'Grange Hill' star: How playing heroin addict Zammo ruined my acting career

Jayne Cherrington-Cook
·5-min read
Lee McDonald then and now (credit: BBC)
Lee McDonald as Zammo in Grange Hill and, more recently, as Terry the bus driver in EastEnders (credit: BBC)

For five years, Lee MacDonald played Zammo Maguire in hit kids’ TV show Grange Hill.

The actor had a pivotal role in the series – created by Phil Redmond, who went on to launch Brookside and Hollyoaks – when his ‘cheeky chappie’ character developed a heroin addiction.

Zammo’s storyline, which was penned by Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, caused huge waves with several complaints made to the BBC and led to a chart-topping hit Just Say No!

While it was a great experience for the young actor, who even went to the White House to meet Nancy Reagan, the impact of such a high-profile role actually meant his acting career suffered greatly.

Lee MacDonald believes his years of playing heroin addict Zammo in Grange Hill led him to being typecast
Grange Hill actor Lee MacDonald speaks to Kate Thornton on White Wine Question Time about his days playing Zammo

Speaking on White Wine Question Time on a special Grange Hill reunion episode, MacDonald said being Zammo led to years of typecasting.

“I just assumed that I would just go from job to job and be working constantly and it isn't like that,” MacDonald told host Kate Thornton.

Listen: Lee MacDonald talks about what it was really like going to the White House with the Grange Hill cast

“All of my early twenties I got typecast as Zammo. It was just Zammo walking into a room before I'd even walked into the audition. I still look like Zammo sort of now, but then I really looked like Zammo, so it was just a bit of a nightmare. It was soul destroying for a little period of time.”

MacDonald – who eventually went on to have a career as a locksmith – said he was advised to leave the fictional school at a younger age if he wanted to pursue an acting career, but the heroin storyline persuaded him to stay.

“I remember the day that I finished Grange Hill, it was quite a big thing because you knew it was all going to end really, really quickly,” he recalled.

“I was told to leave a couple of years earlier if I wanted to be an actor… I stayed quite long, so by the time I left at 17, 18, I was already an adult. And I got the storyline for the drugs and I wanted to take it, so I stayed on, but that was probably not a good idea.”

Lee MacDonald believes he should have really left Grange Hill earlier than he did to enable him to be an actor in adulthood (Image: Getty Images)
Lee MacDonald believes he should have really left Grange Hill earlier than he did to enable him to be an actor in adulthood (Image: Getty Images)

When MacDonald originally left the show, he had hopes of being a boxer. As a youngster he’d boxed continuously – even turning up to the set with a black eye after one match in Derby – but his plans were ruined when he had a bad car accident age 21 and suffered severe head injuries.

After deciding to go back into acting, he got various bit parts in shows like The Bill, but the work wasn’t regular enough. He eventually found a job away from show business, but says it wasn’t always an easy path to follow, especially when former cast members were doing so well in their career.

Lee MacDonald said he was upset when former Grange Hill cast-mate John Alford got a role in London's Burning (Image: Getty Images)
Lee MacDonald said he was upset when former Grange Hill cast-mate John Alford got a role in London's Burning (Image: Getty Images)

“I remember working in a warehouse at the time and I was putting keys in a bag, counting keys, and it was announced on the radio that John Alford [who played Robbie Wright in Grange Hill] had gone into London's Burning, and I was mortified,” MacDonald told Thornton.

“I was this person who was trying to get TV work and struggling, whereas John had got this big job. You know, best of luck to him, but it really hurt.”

MacDonald, who had a small role in EastEnders as bus driver Terry last year, now runs a key cutting shop in Wallington. He said that having a regular income has taken away the pressure of securing acting jobs and he’s really enjoying his foray back into show business.

 Terry (LEE MACDONALD) - (BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes)
Lee MacDonald recently had a small part in EastEnders (BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes)

“Because I'm not relying on acting and I'm not in need of it as much, it's nice when it comes, so for me, mentally, now is a really nice time to get back into it,” MacDonald said.

He continued: “From being in a programme where you were in work every day to then get The Bill or an advert here or there was soul-destroying for all of us. In my late twenties was when it really affected me and yeah, it did hurt that it never worked out properly.

“It's gone role reversal now and now I'm doing stuff like EastEnders and doing films and stuff so I'm enjoying it now, but it was tough.”

Also appearing alongside MacDonald on White Wine Question Time was Linda Magistris, who played Susi McMahon in Grange Hill from 1979-1981. She agreed with MacDonald that while Grange Hill was a great training ground, she decided to leave acting behind after leaving the infamous school.

“I think that's why I decided to go into business because I didn't want to sit and wait for the phone to ring and not get good stuff,” Magistris told Thornton.

“If you've worked in exciting programmes and you've done really well, and then suddenly it all starts drying up, it's soul-destroying. It really is.”

Hear Lee MacDonald, Linda Magistris, Alison Bettles and Mark Baxter talk about their time on Grange Hill in this special edition of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.

Watch: Lee MacDonald makes his EastEnders debut