Down but not out for young lords of the ring

Art meets life in a new film showing how unemployed youngsters find self-belief in a local boxing club. Jonathan Kent reports
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THE theme is similar, the choice of route different. The up-beat message of The Full Monty, the tale of unemployed steel workers escaping a bleak existence through enterprise, is echoed in the release of Twentyfourseven.

This time it is not striptease which provides the escape from deprivation, but boxing. In the film, directed by Shane Meadows and shot in black and white, a group of out-of-work youngsters who live aimless lives on a Midlands council estate finds inspiration from social misfit Darcy - played by Bob Hoskins - who sets up a boxing club and appoints himself coach.

Cinematic art meets reality at the Bingham Amateur Boxing Club, the gym used to shoot the film. Here Ron Bissell, a 74-year-old ex-professional bantamweight with a ruddy complexion, looks impressively lean and fit as he coaches his young charges with infectious enthusiasm.

Mr Bissell laughs off suggestions of a similarity between him and the film's Darcy, but the parallels are plain to see. As he dances around the ring, holding up his padded hands as moving targets for each would- be Naseen Hamed, they hang on his every word and watch wide-eyed as he demonstrates the old one-two. In the film, Darcy philosophises: "It doesn't matter how much you've got, if you've got nothing to believe in, you'll always be poor." Like the Hoskins character, Ron gives his boxers self- belief.

It is a point endorsed by the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Roy Greensmith, who lives on the city's Clifton council estate, and was moved by the film. "There are young people without hope, who feel they've got nowhere to go. They need leadership like Darcy provided. I believe there are a lot of Darcys around, in Nottingham and other towns."

The club gives much appreciated purpose to many young lives, says Mr Bissell, who has been making the 30-mile round trip here from his home in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, twice a week for 32 years. "It's very rare you'll hear of any lads who come boxing getting into trouble. They've got nothing to prove. They prove themselves in here."

The walls of the club in the village of Bingham, 10 miles from Nottingham, are festooned with photographs of former club members who have achieved greatness. Battered punch bags, repaired two or three times over, lie in the corner of the gym under a rack of gloves and head guards.

A large signed picture of the club's most famous visitor, Henry Cooper, is prominent. The place begins to fill up with men and boys, aged nine and upwards. One switches on the ghettoblaster, making the whitewashed walls and low roof of the converted barn reverberate to the heavy rock of the Rocky movies.

Club secretary Ray Parton says most club members are from "lower paid backgrounds". The 52-year-old Nottinghamshire police sergeant is adamant the club plays an important role in the community. "Some have been bullied at school and want to toughen up. Some come for the fitness rather than the fighting. It gives them pride in themselves. These lads don't need to put pills in their mouths because they're high on fitness" he says.

As training progressed, Bob Hoskins and Mr Meadows attended the regional premier of Twentyfourseven in Nottingham. Meadows, 25, started out shooting a series of short films on a Nottingham council estate, some on video tape bought with dole money. He sent the script of his first feature film to Mr Hoskins. The film was shot mostly on Nottingham's Bestwood Park Estate - in black and white, says Mr Meadows, to give dignity to the bleak surroundings.

"The film has got nothing to do with boxing. It's about people getting themselves out of the shit," he adds. "In a town where there's no hope and people have been told at school they're useless, well, in the boxing club, everybody's welcome."