Going to meet Lee MacDonald feels more like a reunion with an old schoolmate than an interview. He is an old schoolmate not just to me but to a generation. Actually, I’m a bit older: my gang was Tucker Jenkins, Trisha Yates, Tommy Watson and Benny Green. But my brother is MacDonald’s – Zammo McGuire’s – age, so he was round our house. And then, when his big storyline happened, he was round pretty much everyone’s house. Including President Ronald Reagan’s.
MacDonald played Zammo in Phil Redmond’s children’s drama Grange Hill for six years in the 1980s. The epitome of the cheeky chappie, Zammo was a bruiser and charmer; a bit rough around the edges and often in trouble for fighting or letting off stink bombs. Never malicious, mind, and with lovely blue eyes. Then he became a heroin addict, remember? Slumped in the toilet, with a glazed, out-of-it look. That was some storyline for a kids’ TV show. He became the face of an anti-drug campaign. Look, smack can get anyone – even nice Zammo. Just say no.
We are meeting at the BBC’s Elstree studios, just outside London, because – whoop, whoop – he has got a part in EastEnders. Back in Elstree after 32 years, back on the telly. And chuffed to pieces about it. He got here before me; the security guard on the gate, too young to realise the significance, directed him to the Grange Hill car park.
He is still totally recognisable: same eyes, same cropped hair, even. If a cartoon-strip sausage appeared, on a fork, from the sky, it wouldn't be entirely surprising
And here he is, sneaking in a crafty ciggy at break time (between photographs and interview), still the naughty schoolboy, albeit a 50-year-old one. Ironic that the anti-drug face of my youth turns out to be an addict. “Yeah, and I only started smoking when I was 40,” he says. “My ex-wife wanted to pack up, and I’m quite strong-willed, so I said: ‘Right, okay, I’ll smoke with you,’ – what a silly thing to do – ‘and then we’ll pack it in together.’”
She quit and MacDonald carried on, although the kids – his nearly 11-year-old son with her and 11-year-old stepdaughter with his new missus – are begging him to stop. “The number of people who say ‘Just say no’ when they see me having a fag…” he says. And I thought I was being clever.
His nose is a little different from what I remember. But that is nothing to do with surgery and everything to do with boxing and a car crash that would end his dream of boxing professionally. And he is a little heavier (although not as heavy as he has been in the past). But he is totally recognisable: same eyes, same cropped hair, even. If a cartoon-strip sausage appeared, on a fork, from the sky, it wouldn't be entirely surprising. Da da da da (that's the end of the plinky-plonky theme tune, if you don't read music).
MacDonald came to acting through tragedy. When he was five his elder sister died. "I went really quiet: I wouldn't talk to anyone," he says after we settle inside a studio. A teacher at his primary school suggested going to an after-school drama club at the end of the road, which turned out to be the renowned Anna Scher theatre. "I remember Anna got everyone to shadowbox; she knew I was into boxing, and she got everyone to copy me. It was brilliant for me to have all those other kids doing something that I was doing."
It turned his life around. There was no pressure to get TV parts, but Scher was a go-to person for casting directors; Susan Tully and Mark Burdis had already gone from there to Grange Hill. MacDonald got bits and pieces of TV work, including playing Mike Reid’s son in a drama called Noah’s Castle. Then, when his mum was satisfied his schoolwork wouldn’t suffer, she let him audition for Grange Hill. He was already a fan. “Literally, I used to run home from school to watch it.”
They were looking for two characters: Jonah – good-looking, all the chat – and a tough kid called Zammo. “At the time I had a skinhead, bovver boots, I was boxing… I just fitted into the character.” Together, the pair tore about, terrorising teachers, fat Roland, even the sea lions at Chessington zoo.
It was no less wild away from the set. MacDonald remembers a (real) school trip to the British Museum. “There was a girls’ school there at the same time, and I was getting chased around. Security said: ‘You can’t have that happening here,’ so I was taken outside. Yeah, it was lovely, because I wasn’t Brad Pitt growing up.”
It was only when I was doing the research and went to rehabilitation centres, spoke to addicts, realised a lot of them guys are Zammo-type characters
He only has nice things to say about Grange Hill. “I was doing something I really enjoyed, getting paid for it and I was getting loads of girlfriends. My schoolwork never suffered; I was never bullied at school. It was the best thing I ever did, and if I could do it all again I would.”
He knows that it can be hard for child actors, and he wouldn’t encourage his son and stepdaughter to go into it – not now, anyway. “When they’re 18 they can do whatever they want, with my blessing. I want them to be at school every day they can, sucking in that information.”
He has shown them Grange Hill, and they were into it. Well, Harry wasn’t so fussed: he watches YouTube and plays Fortnite. But Katie was glued to it, bonded with the characters, never said it was dated. They were eight or nine at the time, and MacDonald stopped when it came to his big story. He wasn’t quite ready to let them see Daddy go from cheeky chappie to druggie. “They’re going to big school next year, and they’re going to be told all about that, so I’ll be more than happy for them to see it. But at the time I felt it was a little bit too much for them to take on board. I didn’t want to have to explain all that yet as parent.”
