I walked into the classroom. It was my first day at Grange Hill comprehensive and I was nervous… I scanned the room, 33 sets of eyes burned into me, trying to figure me out and it scared me ridged. I saw the empty seat behind the desk, it looked much bigger and more intimidating than I had expected. I smiled, trying to seem confident, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t.
I cleared my throat and stuttered. “H… h… hello,” I began. “I will be filling in for Mr Bronson, now take out your books and carry on from where you left off on Friday.”
That wasn’t so bad I thought. Most of the kids got out there books and started working, a few did not, including one very familiar boy, sitting at the back of the class… He looked different from the others, wiser somehow… Why did I know him? And why did this tune keep playing in my mind… Da da daaaa… Then it hit me… This was Lee MacDonald! Lee MacDonald, Samuel ‘Zammo’ Maguire in the BBC kids drama Grange Hill from 1982 – 87, during what had to be its highest profile and most popular period… Zammo was the good boy turned drug addict, in one of the most dramatic story lines the series would ever have, spurning not only a national Just Say No! anti drugs campaign, but a song and even a trip to the White House. And he was in my class. While the others worked I pulled my chair next to his desk and started quizzing him…
So Lee, what was it like being a child star?
“It was really weird… I did a series [Noah’s Castle] with Mike Reid, the guy from Eastenders, when I was about 8 or 9, he
played my dad and they showed some of it in my primary school, so I sort of had a taste of it before Grange Hill. I did some other stuff too, which were the schools programmes, which again my school would watch while I was doing it, so I was quite used to being on telly and other kids watching it.
“I used to run home [from school] to watch Grange Hill ‘cos it started in ’76 and I wasn’t in it till ’81, so I was very familiar with the format and to audition for it was unbelievable! It was a massive process, audition after audition and then getting told I got the part of Zammo, it was unbelievable… Wow…”
Did you attend a theatre school or club?
“Yeah, I went to Anna Scher’s, where people like Linda Robson, Pauline Quirk went to and a few of the Eastenders were associated with it, but it was just an after school drama club. I only went ‘cos I had a teacher who said there was a club near where he lived and did I want to come up after school and stuff. It wasn’t specifically for TV but it used to get producers and directors coming down, and then Grange Hill which was for me was unbelievable.”
How did you juggle acting and school?
“They said as long as I kept up my school work – every year I would be assessed by my teachers – and if my schooling was still up to sctrach, ok, if it wasn’t, then they would pull me out so I had to make sure my school work was on par with everyone else in the class.”
So you still went to a main stream school?
“Yeah, ‘cos filming would only be 6 months in the year and during that time you would spend a week in school and a week at Grange Hill and then ½ day at school and a half day at Grange Hill, so it would be really weird. A normal day for me would be jump on a train and go to North Acton to rehearse and then get on the train back and go my normal school so it was a bit bizarre, but really fun.”
How did your mates react to you being on Telly?
“They were all right because I started doing it near enough when I started school. Then Grange Hill started round about when I started secondary school so, it was fine ‘cos they were used to it from year 1, by year 2, it was a regular thing, me going off out and them watching me so nobody really noticed. There was never any bullying or animosity, it was just the done thing that I did and everyone was really really good with it.”
Even with your pretty heavy drug storyline?
“Ahh… That was when I was leaving anyway, I was in Grange Hill for a year before so that was when I was coming to the end of my normal school years I did that storyline, anyway and on the back of that was the Just Say No campaign.”
Ahh… The legendary ‘Just Say No’ song, how did that come about?
“They came and asked if we would sing on a record, and we thought we was just raising a little bit of money for rehabilitation centres, and then next thing we knew it was in the charts at number 28! and then next week it would be 12. Then all of a sudden we were in the top 10, then we were 5, but then Madonna released a single and we stopped at number 5, but on the back of that we went to the White House and to 5 states in America; we sang at Yankee Stadium, we met Nancy Regan… I was only 16, it was like Wow! Like massive thing. And I remember being at home watching the news with my parents and it was all on the news at 10, news at 6, pictures of us flying to America, it was unbelievable!”
How could you take it all in?
“When your 16 and your involved with all that you don’t really… I look a back at pictures and stuff and found this documentary that was filmed of it and its like wow.. You know you didn’t realise the chances you got or the things you got the chance to do.”
