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:

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.

Teacher Feature: Mrs McCluskey

Tucker Jenkins. Bullet Baxter. Roland Browning. Scruffy McGuffy. Suzanne Ross. If you recognise those names, chances are you were a child or young teenager in the UK sometime during the 1980s, and a fan of the BBC children’s series Grange Hill, set in a North London comprehensive. Grange Hill started in 1978, and was extremely controversial: my friend Emma wasn’t allowed to watch it, because her mum said it encouraged hooliganism and that was obviously a Bad Thing. But it was also hugely influential. We used to act out scenes from Grange Hill in the playground at primary school, all the girls vying to be Trisha Yates with her rebellious blonde hair. At ten past five on a Tuesday and Friday young people up and down the country were glued to their screens, waiting for John Craven’s Newsround to be over and the familiar theme music to begin.

Mrs McCluskey, played by Gwyneth Powell, wasn’t the first headteacher of Grange Hill, or even the longest-serving, but she was definitely the most important. She was introduced in 1981, and immediately set about establishing herself, clashing with students over issues such as school uniform, the school magazine, vandalism and smoking. Grange Hill was an eventful place. Mrs McCluskey had to deal with bullying, truancy, racism, abuse and shoplifting. Students were suspended left, right and centre. There were deaths – Jeremy Irvine at the bottom of a swimming pool, Danny Kendall from an unidentified brain disorder – and, of course, there was Zammo McGuire’s brush with heroin. Just say no, Zammo! But Mrs McCluskey steered the school through every crisis, styling it out in an assortment of terrifying polyester blouses, surveying all with her steely blue eyes.

That blouse. (Source: Pinterest)

In her first few years, Mrs McCluskey seemed to be the kind of authority figure who existed to allow people to rebel against them. She cancelled a school trip because the students were too scruffy, and banned access to the school buildings at lunchtimes. She got into many a confrontation over infringements of uniform. Eventually, though, she came to be the epitome of firm-but-fair leadership. She listened to what people had to say and was not afraid to change her mind. She saved the life of Harriet the donkey by allowing her to become the school pet (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a headteacher who allowed you to have a donkey as a school pet?) She supported Miss Partridge, a single parent, when the governors wanted to have her dismissed, a storyline that’s a real sign of how times have changed. She even threatened to resign herself unless they backed down. She was indomitable, but never unapproachable, and many a storyline featured students going to see her for help when they recognised that the situations they were in were too big and serious to be kept to themselves.

This latter point was phenomenally important, because if there’s anything students need to know, it’s that teachers will not only set boundaries for them (which Mrs McCluskey does, in spades) but also have their backs if they need support. When the loner Danny Kendall was being victimised by the French teacher Mr Bronson, Mrs McCluskey made it quite clear that she wouldn’t have students at her school being treated like that. She visited Zammo at home when he was recovering from his overdose, and stayed in with him to allow his exhausted mum to have some time off. She cared about her school as a place where people grew up, made mistakes, and learned how to become a part of the world. Which is, really, what matters; and it’s important that students see teachers as people who can be trusted to guide them through difficult times.

I have no idea how Mrs McCluskey would fare in today’s world of league tables and performance targets. I’m imagining she’d roll her eyes at nitpicking over accountability measures, and perhaps have a quiet swear, back in her office, about buzzwords and hoop-jumping and quick-fix ways of gaming the system. She’d be in favour of slow learning, enrichment activities, school trips and space to grow. I suspect it’s hard to be a Mrs McCluskey, nowadays, and that’s a sad thing. But her footsteps still echo the corridors, and she still exists in the minds of millions of people as the model of what a headteacher should be.