In the Grip of Terror

Glenn Aylett on Grange Hill‘s Gripper Stebson

First published February 2005

Mention any infamous school bully on screen and film and the most likely response will be Flashman, the demonic prefect at Rugby School from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Fair enough, he was a monster, but, growing up in the early 1980s and seeing this film for the first time, the cad and his cohorts meant nothing to the vast majority of us in comprehensives.

No to me, and the millions who watched Grange Hill, the ultimate in bullies was not some frock coated figure from the 1830s, but a twisted loser from (apparently) a broken home in North London called Norman Gripper Stebson.

Over its 27-year run, Grange Hill has produced some notable thugs. In the early series we had Michael Doyle, who antagonised Benny Green and the bookish Justin Bennett, but he generally fell foul of teachers and the mighty Tucker Jenkins – plus he also had a rather ridiculous high-pitched voice. There was also school psycho Booga Benson and female bully and shoplifter Madeleine Tanner, scourge of Cathy Hargreaves.

Later, the mid 1980s brought us Imelda Davis and her Terrahawks, who briefly terrorised the school until her friends turned against her, and Mauler McCaul, who was more stupid and incompetent than downright nasty. Yes, Gripper Stebson has to be the king of bullies and his appearances in the show made it gripping – pun intended – viewing for three years. It’s no coincidence that the early 1980s are generally regarded as Grange Hill‘s golden period.

In a way you could almost feel sorry for Gripper, if you wanted to find excuses for his awful behaviour. Unlike Flashman or Doyle (whose dad was a right-wing Tory councillor and came from a middle class background), he was very much a product of the early Thatcher years and mass unemployment. While his background was rarely mentioned, it was assumed he came from a broken home; there was no mention of a father figure. However, quite a few of his peers were in the same boat. Benny Green’s old man was out of work, but he never bullied anyone.

In truth, apart from some talent for Space Invaders, Gripper had no redeeming features. He had no interest in schoolwork, was totally repellent to the opposite sex (he was just as likely to use violence on girls) and, aside from his evil little gang which included other misfits Denny Rees and Georgie Smith, made no attempt to be friendly with other pupils, only appearing happy when he was making people’s lives a misery. Dressing like a cross between a teddy boy and a skinhead, he also seemed out of place fashion-wise.

His first appearance in Grange Hill was as a scowling little thug in the fourth series where he indulged in some shoplifting, threatening his school colleagues with dire consequences if they grassed him up to the shopkeeper. While this was bad enough, a precursor to his special brand of evil that would blossom the following year was when he forced resident school spiv, the rather annoying adenoidal “Pogo” Patterson, to do his homework after getting wind of the entrepreneur’s moneymaking homework scheme. However, Pogo performed the ultimate suicidal act by completing the task so badly, the bully wound up in trouble with the teacher. The result was an extremely fierce classroom brawl which resulted in desks and fists flying – but no blood – and Gripper was suspended for the rest of the term.

While still quite a minor character, it was obvious the programme-makers saw plenty of potential in him, and resolved to make Gripper Grange Hill‘s most hated and notorious pupil in series five and six.

Having earned his spurs beating up Pogo – though not the end of the world as quite a lot of us at the time considered him to be a rather unpleasant character – Gripper moved into hardcore bullying and mugging the following year. Dreaming up the “GCE” (Gripper’s Cash Enterprise), he – now with a sidekick named Denny Rees who acted as his mouthpiece and back-up – turned to accosting pupils at the school gates. In return for handing over their dinner money, they were guaranteed a peaceful time during the day. Of course, this meant if you didn’t pay up, cash was extorted by force and, if you did, you could expect to shell out the same the following day.

It was here Gripper singled out stereotype fat pupil Roland Browning as a particular target. Referring to this rotund and totally unathletic boy as “fat guts” and extorting money out of him at every turn. Roland, it seems, was designed to be bullied. Not only was he grossly overweight, he was also always seen to be eating a chocolate bar – unless it was stolen by Gripper first. He cut a rather sad figure in the early episodes, where he was driven to the brink of suicide by the bully’s menaces and referred to a psychiatrist. However, the fact that everyone hated and feared Gripper meant that Browning was not alone and, after his GCE scheme was rumbled by his nemesis, the liberal but tough design teacher Mr Hopwood (of whom more later), Gripper was then caught helping a bunch of crooks steal the school trophies and it seemed his reign of terror could be over.

In reality, would the troublesome pupil have been expelled by this point? Although discipline was not as lax as it became in later series – Mrs McClusky was more like Thatcher than the kind liberal she turned into before she left the Hill in 1990 – the school, in common with its real life counterparts, was reaping the liberal whirlwind that started in the 1970s when caning, strict classroom discipline and rote learning were abandoned. Certainly the fictional Grange Hill, despite having the authoritarian deputy head Mr Keating on its far right (always recalling the era when the place was a grammar and despairing of falling standards) and the tough-but-fair games teacher Bullet Baxter on its moderate right, had its more traditionalist teachers balanced out by the out-and-out leftist CND badge-wearing English teacher “Scruffy” McGuffy and wet liberals like Mr Sutcliffe and science teacher Miss Mooney. In fact, despite Keating’s frequent reactionary bellowing about standards and harking back to the 1950s, the man, like Bronson in later years, was an outsider and the slack disciplinary trends at the Hill meant Gripper could get away with quite a lot with only a non-appearance at a detention to worry about.

