morgan, the actor who played him in the first five series of Grange Hill. While some of Robert's co-stars went on to further their acting careers and become household names, Robert turned his attentions to backstage work and now runs a smallholding in Ireland, where he has lived for the past five years. But how did starring in Grange Hill affect Robert and what was it like appearing in TV's most iconic children's show? Robert recently granted GH Online this exclusive interview about his experiences. ...and 2006

So how did you get the part of Justin in Grange Hill; had you done any acting before then?
I did one programme before Grange Hill - I Claudius with Derek Jacobi, I got that at the age of 12 after hearing about it on radio. While working on Claudius I was given the number of agent, I really enjoyed Claudius; so I joined this agent and she put me up for several auditions then Grange Hill came along. I went to audition straight from school - I was still in my school uniform!

Colin Cant, the director, and Anna Home the executive producer were at my audition. They noticed the "captain" badge I was wearing and asked about it - I told them I was a school captain but not very good one because I was always being bullied. Little did I know that this was going in my favour - Justin was someone who was bullied a lot, so this helped me get the part. Two weeks later I was told I'd got the part of Justin.

Originally I was only supposed to be in for six episodes. After that sixth episode went out, Colin Cant told me he'd made a slight change to the script (originally Justin's parents were going to take him out of Grange Hill after his accident at the munitions dump); and Colin invited me back for next year - I was over the moon!

You've said on this very site that when Grange Hill began you thought you were "on a hiding to nothing". How surprised were you when the opposite happened and Grange Hill became a massive hit?
All of us were very surprised at how successful the show was. When we were on the coach to the location shoots all of us would sit there chatting - Todd, Terry Sue Patt and everyone else, we wondered who on earth would want to watch this programme about school after spending all day at school themselves. I was amazed at the very positive response; we just couldn't believe it. Even more amazing was when they told us they'd be expanding the series for the third run, with more characters. Grange Hill had brought in the highest viewing figures ever for any children's series; (probably apart from Blue Peter); there'd never been anything like it before.

Were there any ways in which you were different to Justin, despite being similar?
Yes there was a difference between us; I was popular at school but Justin was too much of a swot and a sneak - I was very different. I came from the same sort of background - middle class, academic, and was just a quiet kid. And I was bullied too, but I survived by making people laugh.

Did you enjoy the storylines Justin was given, or do you think he got a rough deal from the scriptwriters?
I think Justin did get a rough deal sometimes, it was fun to act but he was always made to look like a sneak and a tell-tale. They could really have shown a more caring side to him or show him having fun. Apart from winning the cricket match, almost everything Justin did ended in failure; he fell off the wall at the munitions dump, he was always bullied or shown as sneak. It would have been good to see another side to him.

Many of Justin's storylines were with Andrew Stanton and it has been suggested that more storylines about their friendship were planned. What can you tell us about this?
There was talk about more friendship storylines - Margaret Simpson the writer had forged a strong relationship between Justin and Andrew, and there were plans to focus on it as Andrew went into his downward spiral (his drinking problem). But Mark left to do a series for ITV - a sitcom I think called Second Chance, which bombed, so another character was installed as a new friend for Justin. After Mark left he did come back to do the Christmas special.

Justin and most of his classmates more or less disappeared quietly from Grange Hill at the end of their stay. Would you have liked him to have got more of a send-off?
Looking back we weren't expecting any send off; nowadays people are more media-savvy and we'd probably have got a better exit to meet with viewers' expectations. But I didn't mind - I wasn't enjoying the recognition from being in the show; it was crazy and I thought it was the right time to move on. By the fifth series, they didn't quite know what to do with Justin after Andrew left; our characters might have been considered a bit long-in-the-tooth as writers concentrated on newer characters. It would have been nice to have followed to find out Justin's plans for after school, but I'm not bitter about it.

What were your favourite scenes in Grange Hill?
One on my favourite scenes was filming in ammunitions dump - it was just the three of us (Todd, Terry and myself) and the place was every bit as run-down as it looked. We got on so well, the pressures of studio weren't there and it was the first time Todd and I hit it off as mates. I loved doing the falling off the wall sequence - they had two stuntmen there to catch me and I felt like I was doing a James Bond action scene!

…And your least favourite?
The least favourite thing I had to do was being pushed into the swimming pool, also in Series 1. I got the script just a couple of days before and I had to say I couldn't swim, which I couldn't! I was dreading it, for me it was worse than going to the dentist. I was terrified, so I went in and was really panicky, They used another boy in the end. Now I can swim. We filmed at a swimming pool in one of the big London hospitals; it might have been St Thomas's but I can't remember. That wasn't a very pleasant time - I was pushed in the once but couldn't do any more and they managed to edit around it. Not a very pleasant time!

The only other thing I hated was on the ferry in the sailing to France. We were going back and forth between England and France weren't allowed off the boat because of customs. One night one of my mates, Gareth Mason, who had a small part - jumped over the side and disappeared. We were all at the bottom of the deck and kept being sick - Gareth reappeared and we were all relieved but he was covered in sick! Unfortunately he was also in costume, so when it came to filming the smell wasn't very nice for the people who had to sit next to him…

Did you get on well with the rest of the cast? Was there a "them and us" off-screen between the child stars and the adult actors?
We got on really well - I was very close with Mark Eadie, we were great mates. Another good friend was George Armstrong aka Alan Humphries, and Paul McCarthy. Of the teachers, Michael Percival had me in hysterics when filming the scenes in the woods when Penny and Susi went missing - Brian Capron was great and deserves all the success he's had with Coronation Street etc. We mixed with the extras very well; in those days they came to rehearsals with us. I used to see a lot of Vinny Mann - a very talented guy and he lived close to me in Bromley, so we kept bumping into each other.

