Byker Grove is an English television series which aired between 1989 and 2006 and was created by writer Adele Rose and producer Andrea Wonfor. The show was broadcast at 5:10pm after Newsround (later moved to 5pm) on CBBC on BBC One. It was aimed at an older teenager and young adult audience, tackling serious and sometimes controversial storylines.
The show was set in a youth club in the Byker district of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. In 1987, Wonfor approached soap writer Adele Rose. Together they created a single pilot episode featuring children aged 8–11 at an out-of-school club (transmitted on BBC in 1988). In autumn 1988, Wonfor gained the backing of Anna Home, then Head of the Children’s Department at BBC Television. Home gave the go ahead for a run of a series of six 25-minute episodes to be broadcast by the BBC. The age of the main characters was raised to 12–16 after support from first producer-director, Matthew Robinson. The first series centred on young teenagers crossing the bridge from childhood to adulthood.
Byker Grove launched the careers of Anthony McPartlin (“P.J.”) and Declan Donnelly (“Duncan”) who are otherwise known as Ant & Dec as well as the actress Jill Halfpenny, Donna Air, former CBBC presenter Andrew Hayden-Smith and Emmerdale actors Dale Meeks, Charlie Hardwick, Chelsea Halfpenny, Laura Norton and Victoria Hawkins. Also appearing in the series was the now glamour model Francoise Boufhal (“Ellie Baines”) and Charlie Hunnam, who later starred in the American TV series Sons of Anarchy and co-starred in Pacific Rim. Founder producer/director (1989–95) was Matthew Robinson who, after Byker Grove, became executive producer of EastEnders, Head of Drama BBC Wales and now runs Khmer Mekong Films in Cambodia.
Byker Grove was also home to writers such as Catherine Johnson (who went on to pen Mamma Mia, the ABBA musical) and Matthew Graham (This Life, Doctor Who and co-creator of BBC One’s Life on Mars). The first writer was Adele Rose – in Series 1 she wrote episodes 1–4 and 6; her daughter, Carrie Rose, wrote episode 5. The most prolific was Brian B. Thompson, who wrote 50 episodes over 12 series. Byker Grove gave Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper his first break into TV drama when he directed four episodes in 1997.
Byker Grove was not filmed in the Byker area of Newcastle. The actual youth club set was in Benwell, which is in the west area of the City, Byker being in the east. Byker Metro station (the suburban rail network in Newcastle and the Tyne & Wear area) and other landmarks in the real Byker (such as the Byker Wall and surrounding estate) are used for filming backdrops.
The youth club building seen on-screen is The Mitre, which used to be a nightclub and a pub (which was mentioned in a few storylines from episodes in the late 1990s). After the success of the first series (6 episodes, 1989), The Mitre was bought by the BBC’s London property department which then granted Zenith Television a permanent licence to film the series there. The building housed the actual set, production offices, make up suite and costume department.
The final series started on 7 October 2006 on the CBBC Channel. Richard Deverell, head of CBBC, was interviewed on Newsround about the decision to axe Byker Grove.
On 11 March 2008, it was reported that Gallowgate Productions TV, the TV production company owned by Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, purchased the rights to Byker Grove after the production company that made it (Zenith Entertainment) went into liquidation in 2007. According to reports, the reason Ant & Dec decided to purchase the rights was to stop a digital channel showing repeats featuring the duo during their time in the series, though this has neither been confirmed or denied by the duo themselves.
The cast and crew from the first 10 years of the show held their first reunion on 19 May 2012 in the Quayside area of Newcastle upon Tyne and on a river boat cruise. The party guests included Ant and Dec, Donna Air, Charlie Hardwick and Andrew Hayden-Smith. Jill Halfpenny and Si King were absent due to work commitments.
Byker Grove was not intended for young children, but aimed at a young adult and teenage audience as it tackled some controversial subjects such as drug addiction, child abuse, homelessness, teen pregnancy, homophobia, and abortion. Although some of the action took place outside the youth club, the series was unusual among dramas in that the characters were rarely shown in school. One of the major settings was the foster home run by the kindly but strict Lou Gallagher, the longest-running character.
In November 1994, Byker Grove became the first British drama to broach the subject of “coming out of the closet” when Noddy Fishwick kissed his close friend Gary Hendrix at the back of a cinema. This scene caused outrage in the British tabloids, a Sun editorial calling for producer Matthew Robinson to be sacked. However the BBC strongly backed the storyline which received countrywide support from gay teenagers, many teachers, and parents. The 2004 series saw the character of Bradley agonising over his sexuality and eventually coming out of the closet as gay to his girlfriend Sadie, after a romantic holiday together had failed to live up to their expectations.
The series frequently depicted life as unjust, with bad things happening to good people, such as Flora’s death from a brain tumour, Greg’s fall from the roof of the Grove which left him paralysed from the waist down, Jemma Dobson being electrocuted by a faulty electricity mains socket and youth leader Geoff Keegan’s death in an accidental gas explosion.
Byker Grove frequently confronted viewers with repercussions for the characters’ actions, often permanent. These ranged from the comical to the tragic; characters who stole and joy-rode cars often died in them, starting with Gill, and ultimately Craig running over Ben Carter. P.J. was blinded during an illicit and unsupervised paintballing session, in which he ignored warnings and removed his face guard.
The central storyline of the first three series was the character of London teenager Julie Warner struggling to fit in and adjust to life in working class Newcastle and her relationship with the rebellious Martin “Gill” Gillespie. In the show’s final episode the characters discover that they do not exist and are the creation of unseen characters known as “The Writers” who plan to conclude the show by demolishing the Grove. However numerous present and former Grove members buy enough time for the characters to re-write the ending so that the club will remain open forever.
Until Series 10 (1998) the rival youth club was known as Denton Burn. In Series 13 (2001) rival youth club members were known as the Denwell Burners as they were from a youth club in Denwell Burn. This is a fictitious area of Newcastle upon Tyne, the name coming from a mixture of Benwell and Denton Burn.
Filming for Denwell Burn Youth Club for Series 15 was filmed at Raby Street Youth Club, in the buildings next to Byker Primary School. This is the real youth club for the children of Byker. In Series 16 (2004), a different youth club, Jesmond Grange (pejoratively referred to by the Grovers as “Jezzie Grange”), became a new rival to the Grove.
The bands of Byker Grove
A number of musical acts have been spun off from the series. These include:
- Michelle Charles – “The Best Thing In My Life”, “For the Good Times”
- PJ & Duncan — who became Ant & Dec for The Cult of… album (Singles: “Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble”, “Better Watch Out”, “We’re On The Ball”)
- Byker Grooove – girl band starring Donna Air (‘Charlie’), Jayni Hoy (‘Leah’) and Vicky Taylor (‘Angel’) whose single “Love Your Sexy” reached UK No. 47 in December 1994. Byker Grooove evolved into the duo Crush with Jayni Hoy and Donna Air. (Singles included “Jellyhead” (UK No. 50) and “Luv’d Up” (UK No. 45) on Telstar Records.) In the United States, where Byker Grove did not air and nor was the group promoted as being associated with the series, “Jellyhead” reached No. 72 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996.
- Summer Matthews – aka Emma Miller (Single: “Little Miss Perfect”)
- Point Break, boyband which included Brett Adams and David Oliver, who played Noddy and Marcus respectively. (Singles include “Freakytime” on Eternal Records.)
Other bands with links to Byker Grove include:
- Freefaller – includes member of Point Break
- Kane Gang – writers of the original theme music, a development from the “Ooh Gary Davies on your radio” jingle for BBC Radio 1.