Belfast Telegraph

RIP Benny, a schoolyard friend we truly connected with

By Grace Dent

It was with a sharp and peculiar sadness that I heard of the death of the actor Terry Sue-Patt. I didn't know him at all, but certainly felt I knew Benny, the character he played in yesteryear children's TV drama Grange Hill.

To me Benny felt like a good friend I'd fallen out of contact with. The thousands of messages mourning the loss of Sue-Patt which lit up social media at the weekend - from Tweeters of a certain age - indicated I wasn't alone.

Perhaps the odd middle-class mother from leafy Seventies Surrey banned Grange Hill before ringing the Beeb, boohooing as a fictional kid with a non-RP accent was gobbing off to a teacher. However, in the rugged north I never, ever met or heard of anyone on a Tucker and Benny ban.

So, we gobbled up Grange Hill, Willo The Wisp and Ivor The Engine. We committed earnestly to the Blue Peter bring-and-buy appeal, ransacking our homes for stuff to sell. And, crucially, at a time before iPlayer, YouTube or even VHS recorders, we only got one chance to see these things happen. Miss it and you missed out.

Grange Hill - with Sue-Patt playing Benny, the first boy to walk through the gates - was an attempt to give an entire generation of non-privileged, everyday kids a chance to think about playground politics.

Benny, whom we loved for his soft-hearted cheekiness, came from a family with so little cash they couldn't afford his uniform. He excelled at football but had no way of buying boots.

Grange Hill's writers gave us tricky dilemmas to get our little heads around. They tried their damnedest to teach us that life is unfair, but with good friends, tenacity and the odd understanding adult, all lives have scope to be better.

I hope Sue-Patt knew the positive part he played in so many childhoods. A very sad footnote to this story are reports that Terry died in his home in Walthamstow and was undiscovered for a month.

If Sue-Patt's death reminded me of much simpler times, it also made me think of today's hectic, overstimulated world where oversights like this can easily happen. A world where we all - apparently - have dozens, hundreds, thousands of "friendships" which we administer online via the dispersing of "likes" to Facebook comments or the sprinkling of red hearts on their latest Instagram picture of a salad.

We've eschewed the art of unscheduled knocking on each other's front doors to see if we're coming out to play, or fancy a coffee, although, ironically, as a human race we've never been more connected.

But in the current social climate it is perfectly feasible for a friend to be slipping downhill quickly while maintaining a presence online that says everything is business as usual.

And even if a friend did "fall off" the internet, well, did you really know them anyway? Or was it someone you met in Croatia at a forest rave in 2005 who you mainly follow on Facebook because they have a lot of arguments with people and you can't quite stop looking?

A lot of things - in fact, almost everything about the Eighties - were worse than they are now, but the art of friendship was not.

After I watched Grange Hill back then I would walk out into the street, look my friends in the eye and say directly to them: "Did you watch Grange Hill? It was brilliant!"

It was similar to pressing like on Facebook, but in this case I actually meant it.

Belfast Telegraph


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