Terry Sue-Patt obituary

Actor who made his name in the BBC school drama Grange Hill

As a child actor, Terry Sue-Patt, who has died aged 50, secured a place in television history playing Benny Green, the first pupil seen walking through the gates in the long-running children’s school drama Grange Hill. The serial, created by Phil Redmond and set in a London comprehensive, was groundbreaking in presenting to a young audience stories of teenage pregnancy, drug-taking, Aids and bullying. It courted controversy with such social realism and was one of the most significant children’s programmes to be screened in Britain.

Benny was one of the pupils from a variety of backgrounds whose lives were sensitively introduced to viewers in the early episodes. The shy, football-mad West Indian boy was immediately in trouble on the first day for kicking his ball against a wall, and enjoyed getting into mischief with his best friend, Tucker (Todd Carty). “Flippin’ ’eck, Tucker” almost became a catchphrase.

Benny’s parents could not afford to buy him a school uniform or football boots, and, on his arrival in form 1A, other children referred to him as a “golly” and a “nig-nog”. Some viewers – and the Clean Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse – complained, but Grange Hill brought a slice of multicultural real life into the nation’s homes and engaged its young audience in an unpatronising way.

Although the BBC insisted that Redmond – later the creator of Brookside and Hollyoaks – tone down the drama, Grange Hill’s stories continued to reflect what was happening in schools across Britain and proved that television had the power to bring social issues to public attention without glamorising them. Following Sue-Patt’s run (1978-82), the cast had a top 10 hit with the anti-drugs single Just Say No. Thirty years after it had begun, the programme came to an end in 2008.

Sue-Patt was born in London, one of six children of May (nee Stewart) and Alston. He attended drama classes run at his Islington block of flats by Anna Scher, his English teacher at Ecclesbourne junior school. Later, while he was studying at Sir William Collins comprehensive, she opened her own theatre school and he continued his drama training.

His screen career began when he appeared, aged eight, in The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973), a public information film warning of the dangers of rivers. Presented in horror style, with Donald Pleasence narrating gloomily, it featured Sue-Patt helplessly watching a friend drown. Four years later, he was one of the youngsters tracking down their friend’s kidnapper in the Children’s Film Foundation production Blind Man’s Bluff (1977). He also appeared in promotional videos for Bob Marley’s Punky Reggae Party (1977) and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (1979).

A talented footballer who had trials with Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea, Sue-Patt was 13 when he was spotted playing in a park by Colin Cant, Grange Hill’s first producer. “I basically played myself in Grange Hill,” said Sue-Patt. “There weren’t many black actors about on TV at that time. I had a great time, getting time off school to play football. It was a bit of a dream come true, really.”

He later successfully made the transition to adult actor, most memorably as Yusef, one of the football hooligans in the award-winning television film The Firm (1989). There were also roles as Aaron in the comedy-drama Big Deal (1984-86), as a gun-toting hostage taker in the sitcom Desmond’s (1990) and as Luke Harris, a gay student nurse, in several episodes of the hospital drama Cardiac Arrest (1994-96).

When acting work became scarce, Sue-Patt forged a second career as a stencil artist. His work was exhibited at the E17 Art House in Walthamstow, north-east London. His last screen acting appearance was as a priest in Amar Akbar & Tony (2015), a film comedy released in April.

Following the death of his brother Michael in 1989, in a car crash in which he was a passenger, Sue-Patt became increasingly dependent on alcohol. In recent times, he also struggled financially. The police believe he may have died up to a month before his body was found at his home in Walthamstow.

• Terence Sue-Patt, actor and artist, born 29 September 1964; found dead 22 May 2015


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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