I had the single! I told him, wondering if I still had it somewhere to sign.
“Yeah, It is mad because I remember going to Tenerife and there was a group of girls walking down the street singing Just Say No and it was madness, it was unbelievable.”
Do you think the video did work?
“Yeah… I had a lot of fee back and a lot of letters from viewers that watched it and were mortified by what happened, because the reason they chose Zammo was because he was such a good character, so rather than go down the same old route of choosing a bad character to get involved it drugs, they picked Zammo because he was a well-loved character, he was loved by everybody and he was the one who went off doing drugs…”
Well you did have those eye lashes….
“Oh golly yes! I used to hate them girly eyelashes!”
And he was in a good relationship.
“Yeah with Jackie, she was lovely, she still looks exactly the same now! Although at that time I was boxing and it was my main thing, I did the acting which was something I was just lucky to get in to, but the boxing was the main thing, so I was concentrating on that more than anything. I went to see a promoter when I was 21 and offered quite a lot of money, putting bums on seats because of who I was but then I had a car accident a couple of months afterwards and was told I couldn’t box anymore, so that’s when everything really went wrong… I lost interest in everything and that’s when I got a proper job and went to work for a lock smith and that’s what I’ve ended up doing now.”
Yes, I got my keys by you once in Soho…. I couldn’t believe it!
“St Annes Court, yeah? Ha! That was a turning point in my [career] ‘cos I was working for someone, I was there two years and it was like what am I doing? No disrespect for people who work for people, but I just felt this is not what I want to do, so I saved up some money and we bought the shop in Wallington and the ive had the business now for 13 years.”
You do still act though..?
“Yeah, I do bits and pieces. The idea was to get the shop put someone in it and then get into stuff, but then I’ve had a child and I’m dedicated to my little boy. I love him to bits. Me and his mum have split so I’ve got him really every other day and every other weekend which, for a bloke is a god send and at the moment I don’t want to go off doing other stuff, and I cherish these years ‘cos they go so quickly. I want to look back and say that I did everything I could to be there the whole time.”
Does your new girlfriend remember Zammo?
“Not as much, she was on the tail end of our year, but whenever we go out I do get noticed. It’s madness that people still talk about it and take pictures and stuff like that. People ask if I get bored talking about it but it was the best years of my life so I’ll talk about it all day long, I loved it.”
Good for me I thought….
“She said she gets a lot of ‘You’re going out with Zammo!’ at work. She said all the guys still think it’s a big thing, but I don’t think about it, I just do my keys and look after my little boy. But people have massive memories from that era and, blimey, it was quite a captive audience really, ‘cos it was only BBC1, 2 and ITV, there wasn’t even Chanel 4 when we first started. At that time there were only cartoons on and Grange Hill was the first programme that people could relate to, it was real and there was real stuff happening, it was a bit controversial at the time and a lot of parents didn’t let their kids watch it, even my mum was a bit funny about it and about me doing it.”
I was going to ask about your parents…
“Yeah, you see stuff now that the kids watch and its unbelievable . [In our day] it was 3:30 or whatever ‘till 6 o’clock, I think Grange Hill was on at 4:35pm, just before the BBC news, and that was it – an hour and a half or two hours and then nothing… kids have got it made now!”
Do you think Just Say No would work today?
“Oh no… The drug situation has changed completely with kids now since I was in it, I mean it’s just so rife, it’s just a nightmare… Kids go out and it’s not drinking, is ecstasy or whatever, there’s loads of stuff now, it’s frightening, isn’t it? I don’t know where you would go with that type of storyline now, when I was young drugs were a no no I mean heroin was definitely not about. I had to go to a rehabilitation centres to see users… It was a different world to me. I mean I’m out of touch with that now, I mean I’ve got no teenagers that I’m aware of, my brothers boys 15, and he says it’s quite rife with all the kids and they’ve got access to drugs all the time, so I don’t know how you would go with a storyline like that.