It was groundbreaking for children's TV, and won Grange Hill a Bafta. Anthony Minghella, who was the script editor (and went on to direct The English Patient), spoke to MacDonald's parents, and explained that he'd be taking on a big storyline. "I'd never even heard of heroin," MacDonald says. "I think my parents weren't aware either of the problems of drugs. It was only when I was doing the research and went to rehabilitation centres, spoke to addicts, realised a lot of them guys are Zammo-type characters. They were living at home and had been kicked out – another life ruined by heroin. So I could relate to it."
A Just Say No single followed, with the whole cast. And then an invitation for some to fly to the United States and meet Nancy Reagan, who had started the Just Say No campaign over there. "I was right next to her; we gave her a copy of the record, which she sort of threw under the chair." Best thing to do with it, probably.
They didn’t nick anything or, as legend has it, sneak in a crafty White House spliff. “Those rumours are annoying,” MacDonald says. “We were 16; my mum came with me and was with me all the time. You were followed the whole time: literally, if you wanted to go to the toilet, someone followed.”
Just Say Yes, in Ronald Reagan’s bathroom? Fake news, I’m afraid.
And then, for MacDonald, Grange Hill came to an end. As it does for everyone when they reach school-leaving age. But he wasn’t bothered, or concerned about getting other parts. He was going to box. He had already represented London, was planning on turning professional and had been offered a contract.
Terry Sue-Patt, who played Benny, was found dead in his flat in 2015. He had been there for some time. Sue-Patt had struggled with life after Grange Hill, and after a car crash in which his brother had died
But, aged 21, he had a serious car accident. He was in his dad’s van, and was hit by a car being chased by the police at 150km/h. MacDonald went through the windscreen, was thrown 15m through the air and suffered severe head injuries. He shows me the scar through his cropped hair.
He was told he couldn’t box again; his plan, and his love, had been taken away. “I didn’t know which way to turn.” A friend of his dad’s got him a job, working for a wholesaler, and he did a bit of acting – The Bill, for example: everyone did The Bill – but it wasn’t boxing. “The 1990s weren’t brilliant, because I didn’t know where I was or what I wanted to do.”
He remembers one particular low, when it did get to him. “I was working in this warehouse, and it was on the radio that John Alford had just got London’s Burning, and I just thought: ‘I had that, and now John’s got that again.’” Alford, another Anna Scher alumnus, had played Zammo’s girlfriend’s brother Robbie in Grange Hill.
We talk about another former Anna Scher pupil. Terry Sue-Patt, who played Benny Green, was one of Grange Hill's first-generation cast – Tucker's sidekick – but he and MacDonald overlapped for one series, and MacDonald had known Sue-Patt at Scher's school, too. "He was such a bubbly character, so lovely, and his smile lit up the room," he says choking up a bit. In 2015, Sue-Patt was found dead in his flat. He had been there for some time. The inquest recorded no suspicious circumstances, but Sue-Patt had struggled with life after Grange Hill, and after a car crash in which his brother had died.
MacDonald's trajectory was a happier one, and he puts it down to his close family, and finding other things to do. In 2000, he bought a locksmith business in Surrey; he still has it. Being famous didn't do him any harm when it came to finding business. "I went round local estate agents, and they would go: 'Zammo!' A lot of the work now I've got is from it." Even now, on the website, it says: "Just say no to the rest!"
The business still pays the bills, and he has got people he can leave it with if any television stuff comes up, which it does, from time to time. There was a Grange Hill reunion show in 2005; that’s when he’d put on weight and they joked that he looked more like Roland than Roland did. Then there was the reality show Celebrity Scissorhands, and Cirque de Celebrité. MacDonald got a taste for television again and found an agent. And then he got an audition for a part in EastEnders.
“It was mad, like life had started again. I just thought, I know this – this is where I should be,” he says. “I remember ringing my mum and saying, ‘It’s like me talking to you, the way it’s written – yeah, aw’right, sor’ed. If I don’t get it, it’s because they’re looking for someone else.’”
They weren’t; he got it. He can’t say much about the part except he’s a bus driver called Terry, who will cause trouble (still!) for Danny Dyer’s character, Mick Carter. And he is only in three episodes for now. But Terry is Walford-based, so MacDonald is hoping he may return. (“Oh, please ask me! I hope so!”) For now he is just happy to be back on the box. And back at Elstree. “It’s the most exciting time since I was 13.”
We go for a little wander about the place on the way back to the front gate. A lot has changed since he was here as a kid. But this is where their studios were, and this is the corridor where he and the other pupils used to tear up and down at dinnertime. You can almost hear them, and Mr Bronson or Mrs McClusky telling them sternly not to run.
And here, on the wall, is a photograph of him, aged 13. Zammo and Jonah, looking cheeky, in MacDonald’s favourite episode; the one at the zoo. Jonah is dripping wet from being in with the sea lions. “Mad,” says MacDonald. “It just makes me smile.” And that’s just what he does. – Guardian
Lee MacDonald will be in EastEnders on Thursday, May 30th, at 7.30pm on RTÉ One and BBC One