The Big Issue - Coming up from the streets

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  What Gripper Did Next
Actor Mark Savage wants to set the record straight. Best-known for his role as TV's most notorious bully Gripper Stebson on the hit children's series Grange Hill in the Eighties, he has recently been the focus of tabloid attentions for having 'disappeared' and descended into a life of homelessness. The riches-to-rags story of a boy who shot to fame almost two decades ago delighted the tabloids, but Mark declined to talk to them.

Sitting in an empty north-London curry house dressed in a leather jacket with slicked-back hair he has agreed to talk at length for the first time about life post-Grange Hill and a subject close to his heart - everyone's right to live in a decent home.

Shifting uneasily in his chair, it is clear that he distrusts journalists and has been stung by recent coverage. The media speculation about Mark, 33, began when the BBC's extensive efforts to trace him for a programme to mark the 20th anniversary of Grange Hill failed. "We tried absolutely every avenue available to us but couldn't get hold of him," said a BBC spokeswoman. Weeks later, he contacted local newspaper, the Willesden And Brent Chronicle, about housing problems. Both The Big Issue and the Chronicle reported that he had spent much of his adult life "homeless, sleeping rough and unemployed".

At that point, the tabloids swooped, offering the reporter who ran the story vast amounts of money to lead them to Mark. They promised to give the actor even bigger sums if he let them tell his story their way. Mark wouldn't talk and the Press Gazette ran a story about the reporter Raj Johal's principled refusal to reveal Mark's whereabouts, despite the bank notes being wafted in front of him. After shaking off the newspapers and magazines, Mark decided to speak to The Big Issue instead. Between mouthfuls of chicken biryani he jokes about his 'disappeared' status. "I've always known where I've been - apart from the odd lost weekend," he says.

He is reticent about the period which followed his high-profile telly slot and shows no interest in glorifying the Gripper era. "It was just a job," he shrugs. "People used to come up to me and ask me for my autograph, but I'm sure they threw it away after a few weeks and forgot who I was. Since I've been back in the media spotlight people have said to me, 'You don't look like Gripper'. Well, why should I? I'm sure they don't look the same way they did at 16 either." Although he is reluctant to lose himself in nostalgia about his role as the petty extortionist who graduated to hardcore racism, bribing his sidekick Roland Browning to do much of his dirty work, he does pay tribute to Grange Hill's creators. "It's a great testament to the writers of Grange Hill and hopefully a testament to my work that Gripper is still remembered."

For a short period, Gripper was one of the most famous schoolboys in the country. Indeed, his father said in the mid-1980s that Mark was constantly being picked on to fight because of his TV role. However, Mark is keen to play it down.

"I was able to move away from the character successfully," he says. "After all, I couldn't get into the school uniform any more." He says he has been busy since Grange Hill, but it's obvious his career has not followed the smooth linear path into EastEnders or other big-budget shows of co-stars like Todd Carty, Susan Tully or Sean Maguire. He is vague about his acting work since his teenage years; a video with Morrissey here, a low-budget film there, and wages often paid on a profit-share basis for acting projects which end up making no profit at all.

He has been approached by Cardboard Citizens Theatre Company, which stages plays featuring homeless actors and focusing on social issues, after reading an article about him in The Big Issue. "I like the idea of Cardboard Citizens," he says. "Theatre is one of the oldest forms of communication and they bring theatre to those who wouldn't normally see it."

Mark explains that he didn't get in touch with the BBC during the 'disappeared' period because he was nursing his sick mother who later died. He is particularly angry about a story in the Daily Star, headlined "From Grange Hill to the Gutter", which detailed his life on the breadline. "All this rubbish being written about me is an insult to my mum's memory," he says protectively. "When she got ill I wanted to be with her as anyone else would want to be. I didn't get in touch because I was grieving for my mum."

He becomes more comfortable when the conversation switches to housing matters. He's decided to go public about his own plight to highlight the misery of tenants at the mercy of private landlords. Locked in a battle with his landlady and his local council, Brent, over his housing, he could soon be facing homelessness because he has been issued with a notice to quit by his landlady.

After moving into a property billed as a 'flatshare' at the end of last year, Mark took it on as a shorthold let with no tenancy agreement. Shortly after he moved in he found that his landlady was embroiled in a long-running battle with Brent Council dating back to 1994 and was angry that he was never told that the future of the property was uncertain.

Sue Rowe, of Brent Council, says that an enforcement notice had been issued because the landlady had converted the property Mark is living in into separate flats without permission. The council wants to see it restored to one family unit for up to six people.

To date, the enforcement notice has not been complied with by the landlady and if this does not happen by March 30 a court summons will be issued to her. She could be fined up to 20,000. "It is up to the landlady to inform her tenants about the enforcement action. We did copy the notice to tenants who were in the property at the time, but we don't know when the tenants change," says Ms Rowe.

She added that the saga had become so protracted because the landlady had appealed against the notice and had spent two years in jail since the original enforcement notice was issued.

Mark knows that he has the option of leaving quietly and trying to find himself another place to live in the private rented sector, but he is determined to expose the powerlessness of tenants at the mercy of landladies like his. "I have lived in private rented accommodation since I was 18 and over the years things have just got worse and worse. I'm disillusioned with the whole system," he says. "I'm aware that I have got a platform in the media because of who I am and that others in my situation might not have the same voice - so I have decided to see this through. If I leave now then my landlady and the council will get away with everything."

He is also angry about the media portrayal of homeless people. "Anyone can become homeless at any time for all sorts of reasons. I am facing the possibility myself now. But the media looks at homeless people and says it's all their fault."

"Homelessness is something I have been aware of all my adult life," he says. "Councils need to start building basic, affordable housing again. I was brought up on a council estate in south Kilburn and we need more of that sort of accommodation. My mum instilled a great sense of justice in me and taught me to stand up and fight. I can't just walk away from this and let everyone get away with it."

Article by: Diane Taylor

The Big Issue No.277
March 30 - April 5 1998

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