RETURNING to his old stomping ground after 32 years away, actor Lee MacDonald thought it was a wind-up when a guard directed him to the Grange Hill car park.
The 50-year-old certainly did not expect to be recognised for playing troubled teenager Zammo in the BBC kids’ soap back in the 1980s.
So he was delighted to get such a warm welcome when he arrived at the BBC’s studios in Elstree, Herts, ahead of his upcoming appearance in EastEnders.
In an exclusive interview, Lee reveals his hope that this could be the start of a big comeback, and how although playing heroin addict Zammo made him famous, it also killed off his career.
Lee says: “It was mad. When I drove the car in to Elstree one guy was going, ‘I remember you from years and years ago, your pictures are in the hallway.
“I said, ‘Where am I parking the car?’ He said, ‘Just over there, in the Grange Hill car park.’
“I thought he was having a joke with me, but it’s what they call it.
“It was just surreal going back and walking down the corridor and there’s pictures of me. It was like going back home to go in and do the reading. I just felt at home when I walked in, it was unreal.
“The casting rooms, where I read for the script, that’s where our Green Room used to be when I was a child, 30-odd years ago. It was manic being back.”
Grange Hill made Lee one of the best-known child stars of his generation.
From 1982 to 1987 he was Sammy “Zammo” McGuire, a chirpy schoolboy who descended into heroin addiction.
But afterwards Lee struggled to find work — potential employers feared being associated with drugs because of the soap plot.
Despite several cameos on TV, he largely disappeared off the radar.
Then last month The Sun revealed that, after a break from primetime television of more than three decades, Lee was off to Walford.
He will play bus driver Terry, who clashes with Queen Vic landlord Mick Carter, played by Danny Dyer, over a radio competition to win gig tickets.
The chance to work with Danny, is a dream come true for Lee.
He says: “I love all the EastEnders cast — I watch the show. But if I was going to be in a scene one-to-one, Danny Dyer would have been the one I’d want to be doing the scene with.
“I don’t get starstruck because I meet famous people all the time, but he’s one person I really wanted to meet and, golly, he is such a lovely guy.
“He was so helpful with everything he just put me really at ease. I was so impressed with him, I thought he was brilliant.”
His character is down to appear in two upcoming episodes. But Lee, who runs a locksmith business in Wallington, South London, hopes his short-term Enders contract will lead to a full comeback.
He says: “This goes to prove that I’ve got to 50 and it’s a new lease of life, and I’m absolutely loving it, I’m so excited.
“I bought the locksmiths shop in 2000. Initially I was aiming to get back into doing TV work but then it got quite busy and then I had my son, Harry, in 2008.”
The chance to work with Danny is a dream come true.
Lee, who also has a step-daughter, Katie, adds: “When Harry was a baby I was taking him to school and bringing him home. So I’ve got a bit more time now he’s older.
“It’s only in the last year really that I thought, ‘Wow I’ve got a bit of free time on my hands.’
“The kids are pretty sorted. They’re in the schools they wanted to get into and they’ve just finished their mocks, so now daddy has the chance to go off and enjoy what he likes doing best.”
And that means acting. In 1986, when he was still on Grange Hill, Lee was involved in one of the most hard-hitting and memorable scenes in children’s TV history.
Zammo, who had previously overdosed on heroin in the back room of the amusement arcade where his friend Roland worked, came back to school apparently clean. Then friends caught him trying to hide drugs in a toilet cistern.
The gritty storyline was intended to warn children off substance abuse. As part of the show’s anti-drugs campaign the cast had a Top Five UK hit with a cover of the LaToya Jackson song Just Say No.
They were invited to America to perform the single at New York’s Yankee Stadium, and were praised by then US First Lady Nancy Reagan — an anti-drugs campaigner who had coined the term “just say no” — on a trip to the White House.
The ensuing publicity made Lee a household name and he could not walk down the street without being mobbed.
He recalls: “It was massive at the time. They had a chat with my parents and said, ‘Look, we’d like Lee to take on this role as a drug addict, a heroin addict’.
“I think my parents were unaware of heroin at that time — I certainly was — so they agreed.
“We had to go to rehabilitation centres and meet ex-drug addicts and that was quite daunting. That was like, wow, this has really wrecked people’s lives.
“I had loads of letters at the time saying, ‘I’m never going to touch drugs again’ and, ‘Zammo’s put me off drugs’ so if for just one of those people it was a deterrent, then job done, really.”
After Grange Hill, Lee had minor roles in Birds Of A Feather, The Bill and a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But his lucrative work on the side all but dried up. He says: “I was leaving Grange Hill but earning reasonable money doing personal appearances in clubs and places like that.
“But then I got a call and they said, ‘We’re not going to use you any more.’
“I was like, ‘What?’ And they said they didn’t want their nightclubs to be associated with a drug addict.”
Lee was only 12 when he shot to fame and, while he has only positive things to say about his experience as a child star, he says if he was given the chance again today he would NOT do it.
He says: “Now being famous is all about being famous — a lot of youngsters do the fame for the fame. I was doing it because I was enjoying it and I loved it.
“When I finished Grange Hill and it sort of died down a bit there wasn’t an addiction that I needed to get more and more fame, whereas now it tends to be different. Now it’s more of a fame thing and how many followers you’ve got.
“I just enjoyed doing it then, going to work, whereas now it’s a 24-hour job. Not only are they acting, but when they come home they’re on the keyboard posting pictures and trying to get more followers, so you’re doing it 24/7.
“When I finish and go home I just want to go home and forget about what I’ve done.”
A HUGE GRANGE OF SKILL
LEE MacDonald is just one of many Grange Hill alumni to end up working on some of Britain’s biggest TV shows.
Amanda Mealing, 52, who played Tracy Edwards, went on to be cardiothoracic consultant Connie Beauchamp on BBC1 medical drama Holby City, before reprising the role in sister show Casualty.
The telly career of Todd Carty, 55, took off following his four-year stint as Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill and the spin-off Tucker’s Luck.
He became EastEnders stalwart Mark Fowler and then psychopathic copper Gabriel Kent in The Bill.
Mark Burdis was Christopher “Stupot” Stewart in Grange Hill. Now 51, he played Gary Rawlings in EastEnders, and had other TV roles in The Bill, A Touch Of Frost and the first feature-length episode of Only Fools And Horses.
Sean Maguire was 11 when cast as “Tegs” Ratcliffe in Grange Hill – the part turned out to be his springboard to major roles in EastEnders, Holby City, The Bill, Scott & Bailey and even CSI: NY. Sean, 43, also pursued a career in pop, releasing three albums in the Nineties.
Susan Tully spent three years in Grange Hill as stroppy schoolgirl Suzanne Ross.
She went on to play Michelle Fowler in EastEnders for a decade, then in the mid-Nineties began to work on the other side of the cameras.
Sue, 51, began directing episodes of Enders and other telly series including The Bill and Silent Witness.
Her most recent directing credit was for the recent series of hit crime drama Line Of Duty.
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