   
Recent photos of Robert (and canine pal) at his farm in Ireland. Click to enlarge

You mentioned your bonding with Todd Carty earlier on; looking back did you expect him to become the star that he has?
I thought it was going to be hard for Todd after Tucker's Luck finished. But he had such great personality so it didn't surprise me when he appeared in EastEnders. A lovely guy who deserved the successes he would have from then on. If anyone had asked me back then who I thought would be the most successful I would definitely have said Todd; he was after all the star of Grange Hill.

What do you think Justin would be doing today?
Justin might probably have gone to university, and then ended up with a good job. When he reached his 30s he might have had enough and perhaps gone beatnik and became an eco-warrior, or done some travelling or something. He might have been enjoying an alternative lifestyle. He would have been married perhaps to Judy Preston if she hadn't left Grange Hill!

The Grange Hill movie is due out next year; would you like to appear in it?
I'd love to do the movie - I never made a film, so it would be great if they came knocking on my door and I'd probably come out of retirement for that. But it would all depend on whether Justin's character fitted in with the storyline, but it would be great to work with my old mates again!

What made you give up acting?
After Grange Hill I carried on doing television; a sitcom, then in Tripods, my last TV was The Country Boy, directed by Colin Cant who directed me in Grange Hill. Then I decided I needed to be doing something more serious, I went into Bristol Old Vic, and did three seasons working on Shakespeare and that sort of thing. I became very close to Martin Clunes there. The turning point came when I put myself up for a Peter Pan musical; I became very disillusioned during the second tour and lost the spark for acting. For a while I moved into stage management, then I realised I wouldn't be going back to acting. So I set up a production company that made corporate videos.

You're living in Ireland now; what are you doing nowadays?
When my mother died I came to Ireland, I've been here five years now, and I'm setting up a smallholding, training under an organic farmer, I'm starting off gorwing herbs and hope to move into livestock down the line. Everything will be organic; I'm loving working on a farm, it's just a cottage in the middle of nowhere, working with nature is fantastic I've been with my partner for 19 years now; we met while working in theatre.

If your children wanted to act professionally, would you encourage or dissuade them?
I don't have any children but if I did I'd let them make the decision themselves. But I would tell them to get an education behind them. It's such a different industry - so celebrity driven.

How do you look back on your time at Grange Hill - if you could do it again, what would you do differently?
I'm very thankful for Grange Hill - it opened up a lot of doors and gave freedom to do other things. Because it was such a success, it was wonderful to share it with other people my age. But you were left to flounder a bit - celebrities today are much more looked after with their agents etc. but we had to think more for ourselves. Still, we had a fantastic experience and wouldn't change a thing.

How similar was Grange Hill to your own school?
My school in Bromley was quite similar; there were Tuckers, there were Justins, but it wasn't as tough as Grange Hill, being in a nice area. I didn't go to a stage school, because of this I could see the writing was good and I could identify with certain things that were happening. It was strange being at two schools - I'd finish school proper, than go off to filming!

When was the last time you watched Grange Hill?
I looked at a recent episode, from just after the show moved to Liverpool. The way it's filmed now is very different; it amazed me how different it was, from the camerawork etc, but it's still very good. I do feel it was wrong to move the series to Liverpool, because Grange Hill is quite iconic - imagine Coronation Street being moved down south! Because people know Grange Hill so much, I don't think that works for me. I can see why Phil Redmond moved the filming, but I don't know if it was right - it's one thing to film it in Liverpool but Phil Redmond could have still set it in London and I don't think it has worked.

Several current GH characters are replicas of those in the first series; with Justin Bennett represented by Jeremy Bishop. How similar do you think Jeremy is to your character?
I haven't seen enough of Jeremy see how similar to Justin really is. I'll have to take a closer look. Every school has a Justin!

It's almost 30 years since you filmed that first series of Grange Hill. Did you expect there would still be considerable interest in yourself and in Justin Bennett in 2006?
This is what's really amazed me, going on GH Online, it was fantastic to see how Grange Hill meant a lot to so many. It's great that people still think it relevant to talk about now. It's fantastic it's still talked about and that people want to discuss it.

Any final thoughts?
I hope Grange Hill continues from strength to strength; it would be interesting to see a film. The show works because people identify with the characters - and long may it continue. I hope every kid in the cast today gets as much from being in the show as I did.

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Tucker, Benny and Justin at the munitions dump (1978)
Tucker and Benny persuade Justin to come with them to visit an old munitions dump, but the trio are disturbed by workmen - and Justin isn't used to making fast getaways...
Justin blows the whistle on Tucker's poolside pranks (1978)
When the rest of the class are left unattended in the school pool, Tucker and Benny's search for a missing medal soon evolves into japes with poolside benches. Justin fails to see the funny side and immediately summons help from Mr Garfield...

Interview by Simon Luxton for GH Online
© GH Online and GH Gold 2006. Our thanks to Robert for an engaging and insightful interview, and of course for being a fantastic interviewee!