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
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
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
"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
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
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."
by: Diane Taylor
The Big Issue No.277
March 30 - April 5 1998