November 8th 1989 - December 10th 2006
Donna starred in Byker Grove as Charlie Charlton from 1992-1995.
Byker Grove - The Early Days
Byker Grove, the seminal BBC children's drama about a Newcastle youth club, began in November 1989, although it would be series 4 before Donna made her debut as Charlie Charlton.
In the days before her arrival, the line-up read like a forecast of those who would go on to be famous (well, semi-famous) from Geordieland; Jill Halfpenny, Declan Donnelly (no Ant yet though) and Billy Fane as Geoff, the long-suffering manager of the Grove.
Geoff was finally killed off in a gas explosion in 1999, almost exactly a decade after the show first aired, while Fane went on to star in 2000's kitchen-sink hit Billy Elliot.
Donna Air in Byker Grove
By the time of Donna's arrival in 1992, Ant McPartlin had joined the cast as PJ and the TV gold-dust that is Ant & Dec was formed. He also got perhaps the greatest storyline of the entire series, being accidentally hit in the face while paintballing ("Geoff man, I cannae see!").
Donna's main storyline as Charlie, on the other hand, was her rivalry with fellow Grovers Leah and Patsy. Stemming from their attempts to outdo each other's filmmaking, the story culminated in Patsy throwing paint over Charlie at a fashion shoot, not realising the fur Charlie was modelling was fake.
'Charlie' and 'Leah' overcame their rivalries when Donna and Jayni Hoy formed real-world pop duo Crush. Look out for their albums Crush and Teenage Kicks on import from Japan or Korea - you might have to turn to eBay to find a copy on sale, though.
The series went into a steady decline after Donna left; it would be harsh to say it had hit a rut, more that it found its stride and kept to it.
Still more B-list celebrities found early fame on the show, including a guest appearance by Chloe Annett late into Donna's stint, and subsequently Andrew Hayden-Smith who went on to become a children's TV presenter for the BBC.
The End of Byker Grove
The death knoll sounded for Byker Grove as BBC sources confirmed that the 2006 series would be the last.
The final series represented a significant departure from the previous style of the show, with a new producer, Tim Holloway, who produced Casualty from 2000 to 2002.
We all know and love Donna. But what of the other stars of the Grove? Here are a few already mentioned, and a few more not yet mentioned:
- Jayni Hoy played Leah Carmichael in series 4-8. She and Donna formed Crush and had moderate success with singles like Jellyhead and Luv'd Up. Jayni now lives in Australia, where she has worked as production crew on TV show Blue Heelers.
- Justine McKenzie played Patsy, Charlie's main rival on the show, in series 4-7.
- Andrew Hayden Smith joined the show in series 8, playing Ben Carter. He left in series 15 to make the transition from Byker actor to CBBC presenter.
- Both Jill Halfpenny and Declan Donnelly were Grovers from the start. Jill went on to star in Eastenders and continues to hold celebrity status in the UK. She played Nicola Dobson until 1992, leaving around the time Donna joined. Jill's niece, Chelsea Halfpenny, joined the show in series 14 as Lucy Summerbee.
- Dec was joined in 1990 by Ant McPartlin. Their characters were, of course, Duncan and PJ (short for Peter Jenkins) respectively - or, to those who knew their music, PJ and Duncan. The pair's spin-off music career was somewhat more successful than Donna and Jayni's, paving the way for their takeover of prime-time TV as the most popular TV double act since Morecambe and Wise. While they both left the show in 1993, they continue to be associated with their Byker Grove characters, returning in 1999 for a guest appearance at Geoff's funeral.
Byker Grove Music Spin-offs
Speaking of PJ and Duncan - Ant and Dec had massive success in the pop world using their Byker Grove identities as stage names. aka PJ and Duncan had two well-received albums, Psyche and Top Kats, as well as the mighty single, Let's Get Ready To Rhumble.
Crush, consisting of Donna Air and Jayni Hoy, released their self-titled album Crush which, while not a UK chart-topper, found them considerable fame on the US and Japanese tour circuit for a few years in the mid-90s. Their single Jellyhead reached 50 in the UK singles chart on February 24th, 1996 and was followed by Luv'd Up, which reached 45 on August 3rd, 1996, the day after Donna's 17th birthday.
Other mini-successes include Byker Groove, the band which spawned Crush. Summer Matthews, who played Emma Miller on the show, released a single entitled Little Miss Perfect on December 1st 2003. Point Break fared marginally better with their single Freakytime, and went on to form Freefaller.
Finally, of course, we must mention The Kane Gang, creators of the original (Ooh! Byker... Byker Grove!) theme tune. God bless them, and may they all receive knighthoods for services to television AND music.