“That’s Priscilla’s hatch!” Martin Delaney says, pointing excitedly to the square hole in the wall. We’re at Morty & Bob’s, a diner-come-bar in north London that is proving to be the perfect setting for this interview given it used to be Graceland, the cafe that appeared prominently in Renford Rejects, the cult children’s TV show from the late 1990s. The venue has changed a lot since then but one feature remains and Delaney is understandably delighted about that.
For he played Jason Summerbee, captain of the Rejects, a fictitious five-a-side team, from a fictitious area, made up of outcasts and oddballs. Alongside Jason there was Ben Philips, Bruno Di Gradi, Ronnie Supra and Robin Walker, and their every kick was documented by wannabe sports presenter Vinnie Rodrigues and coached by Stewart Jackson, who was the best player of the lot but couldn’t play having been put in crutches by the show’s arch-villain, Terry ‘The Terminator’ Stoker. And the Rejects - they were called Renford Rovers only for Stoker to change their name on their registration form for the Renford Youth League - hung out at Graceland, which was owned by Elvis fanatic Eddie McAvoy and his suitably-named, long-suffering wife Priscilla, who viewers never saw and only heard. Through her hatch.
First aired on Nickelodeon in February 1998 and lasting for 52 episodes across three years, Renford Rejects was as silly as it was surreal and during the school summer holidays especially, when it was also shown on Channel Four as part of The Bigger Breakfast, captivated a generation of kids who loved football, underdogs and soundtracks stacked with Britpop bangers.
“I still get people coming up to me and saying Rejects was a massive part of their childhood,” says Delaney as he basks in being back on familiar ground. “They’re clearly still attached to their memories of it.
“One of the things I know was a conscious focus of Steven Bawol, who made the show, was that he wanted something that felt like a cartoon with actors, and Rejects definitely had that about it. You could watch an episode and there was always loads of mad things going on.”
Delaney and I are not far from Willesden Leisure Centre, where most of Renford Rejects was filmed, somewhat aptly during the summer holidays in order to fit in with the schooling requirements of what was a largely young cast. Delaney was 16 when he did the pilot and Jason was his first major role. It also saw him connect with a sport he had little aptitude for. “I was the rubbish footballer in my family,” he says with a laugh. “I had no skill whatsoever, but that made me ideal for Rejects because I could identify with the characters. They had the potential to be alright but were generally terrible.”
The footballers in Renford Rejects may not have been great but the football was. Watching back now it’s remarkable how well the games - most of which involved the Rejects taking on the Razors; Stoker’s team - were filmed. As Delaney explains, that derived from the use of crane-operated cameras alongside handheld digital ones, allowing for not only varied and interesting shots but also high-quality ones.
“The actual football was essentially free-styled but then the director would call out something like ‘Get the ball to Jason’ – or more likely given the nature of the show, ‘Do something crap’ - because that was the narrative of that particular scene,” Delaney adds. “All in all it worked well and for us it was great to be on Willesden Rec two days a week playing football together. I loved it.”
Aged 41, Delaney retains the boyish charm that made Jason appealing despite being a loudmouth convinced he was destined for footballing stardom when, quite clearly, he was not. “That’s what made the writing clever,” Delaney says. “There were moments when Jason was really skilful and you could see why he thought he was going to make it. But yes, overall, his impression of himself was way over the top.
“Speaking of the writing, when we started we were given these script bibles that contained each character’s back story. Jason’s was that he came from a broken home and football was his escape from that, hence him being a bit of a dreamer. And he didn’t know his dad and there’s a bit in the back story that says he was a footballer who played for Hull City, hence Jason wearing a Hull City shirt whenever he wasn’t in the Rejects kit; it was his way of connecting with him. That’s quite deep and if Rejects was made today there probably would be some exploration into that, but back then viewers were simply presented with these misfits and left to think about what was going on with them.”
There was probably no greater misfit than the show’s most memorable character - Bruno. Played by former Grange Hill actor Paul Parris, he was actually a Brummie called Barry Grade who pretended to be from Italy in a wildly absurd nod to the fascination with Italian football that gripped England in the ‘90s. Bruno had the accent, Bruno had the hand gestures and Bruno liked to fall over for no apparent reason. “He was lovely, so eccentric,” says Delaney. “Paul threw himself at it and had that extra bit of acting experience from being in Grange Hill, and that’s really what made Bruno work because on paper he was such an odd concept.”
The show’s most notable character, meanwhile, was Robin. Played by Holly Davidson, she was the team’s only female player, which was something of a token gesture but, equally, progressive for the time, especially given Robin was also more talented and tactically astute than the other Rejects, and it is credit to the show’s producers that after Davidson left at the start of series two they maintained a female presence in the team, first via Lucy Punch, who played Sue White, and then via Megan Bertie, who played Mia Smith.
And mixed in with everyone was a roll call of cracking cameos. Ian Rush, Gianfranco Zola, Martin Keown, Shaka Hislop and Harry Redknapp all appeared on the show as did, on two separate occasions, members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team. Delaney was in awe of them all - “I couldn’t take my eyes of Martin Peters, even then he still had it” - but there’s no doubt who his favourite was; Queens Park Rangers legend Stan Bowles, who appeared in an episode that saw Jason blag his way onto the pitch during half-time of a game at Loftus Road.
“During the filming of the episode we had a party for cast and crew and Stan came along - I didn’t drink in those days and he got me pissed,” Delaney remembers. “We stayed close after that and he was always lovely. I’ve not seen Stan in years but he remains in my thoughts, especially given he’s not been well for some time.”
The final episode of Renford Rejects was broadcast in March 2001. There were discussions about doing more but for Delaney it had “come to a natural end” and he was ready to further his acting career elsewhere, a pursuit that has seen the boy from Kent appear in numerous well-regarded shows and films, including Catch-22 and Zero Dark Thirty.
He remains hugely fond of his time on Renford Rejects, however, seen in how he has stayed in touch with many of the cast – including Alex Norton and Sally Kinghorn, the Scottish actors who played Eddie and Priscilla and are married in real life – and how he describes his time on the show as a “privilege” and “joy”. His memories of that time are also tinged with poignancy. “My dad, Jimmy, passed away in 2016 and had lots of problems in his life; he was an alcoholic and became homeless at one point,” Delaney says, pausing to hold back tears. “When he was his best self it was during a period when he would often come to the Rejects’ set and clearly loved everything about the show. That meant a lot to me.”
I end my chat with Delaney by pointing out that my own fondness for Renford Rejects is somewhat ridiculous given I was 17 when it first aired and therefore older than its intended audience. “Mate, not at all,” he replies. “I remember walking into a pub with Matthew [Leitch, who played Stewart] once and the barman just staring at us. Eventually he said: ‘I know you guys … I used to watch your show while skinning up in the morning’.
“Loads of people loved Rejects and I think the thing it did so well was tap into that idea that everyone feels like an outsider at some point in their lives. This bunch embraced that, which gave people hope. Either that or they just enjoyed laughing at them.”