Television: Trail-blazers

An unusual new C4 drama, made on a deprived Coventry estate with non-professional young actors, means to challenge our cliched perceptions of inner-city life. James Rampton goes behind the scenes
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The Independent Culture
On the very first day of filming, the crew of Blazed, a new C4 drama, were shooting in a school gym on the notorious Hillfields estate in Coventry. "We took our television and video in to occupy the extras, who were all schoolchildren," recalls Nicolette Howard, the production coordinator, "and before we knew it, the TV and video had been passed out of the window and over the fence. We never saw them again. I kept thinking, 'Was I like that at their age?'. We had a security man there, but he provided more entertainment than security."

Such are the problems you encounter when you film on one of the country's toughest estates. We've all seen these sort of places in fly-on-the-wall C4 documentaries. What is unusual about Blazed is that it is a drama, performed and conceived by 12 local black youngsters with no previous acting experience. (Although pretty soon they began to behave like seasoned professionals. "It was very hard not to upset people," Howard remembers. "Because they'd helped with the writing, every night a different one would have a tantrum - 'You've cut my line out here'.")

The film crew didn't just breeze in and out in a day, leaving with trite footage about inner-city deprivation. They prepared the project for three months with residents before the shoot even began. They chose Coventry, according to Howard, because "it is one of those nondescript Midlands towns. No one knows what goes on there, it's not represented anywhere." Not since the demise of The Specials, anyway.

"Hillfields has a very bad reputation in Coventry - it's mythological," says Andy Porter, the producer of Blazed, who was warned off filming when there were people around on Victoria Street, known as the Frontline. "The landlady where I was staying said, 'Oh, I'd never go there, day or night'. The town needs Hillfields as a bad place to blame for all its problems. Hillfields resents its reputation - all drugs and prostitutes. Part of the interest in making this film was to show that there are people there with talent. We're not looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles, but we want to show that life goes on."

The principal merit of Blazed is to put before the cameras the sort of rough-and-ready characters barely seen in mainstream British television. The lads wear hooded tracksuit tops, baggy trousers and unlaced trainers, while the girls hang in elaborately plaited hair, back-to-front caps, and baseball shirts. The script - written by Michael Buffong and Sylvester Williams from ideas by the cast - bristles with slang. The title is local patois for beaten or put down, and at one point the lead actor (the impressive Michael Opoku) tells his would-be girlfriend (Kelly Haywood): "You and me, we make a dread team. Check it, Michelle." (Read: "Let's stay together.")

Bubbling with equal amounts of attitude and hormones, the teenage characters have the smack of authenticity. "They were playing parts not that far removed from themselves," Porter avers. "That's where you get that sense of reality from. The performances work because they had their own life- experiences to pull on."

Hillfields is riven with social problems, so did the film offer its young residents the opportunity to escape them? "I'm very reluctant to promote it as something worthy," says Porter, "because it has got to exist as a television drama - we stand or fall on whether the drama tells a good story or not." Nevertheless, Opuko's father is reported to have said that before the film his son was going to the bad: he'd been expelled from school. Now, Howard says, he has been asking her for information about drama schools and agents. "In Hillfields," Porter continues, "you can make a career in illegal activities or you can find a way out. I don't know whether the film will make any long-term difference, but it did awaken other possibilities within the actors."

The producers - APT/Maverick Film and Television - have just landed a jackpot from the National Lottery in the form of a grant for pounds 98,000 to buy Hi-8 film-making equipment. With this, they aim to follow up on the success of last year's Belfast-set drama, Wingnut and the Sprog, and this year's Blazed, with a further four films set in different cities. "We want to tell stories from the other side of the tracks," Porter enthuses, "about people you don't normally see on television - certainly not in drama. We hope suburban types, people behind their net curtains, will get more of an insight into areas they never go into. There's this hackneyed imagery about there being two societies - one in work, the other out of work. I don't want to sound too worthy, but there is a dangerous divide growing up. I hope the films will help people look across that divide."

'Blazed' is showing in C4's 'Battered Britain' season, Wed 11.10pm