“When they came up to me and told me about the part, Anthony Mingella (who went on to success with The English Patient; January 6 1954; died March 18 2008) was the script writer on Grange Hill then, so I think it was his big story before he went off to other stuff. I had a chat with my parents about it and we was completely unaware of heroin or even drugs, ‘cos I was quite sporty and all my friends were boxers, I didn’t even drink till I was 23 so as a teenager I had no involvement with any of that at all so it was really alien to me.”
So it wasn’t method acting then? How did you immerse yourself in the part?
“Most of it was in my head, what I imagined ‘cos I could only go to these rehabilitation centres and watch
videos of heroin addicts, I met and spoke to some too, then I’d try and work it and form my own character from what I’ve seen. And hopefully it worked. No one really knew how a drug addict should act, so it didn’t need to be spot on, but hopefully I when I look back now I think it was quite a true enactment of a drug addict…”
And the makeup?
“Yeah! Loads and loads of makeup, it had to be topped up all the time and bags put on. As the story line progressed the makeup got more and more, ‘cos normally you would just a bit of a dab, a bit of makeup put on, but then as the time went on I would be there for a fair bit of time, putting little sort of blisters on my face and darkening my eyes, stuff like that so I was in there for about an hour.”
To create the iconic scene of Zammo sitting on the floor tinfoil in hand…
“That was the first time that they’d ever done a pan out with no music, the episode finished with no theme tune, it just panned to a close up to my face… I can remember filming that… one with a piece of silver foil in my hand and Roland coming in and finding me.”
Did anyone ever think you were really on drugs?
“Oh loads and loads of people, I was doing PAs at the time for Mecca, we were doing two night clubs a night, four a week, it was like that was up until I was 15, really busy and where most of my income was coming from, but then when the drug story line came along, one of the main directors of the place said we cant have you in our clubs , I said are you kidding, but he said we can’t have drugs, people are going to think you’re a drug addict and all my PA stopped…”
Do you think you’re typecast even after all these years?
“Yeah, when I did The Bill and stuff like that I would walk in and I would be Zammo, which would alienate me from any character they had, I mean you walk in and they have a preconceived idea of who you are and well it’s Zammo, yeah, it did hurt me a lot, I probably stayed in Grange Hill too long, but if I was going to carry on acting the drug story completely ruined any real chance of that. We had viewing figures of over 12 million, but now there are so many different shows, so many films, so many channels, so if I did want to as there are but for now I’m just too busy with baby, my relationship and the shop.
“Eastenders is great, it’s the only programme I would give a bit of time for and go into, I don’t chase anything, my agent must really get fed up ‘cos she would say “There’s an audition for you in town, can you get there?” And I would say,” I can’t just shut the shop, I just can’t do that”, she must wonder why shes representing me, but maybe when my sons a little bit older, got my equity card, never say never really.”
Have you kept any memorabilia?
“Naa… stupidly I never kept any of it, I have been sent a tie but when I left I gave it away, in hindsight I wish I’d kept it – not that it would ever fit me again! But it would be nice to hang up in a wardrobe or somewhere, or even get it framed – Yeah, it would be lovely to get the jacket, but no I haven’t got it.”
It’s been quite a few years now but, do you see any of your old co-stars?
“Yeah, I do a lot of stuff with the guy who played Roland, we did some ’80s gigs in the summer. He’s down in Brighton working for a video company, interviewing celebrities and gigs and festivals, I think he’s doing OK. And I keep in touch through FaceBook, [old co stars] will comment under a picture of something. There are about 4 or 5 from my era who are all on FB, we keep in contact and I’ve met up for a couple of drinks. I mean we all lose contact with school mates, it’s the same. I mean I’ve got friends that I thought I would have kept in contact with forever , but as we’ve grown older we’ve grown apart, were not the same people and you haven’t got that much in common anymore.
“I love Facebook and luckily I haven’t had many bad comments as I am open to abuse because of who I am, but one of the guys has had and he’s had to come off completely because he kept getting abused by friends of friends, you hear it all the time, don’t you, cyber bullying and all that, but touch would it’s been great for me. I love it!”
Wow, what an amazing life and career, but I had one pressing question left, one that could not go unanswered… One that I just had to know, that was burning inside me… One question that, even if it was to cross the boundaries of etiquette and politeness, I had to ask… And that question was…
You’re in your 40s… What the hell are you doing in my classroom…?
Read more from Charlotte at RetroLadyLand