Behind the Book: Highbridge by Phil Redmond
Highbridge is the dramatic new book by Phil Redmond, the writer and creator of Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks.
Here, Phil guides us through his career and explains how he came to develop the idea for his first crime novel:
“Highbridge is the latest step in a long journey I began in 1978, when Grange Hill first appeared on the BBC. Although focused on a school, it was not about education but about the kids that inhabited it and absorbed their real education, not in the classrooms, but on their way to, from and between lessons
It was also about community. But there was only so much I could do within the limits and regulatory parameters of BBC children’s television. I couldn’t, for example, spend too much time at home with the characters or go into too much detail about the sex, drugs and rock n’roll of the post-Sixth Form rites of passage. Then, in 1982, came Channel 4 and Brookside. And another community.
If Grange Hill aimed at being as realistic a depiction of a ‘typical’ British secondary school, then Brookside was meant to be where the characters ‘typically’ lived. Although speaking with a Scouse accent, and made all the better for it (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) it had a national voice. It was about contemporary Britain. About the harsh realities of 1980’s and 1990’s Britain. The Thatcher years. Not the romantic view of the North that came from Coronation Street and Emmerdale – well, until a certain plane crash I was involved with doubled Emmerdale’s audience! (But I would say that too, wouldn’t I?)
In 1996 came Hollyoaks. If Grange Hill was about school and Brookie, as it became affectionately known, was about home life, then Hollyoaks was about expanding the dramatic challenge to take in the area in which its characters lived. The tales of life experienced and portrayed on and among the streets, avenues, businesses and restaurants of the local neighbourhood.
Originally Hollyoaks was created to fit alongside Channel 4’s so-called ‘happy hour’, powered by US sit-coms. It was designed to be fun, aspirational and free from the social realism that was Brookie – until the audience started to ask for it. The research showed that the audience enjoyed the escapism of the US and Aus imports, but the overwhelming feedback was that a British programme should reflect British issues. In came the sex, drugs and rock n’roll and the audience figures soared.
That was the same lesson I learned across the three shows, and my short time resurrecting Emmerdale: the more challenging a story, the more the audience appreciated it. But not television’s regulators. By 2000 it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on social realism, the onslaught of reality TV began and what I called ‘Mary Poppins TV’ started to emerge. It was time to move on and, on reflection, to the next step in the creative journey: beyond the neighbourhood to the town in which it could be found.
Highbridge is, once again, a ‘typical’ northern town where you could find a Grange Hill, a Brookside and a Hollyoaks. Speaking with a local accent but with a national voice about common concerns. About life as it is, not as television regulators would like it to be.”