For actor Mark Savage, who played the bully, his unabated antics had serious real life repercussions. Chants of “you’re gonna get your head kicked in” accompanied his frequent visits to watch his beloved Chelsea play, and kids regularly challenged him to fights in the street. “It was open season on Gripper,” the actor told Now magazine in 1998, “people pulling knives on me and all sorts of things.”

Indeed, Grange Hill in series five and six (the post-Tucker period), became harder and grittier, rather like Phil Redmond’s other creation of the time, Brookside. Rather than hi-jinks like organising the university boat race in the school baths – which caused uproar among teachers’ unions during the first series – or the perennial rivalry with Brookdale, the storylines turned more like a hard-hitting drama about contemporary Britain.

With the series focusing increasingly on the fourth form, of which Gripper was a part, the programme became quite preoccupied with social comment, particularly highlighting the lack of work available for the pupils when they left school. As the early 1980s’ recession bit hard, school rebel Suzanne Ross claimed, “there’s no point in doing exams cos there’s no jobs at the end of it.”

Aware that he was destined for life on the dole, Gripper – rather than attributing this to socioeconomics and his own poor academic record – looked elsewhere to lay the blame. This was Grange Hill‘s next step on the road to demonising the character as Gripper turned his attention to immigrant cultures. Deciding to terrorise black and Asian pupils (in particular the Sikh Randir Singh, whom he referred to as “tea towel head”), he even took the pressure off Roland (although he did, in one infamous moment, refer to the kid as a “a secret black”). His own quasi-National Front began a campaign of victimisation, recruiting dullard Georgie Smith whose limited contribution was to blame everything on foreigners.

In real life, while the National Front was well past its electoral peak, it was never hard to find racist sentiments among teenagers, especially deprived white skinheads, who were a familiar sight in town centres in the early 1980s. Riots in the inner cities in 1981 suggested that race relations were deteriorating and black and white communities were becoming polarised. Assaults on blacks and, more so, Asians – who were regarded as an easy target by skinheads and their allies in the far right – increased during this era: I can recall a month of violent attacks on Asians in the summer of 1981 in Coventry, made the subject of a BBC2 Brass Tacks documentary, that left two dead and 60 injured. Similarly the fictional Gripper’s (and his alter-ego’s) favourite football team, Chelsea, developed a reputation for racism and violence where he would have felt at home.

However, back in the imaginary North London comprehensive, Gripper became even more repugnant, forcing white pupils to salute and declare an oath of allegiance to the British people, with his gang on the lookout for those who refused to conform. Thankfully, Stebson’s gang never achieved its objectives and not all ethnic minority or white pupils were cowed by his tactics. In one notorious episode he referred to Precious Matthews as a “monkey”, after destroying her art project, but was told in no uncertain terms what her bigger and blacker brother would do to him. For once, he backed down.

Nevertheless his terror campaign was nearing its end. After failing to persuade most of his classmates to swear the oath and making threats to “Stewpot” Stewart for encouraging a resistance group, Gripper decided to start a full-on race riot in the school toilets and attacked a group of black pupils to prove how tough he was.

The action resulted in his suspension, but there was one last showdown to come in epic form. Gripper’s slimy stooge Rees, who was lost without his ally, decided to infiltrate the underground school newspaper, pretending to have turned totally against racism and offered to help Claire Scott write an article condemning the activities of his former gang mates. Of course, upon his old cohort’s returned, he immediately spilled the beans about the feature, prompting Gripper to attack Claire with a mop and smash up the classroom.

Unfortunately, for him, by now Stewpot had formed a mixed race gang, including the Rastafarian Glenroy (who was cool towards whites in general but agreed to join at the last minute) and Randir, to set up a lynch mob against the bully. However, true to Grange Hill‘s ethos of presenting cautionary tales – this time about taking the law into your own hands – Bullet Baxter managed to stop their campaign with the immortal words, “I’m sorry, lads, I can’t allow vigilantes – doesn’t matter how justified you feel.” Nevertheless, declaring Gripper and his henchmen to be not “worth a light” on their own, he led the gang away to be expelled. Grange Hill had lost its most (in)famous bully.

Series seven and eight became rather less hard-hitting, the show caught in between the post-Gripper era and the oncoming drugs storyline of series nine where Zammo would be chasing the dragon under the North Circular. Stories concentrated more on the merger with the hated Brookdale and Rodney Bennett, but fans still clamoured to see Gripper again even in a cameo. Indeed in series eight, the bully, who managed to find a job as a cycling delivery boy (meat rather than the National Front News), had his bike stolen by Jimmy McLaren, one of a long list of would be bookmakers in the show, so he could fix the outcome of a sponsored walk. This proved to be his last proper appearance in the regular show, though we did see a younger sister having to hand lines in to a teacher for some misdemeanour, but the character never reappeared.

However, it didn’t quite end there, and Gripper made a slight return when he was heard on a secret tape-recording made when “Gonch” Gardner bugged the staffroom. Here he could be heard telling Denny Rees which pieces of equipment were worth stealing. No doubt a spell in a YOI followed. His final appearance, however, took place in 1985, when he flung a wet sponge at his old enemy Baxter in that year’s Christmas special.

As for the actor, unlike Todd Carty (EastEnders, The Bill), Brian Capron (Coronation Street) and Suzanne Tully (EastEnders again), he has been virtually invisible to the public since 1985. In 1998 he revealed, “I’m concentrating on independent films, but what I’d really like to do is play an interesting bad guy in EastEnders.” Sadly, Savage, a fine actor who would be well suited to the role, has been largely neglected, only landing a few very small parts in indie films and the theatre.

The last I heard of him he was seemingly broke, perhaps shades of what would have happened to Gripper in real life.