■ The actor, 50, talks playing Grange Hill’s Zammo, meeting Nancy Reagan and joining the cast of EastEnders
You’re in EastEnders for one day — what are you up to?
It’s two episodes but they’re putting them on the same day, today, because of the football. I’m playing a character called Terry. He has a bit of argy-bargy with Danny Dyer’s Mick Carter over a radio phone-in competition. Doing a scene with Danny was the pinnacle of doing EastEnders for me. It was perfect.
So have you ever won anything of note in a competition yourself?
No, I’m unlucky at that sort of thing. I’ve done Pointless a few times. I did it with Erkan Mustafa, who played Roland on Grange Hill, and Paula Ann Bland, who played Claire. I did get a Pointless answer, though. I can’t remember the question but I said Eritrea and it was pointless.
What would be your vision for Terry if you were asked back to EastEnders?
When I was doing it, I imagined he was Zammo at 50. I’d imagine he’d be an older version of Zammo, a wheeler-dealer type character.
Is this a full return to acting?
I gave it up because I used to take my kids to school and pick them up so it limited what I could do. They’re both going to senior school now so it gives me more time. I did a film last year and being in front of the camera felt natural. I really wanted to give it another go.
Are you surprised by the amount of nostalgic affection there is for Grange Hill?
Zammo and Grange Hill still have a big following on social media but I didn’t realise how big it was until the last couple of years. There’s been quite a bit of publicity for this since it’s only two episodes but I’m really excited about it. You worry with social media but the response has been really lovely.
What do people tell you they like about Grange Hill?
Most people mention the Chessington Zoo episode from series five. It was the first episode I ever filmed and it’s my favourite. We got chased around the zoo by the keeper, got into a fight with another school, and Jonah fell in the water with the sea lions, trying to get his bag back. The filming was mayhem and, at 12, I thought it was brilliant. I have watched that episode again and again. I love it. And they talk about the drugs storyline. If I go out someone will mention Just Say No and Grange Hill.
It seems strange now that a kids’ show had a main character becoming a heroin addict…
A couple of years ago I was showing my kids, who were around nine, the Grange Hill DVDs but I wouldn’t let them watch the series with the drugs storyline. I didn’t feel they were ready for it. But back in the 1980s the audience for the show was five upwards.
Are people too sensitive now?
Even today, if my 15-year-old kid was asked to take part in a storyline like that I’m not sure I’d let him, despite the fact it was written by Anthony Minghella and done brilliantly. Some of it was really strong, especially the scene where the camera pans to me in the toilet on drugs. That’s still vivid in my memory.
Do people mistakenly remember he died?
A lot of people think Zammo died. The initial idea was that he was going to die but because the audience was so young he was sent to rehabilitation and got better. Loads of people still have that vision of me in the toilet — but it had a happy ending.
You met Nancy Reagan at the White House in 1996. Did she know who you were?
She didn’t have a clue. She was told but they didn’t know about Grange Hill and that we’d jumped on the back of their Just Say No campaign. I watched the Escobar series on Netflix and there’s a clip on that of her doing her Just Say No campaign and I was like: ‘We were part of that!’ I was chuffed. But she didn’t know who we were. We told her what we were doing and then we went around to rehab centres singing Just Say No. Then we sung it at Yankee Stadium. Doing that at 16 was amazing.
You have your own locksmith business. What are the most common mistakes people make with their locks?
Don’t leave your keys visible through your back door. Loads of people do that. A burglar will just smash the window, grab the keys and in they go. And if you keep your calendar in the kitchen, make sure people can’t see it through a window because it’s got all the dates on it when you’re away. We do a lot of lockouts when people come back from the pub late at night when they’ve lost their keys. Grange Hill helped when I first took the shop over — all the local estate agents said, ‘Zammo! We’ll use you!’ so that was a foot in the door.
What do you hope your Albert Square appearance leads to?
Just regular TV and film work. I’m so excited to be back in it. I’ve got a new lease of life. You don’t need to retire from acting — I can play characters in their forties and fifties.
■ Lee can be seen in EastEnders tonight at 7.30pm and 8.30pm