The Fresh Prince of Hertfordshire

What happens when a 'difficult' boy from the inner city goes to live with a family in the stockbroker belt?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Pierre Pitt is a black kid from north-west London, full of attitude and street talk who hangs out with his mates, dreams of being a DJ and bunks off school. Aged 13, he lives with his single parent mother and two brothers on a Willesden estate.

Twenty miles away Jamie Newman, 15, has different ambitions. He wants to be a millionaire by 35 and the most important thing in his life is school. He knows that getting the most out of his £2,600-a-term private education is the best way to succeed. Jamie lives with his banker father, his university lecturer mother, and older brother, in Tring, a village in Hertfordshire's stockbroker belt.

The two boys may be very different but they have one thing in common – they are black teenage boys, a group commonly associated with underachievement, expulsion and crime.

Their paths would probably have never crossed but for a BBC documentary that goes out on Sunday night and aims to see if taking the black boy out of the city takes the city, and all its accompanying bad influences, out of the boy. Will a month's exposure to a completely new lifestyle, tough discipline and a father figure change Pierre's attitude to school?

Entitled The Real Fresh Prince, the programme recreates the American comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – this time for real. In the comedy Will Smith plays a black rapper from a tough Philadelphia neighbourhood who is sent to live with wealthy relatives in prestigious Bel Air.

Before the trip, Pierre is failing academically. His attendance at Cardinal Hinsley School in north west London is poor – he missed nearly half of the previous school year. When he is at school, he does not join in lessons, preferring to play with his mobile phone and muck about. His teachers think he is academically able but peer pressure is making him an under-achiever. His main male role model, Alex, his older brother, left school at 15 with no qualifications.

Headteacher George Benham describes Pierre as "a difficult boy when rattled". Pierre's mum, Susan, is worried about his future, fearing that her son's lack of motivation and the absence of a male role model will lead him into crime. "As a young black boy, he is going to be another statistic... if he doesn't change he will suffer in life."

Things are very different at the Newman family. Their household is strict with rules, routines, close parental supervision and privilege. Their mother, Joyce, drives her sons to school, oversees their homework and checks and doublechecks that they have everything they need for school each day.

Pierre joins the Newman boys at Egerton Rothsay, a private school where the fees are £2,600 a term and more than 90 per cent of pupils get at least five good GCSEs. Pierre has no option but to participate in class. His grades improve dramatically and teachers predict he has the potential to become a B-grade student. He is even picked for the school football team, a monumental achievement for someone who has refused to do PE for two years. Slowly but surely, his academic performance improves. "Pierre is more than capable, he has a very very good brain," says Joyce. He is introduced to after-school activities – although he remains baffled by his hosts' enthusiasm for potholing and adventure weekends, horrified that he might get his designer clothes dirty. The Newmans take him to African art museums to show him that black culture is not only found on the streets.

After getting over the shock of his new life, Pierre tries to rebel but eventually decides that the Newmans are trying to help him and if they are prepared to put so much effort into his education then maybe he should reciprocate. His real chance of a new start comes when the private school – impressed at his progress – offers him a scholarship and the Newmans agree to let him live with them during term time.

"As time went on the progress he made was very heartening to see," says head teacher, Nicci Boddam-Whetham. "It wasn't without its problems: it took him a little while to learn you do not talk in lessons and you must do your homework."

But in the end it seems to have been a little late for Pierre. At half-term he goes back home and never returns, saying that he misses his family and friends.

Mrs Boddam-Whetham is sorry but says he learnt some permanent lessons. "I think he has learnt that there is a different way. But the pressures on him will be very different back where he is now and it will be harder for him away from the kind of support he received from the Newmans."

Today, Pierre is at home in Willesden after being suspended from school. Film-maker Fatima Salaria thinks she would have had more success had Pierre been two years younger. "I think in the end it was too much for Pierre to give up and he just could not cope with it. As a 13-year-old he felt he was missing out on all the good things in life by being away from London, his friends and his family.

"Young black boys do very well at primary school but between the ages of 11 and 18 something kicks in and all the work they have done gets lost and they are more worried about keeping up with their mates. "If Pierre had been 10 or 11 these choices would have been easier for him."

s.cassidy@independent.co.uk

'The Real Fresh Prince' will be broadcast on Sunday at 10pm on BBC2

Comments