Jill Halfpenny: ‘I used to wish there was a Geordie Grange Hill’

In the first of a new series about what TV stars watched as children, Jill Halfpenny remembers being cast in Byker Grove

Growing up, I loved to watch telly and dreamed of being on it myself one day. I never much liked cartoons, though. I found them a bit dull, but I loved an American sitcom. Diff’rent Strokes was a favourite, as were Roseanne, Fresh Prince and, most of all, an odd little show called Small Wonder.

The premise was that an otherwise normal family had a little secret … a girl called Vicki. She was a bit eccentric: cute, but weird. And the secret was that she was a robot. They kept her downstairs in a cupboard at night. It was a concept that strangely entranced me. My mam had an airing cupboard opposite the toilet upstairs. It was narrow and was used for drying towels. If I removed one of the badly glued rods from its place, there was just enough room for me to go in there and pretend I was Vicki. It was a pretty short game because no one else played. Essentially, I just got in and out of the cupboard a few times and pretended to boot up like a robot, while perfecting my American lilt.

In terms of British TV, unusually for someone so young, I was obsessed with Parkinson. Didn’t matter who he was interviewing, I was in. I loved the format and was so taken with the way the guests would chat to each other. “Famous people just really get on,” I thought.

Jossy’s Giants and Press Gang were a big deal for me, but of course the indomitable Grange Hill was up there. It had everything: girls I wanted to be, boys I wanted to kiss, drama, comedy and, of course, actors. I had so much identification, I didn’t know what to do with myself. “God, if only there were a geordie Grange Hill,” I would wail to my mam as she made the tea.

And then it happened. It was announced that a new show would be made in Newcastle to rival Grange Hill – Byker Grove. I’d had quite a bit of theatre experience by then, but never in front of a camera. I could be the next Susan Ross, I thought.

Unusually for me, as my life has been dogged by expectations grossly overshooting reality, Byker Grove was everything I’d hoped. From the moment of learning I had the part to arriving on set and shooting my first scene, I adored it. Whatever lives I had imagined the Grange Hill lot living, this was it! I adored having the heavy storylines. I revelled in all the chat and gossip off set. I loved having a job, earning money and, well, just being an actor.

We tackled storylines that kids’ telly hadn’t touched. We felt like we were part of a show that was “pushing the limits”. Of course, being in Newcastle was very different from filming in London. London is used to cameras and actors, and you see famous people on the tube or the streets a fair bit, and it’s kind of low-key, but cool. Newcastle in 1989 was little different. If you were thinking people would recognise me in the street and be really impressed and ask for an autograph (pre-selfie days), it went more like this.

“Are you that lass off Byker Grove?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s shit.”

And off I’d trot into MK One to spend my hard-earned cash.

It was a pretty crazy experience to be a fan of kids’ telly and then be on it. And then IT happened. Fantasy really met reality. The Grange Hill lot and the Byker Grove gang were to meet up and play a charity football game together. “OMG,” I thought, this is going to be amazing. We’re all gonna love each other ’cos that’s what famous people do; they just get on. I saw it on Parkinson. Turns out it was a bit awkward. We were teenagers and were trying to be a bit aloof. I can’t remember the score, I was too busy trying to impress a boy.

Next came the Broom Cupboard with Andi Peters, Going Live! with Schof (Brother Beyond were the big guests, but I was most excited about Trev and Simon). Four years later, and with A-levels looming, it was time for me to leave the Grove. I was so sad to go, but I’d got the bug and after my exams I went off to “that there London”.

Watching telly as a kid was a great source of joy for me, but being on it was one of the happiest times of my life.