Entertainments Editor ALISTAIR
IT was a family birthday bash with posh outfits and poached salmon, cakes and candles.It was a chance for the generations to mingle and for the long-lost to be found again.But this was no ordinary family. It is one that has gone from infancy to maturity in a decade, spawning several thousand siblings ranging from nine to 25. Since its inception in the late-80s Byker Grove has provided a taste of acting for 4,000 North East youngsters. It has established a drama industry in the region, giving every child in every school acting class and Saturday morning stage school the real possibility of a TV career.Byker Grove has converted the Geordie accent into an acceptable, almost obligatory, component of national youth broadcasting.Where Bob and Terry the Likely Lads had to adopt general northern vowel sounds, Ant and Dec can address the nation as if they were talking to their mates in the Bigg Market.Byker Grove has also lived up to its early promise in depicting a new North East, one that was not a parochial patch of cobbled streets and collieries, but a recognisable part of the global village of shopping malls and mobile phones.With its predecessor and inspiration Grange Hill, it has brought "real" issues of teenage life into the previously sanitized world of youth drama.For reasons such as these there was a genuine feeling of achievement among the guests as they sipped their wine and talked over old times this week.And it was a remarkably good-natured affair, considering that some of the Byker Grove alumni at the party were now working as shop assistants while others, their equals in the old days, were millionaires with their own TV series."Im surprised theyve turned up," said a former actress of her erstwhile co-stars Ant and Dec. There was not a trace of malice in her voice. "I thought they would be too big for this, " she added generously.For, whatever the discrepancies in their subsequent fortunes, the former cast of Byker Grove are still members of that family.Big star Dec chatted to Adele Taylor, a 15-year-old from Sunderlands Sandhill View School. She might have got his autograph, but they talked a common language about appearing in the BBC soap.Byker Grove is a Tyneside-based show about Tyneside kids, but for once we cant complain of a Tyne bias. Despite the fact that their accents havent been proper Geordie, Sunderland actors have played a big part in the success of the show.Theyve been there since day one. I was there at the launch of the show a decade ago and chatted to a little girl, with a halo of bright ginger hair, who was going to be called Spuggie. Lyndyann Barras, then 12, turned into one of the best-known characters of the shows first few series.At this weeks anniversary celebrations she was a teetering around on four-inch heels and slinky black dress. Now 22, she works in Fenwicks, Newcastle, to pay the mortgage on her house in High Barnes.Lyndyann hasnt given up all hope of a career in showbusiness, however. She appeared in a Sunderland Empire panto and, on TV, was in King Leek with Tim Healy.Lindsay Todd, from Grindon, who was Chrissie in Byker from 1991 to 94, also has a day job outside the industry - as a member of the business team with the Halifax in London.Now living in Wimbledon, she was in panto the last few Christmases and has continued to work with former childrens TV presenter Peter Simon in his Run The Risk theatre show.Nicola Bell, from Shiney Row, joined Byker at the age of 13 as Debbie, and is now a 22-year-old air hostess with Virgin Atlantic. Shes had small roles in Kavanagh QC and Crocodile Shoes.She says of Ant and Dec: "Im really really pleased for them. They are good at what they do."Michelle Charles, from Fulwell, who was Charley in Byker from 1990 to 93, is now 24. The soap led to a part in Cardiac Arrest and a leading role in Catherine Cooksons The Wingless Bird. She is now a sales executive with Express Dispatch in Durham.Gemma Graham, from Ford Estate, was Bykers Amanda from 1990 to 95. Now 20, she works at a call centre in Kent. She and another actress are having a play written for them. They hope to stage it in London next year.She admits that leaving Byker for the real world is a "culture shock" and that it is often difficult for former child actors to get adult work, but she hasnt given up hope.As for the Ant and Dec question, she says: "I am chuffed to bits for them", but is honest enough to add: "Of course Im envious, a little bit jealous, but you cant be bitchy. I wish them all the success in the world."Vicky Taylor, from Thorney Close, had six years as Angel in Byker Grove. She was in local pantos the last three years running, but wont be on stage this year. Although, at 20, she is now working in a clothes shop in The Bridges, she had a blast of success post-Byker with the band Crush.Formed with fellow Byker actresses Donna Air and Jayny Hoy, Crush had two singles in the charts, but the band split when Vicky left. Jayny went to live in Australia with her boyfriend, while Donna, as a presenter on MTV, has had the most success of any of the former Grove stars apart from Ant and Dec.Leaving Byker was hard, but she had the support of her family and friends before and after quitting. "They kept my feet on the ground. I was never allowed to be big-headed or anything like that," she said.Vicky vows to return to showbiz. She says:"Its always there. If you want to do something, you can do it. The acting will never go away."Her 15-year-old sister, Adele , a pupil at Sandhill View, is still in the show as Teraise OHagan. She is part of a continuing Wearside link, with Andrew Smith, 14, from Chester-le-Street, and new girls Siobhan Hanratty, 14, from Southmoor School, and nine-year-old Jade Turnbull, from Houghton.And it should stay that way. Sunderland has a voice at the very top of the Byker hierarchy. The head of commissioning for childrens TV at the BBC is Roy Thompson, a former head of maths at Thornhill School.