The Daily Telegraph
Former trainee teacher who played headmistress Bridget ‘the midget’ Mcclusky in Grange Hill
GWYNETH POWELL, the actress, who has died aged 76, played the firm but fair headteacher Mrs Mcclusky for much of the first half of Grange Hill’s 30-year run.
She was the longest-serving of the comprehensive school’s heads, appearing from 1980 to 1991 in the children’s drama that broke television taboos with its stories of drugs, racism, teenage pregnancy and homosexuality.
Mrs Mcclusky – Bridget “the midget” to pupils – was originally written as a “twin set and pearls” role, but Gwyneth Powell objected to the characterisation. “I was quite young at the time and didn’t want to play her like that, “she told the BBC website in 2008 when the serial finally ended. “We started with the clothes and she was quite fashionconscious and chic.”
Her portrayal was credited with encouraging women teachers to apply for headships. “The show had repercussions in all kinds of ways and the character did, too,” she reflected. “My period did coincide with the Thatcher years. I think Mrs Mcclusky became memorable because we had a prime minister [strong] like that.”
Among her “pupils” who went on to further acting success were Todd Carty, Susan Tully and Michelle Gayle – all appearing in Eastenders – and John Alford, later to star in London’s Burning.
The actress felt that the ground-breaking serial was successful in dealing with difficult issues “without being patronising” and “maybe helped a lot of young people”.
A particularly dramatic storyline during her time in Grange Hill was the heroin addiction of Zammo Mcguire (played by Lee Macdonald), depicting over two seasons his descent into drugs and the consequences for his relationships with his girlfriend and others.
It led to the cast’s Top 10 single Just Say No in 1986, named after the drug-awareness campaign launched by Nancy Reagan and performed by some of them at the White House.
A measure of the immortality enjoyed by Gwyneth Powell’s Grange Hill role came in 2009 when the time-travelling drama Ashes to Ashes included a flashback to 1982 with a clip of Mrs Mcclusky.
Gwyneth Powell was born in Manchester on July 5 1946 to Sidney, a factory worker, and Mary (née Bustard). Her father played in a Salvation Army band in which her mother sang.
She acted in productions at Cheadle County Grammar School for Girls, first as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, instilling in her a love of not just the stage, but also Shakespeare.
From the age of 16, she spent five years performing with the National Youth Theatre, during which time she trained as a teacher at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.
Her teaching skills were never put to use in real life because an agent signed her up after seeing her playing Ursula in Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy Bartholomew Fair, performed by the NYT at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966.
Taking to the professional stage in rep at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, she joined as an assistant stage manager in 1967 and, within a year, she was playing Victoria there in the William Francis play Portrait of a Queen. She then had a spell with the Bristol Old Vic company (1968-70).
The first TV role to show off her talents was a leading part in The Guardians (1971), playing Clare Weston, wife of a sinister paramilitary force’s captain. She followed it by starring as a bank clerk – the bored wife of a probation officer – helping thieves with a robbery in the series Villains (1972).
Among many character roles on television, Gwyneth Powell popped in and out of soap operas. In Coronation Street, she played Diana Kenton, disapproving when her married friend Wendy Nightingale had an affair with Ken Barlow (1972). She had two brief roles in Emmerdale, as Julie Croft, wife of the unpopular village bobby Will (1976), and Mrs Kidderminster, who sold land to Sadie King (2005).
There were also fleeting appearances in the marriage-guidance counselling serial Couples (in 1976) and Family Affairs, as a judge (in 2003), as well as four roles in
In other programmes, Gwyneth Powell was notable as Agnes Sutton in A Raging Calm (1974), Stan Barstow’s adaptation of his own novel, and as a former sex worker who becomes David Jason’s lover in the 1997 series of A Touch of Frost.
In another lengthy run she was Polly, mother of Greg Davies’s drama teacher, in the sitcom Man Down (2014-17).
On stage, she was impressive in a 1992 tour of her one-woman show, Diary of a Provincial Lady, after buying the rights to EM Delafield’s humorous 1930 novel and adapting it herself.
The Provincial Lady Goes to Town (1993), the first of two sequels, demonstrated her “ability to sustain a long and demanding solo performance with the minimum of props” according to The Stage critic, as she brought to life the emancipated woman and a host of other characters.
She was also a Trinity College London drama and speech examiner.
In 1971, Gwyneth Powell married the actor Alan Leith, who survives her. She died of complications following surgery for a perforated colon.
Gwyneth Powell, born July 5 1946, died September 8 2022