Opinion

The Guardian view on Grange Hill and The Wonder Years: old-school drama for new times

For readers whose formative years were enriched by the after-school teatime TV experience, the revival of two coming-of-age classics may be sparking a sudden rush of nostalgia.

This week, in an interview with the Guardian, Sir Phil Redmond disclosed that he is updating Grange Hill, the greatest school soap of them all, for a one-off movie version set in the present day. Meanwhile, in America, Disney has rebooted the equally admired The Wonder Years, but with the twist that this time it chronicles the vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence through the eyes of a black boy living in Alabama. Bringing these two televisual gems back to life necessarily entails substantial reinterpretation; the impact of social media, for example, will loom large in the Grange Hill of 2022. But those who witnessed Tricia Yates using a wooden ruler to exact revenge on Tucker Jenkins, in the very first of 601 episodes in 1978, will hope the spirit of the original is kept intact.

Sir Phil, who was 29 when that scene was broadcast, is now 72. He is unfazed by the idea of writing a script for a quite different era in which to be young. “Childhood doesn’t really change,” he told the Guardian, “what changes are fashion, haircuts and slang … the actors bring you what’s right at the time.” Since his fictional London comprehensive closed its gates in 1998, successor dramas such as Waterloo Road, Skins and Sex Education have skilfully mined some of the territory that Grange Hill opened up. But for sheer daring, and in the context of its time, Sir Phil’s creation remains in a class of its own.

Launched in the pre-Thatcher era, Grange Hill captivated its young audience by grittily portraying the life of a school from their point of view (cameras were even positioned to film at the children’s eyeline). Issues such as bullying, pornography and period pain were treated with a realism that provoked tabloid headlines and parental disquiet. The show’s examination of the dangers of drug abuse led to an invitation to visit Nancy Reagan in the White House. For millions, Grange Hill held up an invaluable mirror to their own daily experience, allowing its challenges to be navigated more easily.

The prospect of new and talented school-age actors bringing this long backstory into the Covid era is fascinating; as is the relocation of the gentle lyricism of The Wonder Years from white suburbia to the world of a black 12-year-old in 1968 – where an argument about baseball is interrupted by news of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

In the sixth and final series of the original Wonder Years, the middle-aged narrator reflects on a bittersweet New Year’s Eve in 1973, when the adolescent Kevin Arnold crosses the Rubicon into young adulthood. “The future was calling us … there was no turning back now,” says Kevin. That time to put away childish things comes to us all, of course. But reinterpreted and reflected upon, the past can deliver more than just nostalgia, and enlighten us in the present. Let Grange Hill’s famous comic strip opening credits, including the iconic school dinner sausage, roll again.

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