Trisha Yates, feminist icon

Oh, Trisha Yates. Trisha Yates, with your magnificent hair, the product of endless hours with curling tongs and Elnette hairspray. Trisha Yates, who could wither spotty schoolboys with a single glare. I am currently working my way through the first few series of Grange Hill on Britbox, the perfect nostalgia-fest while I’m cooking or ironing, and it’s reminding me not only of what a fabulous series this was, but why we need characters like Trisha Yates in our lives.

The hair. (Photo: grangehillfandom.com)

When Grange Hill first started, in February 1978, I was only five years old. It was something that people’s big brothers and sisters watched, rather than something children my age watched, and therefore I first became aware of it as a Bad Influence, with a boy called Tucker Jenkins and lots of moral panic about loutish behaviour. My friend Emma wasn’t allowed to watch it, because her mum disapproved. We played Grange Hill in the playground when we’d had enough of playing School or House or Horses, and while all the boys wanted to be Tucker, all the girls wanted to be this mysterious being called Trisha Yates. And when I eventually started watching Grange Hill, when I was about seven, I could see why. Trisha was a force of nature. She knew her own mind and didn’t let anyone push her around. It was heady stuff.

Watching Grange Hill now, over forty years (forty years!) since its launch, has been an interesting experience. I’d been expecting controversy – rioting schoolchildren, pulling hair and eating dirt – but there’s actually a deep underlying morality to the series that makes it feel rather like a succession of public information films. Here’s what you do if you’re being bullied. Here’s how you should act if a classmate is having problems. Bad behaviour leads to clear consequences, and doing the right thing (telling a teacher, helping someone who is worse off than you) is praised. True, there is mischief, but there are also serious nasties – in the first series, it’s Jackie Heron and her sidekicks – and it’s clear that they are not to be admired.

And then there’s Trisha. She’s a first-year in 1978, with a big sister called Carol and a mum who also played Kath Brownlow in Crossroads. The famous hair is only in its infancy, but the rebelliousness is there. Trisha rails against having to wear school uniform and not being allowed to wear earrings or nail varnish. She gets detention for wearing stripy socks and bunks off school as a result. But she’s steered back by the wise counsel of her form tutor, Mr Mitchell, and learns to channel her stroppiness more constructively.

Trisha, Year 7 version.

If you go looking for articles about Grange Hill, you’ll often see Trisha described as the ‘bad girl’. But there’s a good deal of tone-policing going on here, because actually, she’s not a bad girl at all. Trisha kicks against authority, but as the series develops, she actually does a great deal of good. She joins the school council and spearheads numerous campaigns – to abolish school uniform, to get a common room for lower school pupils to use at lunchtime. She speaks out about the fact that girls aren’t allowed to do technical drawing. Whenever there’s an injustice, she squares her shoulders, sets her jaw, and does whatever she can to combat it. If that’s what being a ‘bad girl’ is, then there’s a whole lot that’s wrong with how we judge teenage behaviour, and especially the behaviour of teenage girls. Trisha won’t blindly obey orders or put up with things for the sake of keeping the peace. She’s a one-person embodiment of The Style Council’s message in ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’: You don’t have to take this crap! You don’t have to sit back and relax! You can actually try changing it! That’s admirable, not bad.

There’s something deeply independent about Trisha’s character. Unlike her friend Cathy, she resists peer pressure, and refuses to get involved with the real bad girl Madelin Tanner, who gets Cathy mixed up in shoplifting. She goes out very briefly with Cathy’s older brother Gary, but ditches him when it’s clear that he’s not happy with her having other male friends. I remember teenage magazines of this era – my older sisters’ weekly copy of Jackie, with its photo stories and advice about flirting and make-up – being all about making yourself attractive and getting a boyfriend, but Trisha’s having none of it. She doesn’t seem bothered.

Trisha bows out at the end of Series 5, in 1982. I remember her appearing in the final episode of the Grange Hill spin-off Tucker’s Luck, when we find that she’s working for the DHSS. Michelle Herbert, who played her, now lives in Dundee, runs a double-glazing business with her husband, and campaigns to raise awareness of the lesser-known symptoms of breast cancer. I don’t know what Trisha is doing now, but I’d like to think that she is also campaigning somewhere, being feisty and determined and showing us how to be.

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