Celebrity florist offers ex-cons a rosy future

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The Independent Online

Six former criminals have turned their backs on drug trafficking and violence under the unlikely tutelage of a celebrity florist.

Six former criminals have turned their backs on drug trafficking and violence under the unlikely tutelage of a celebrity florist.

Paula Pryke, whose clients include politicians, TV stars and actors, has trained the ex-cons to open their own shop in north London.

The shop, coincidentally in the shadow of Pentonville prison, has been filmed for a documentary series called One Last Job. Handing over bouquets, one florist has "hate" tattooed across his knuckles.

The project has not all been plain sailing. Two of the six have left since the shop opened three months ago and two more were bought out by the remaining pair, Cliff Stevenson and Judith Thomas, both aged 40.

Mr Stevenson joined the project just two days after serving four years for assault. "Doing this has changed my life, the whole thing has just been amazing. We have learnt so much and I love creating the displays," he said.

The ex-prisoners were recruited for the Jamie's Kitchen-style series through adverts in cafés, launderettes and snooker halls. Producers also took to the streets to find the right characters, although none of those who agreed to take part were initially told they would be working with flowers.

Mr Stevenson and Ms Thomas, who served two years for drug trafficking, work from a glass-fronted shop in Caledonian Road called, appropriately, A New Leaf. With a nod to their backgrounds, their business logo features a manacled flower.

Ms Pryke, who gave the group eight days of training as well as work experience, said: "I think everyone who comes in contact with flowers gets a certain buzz and a certain passion, and I suppose if I could convey a little a bit of that for them and that changes their lives, then I'd be happy."

Hilary Rosen, executive producer of the three-part Channel 4 series, said: "We had a couple who said 'oh no' when they found out it would be floristry, but no one backed out at that stage. They were amused and amazed by the idea and they went for it."

They are not the first ex-prisoners to find a new life in the floristry trade. The Great Train robber Buster Edwards famously ran a flower stall outside Waterloo station.

Last year prisoners at Leyhill prison, Gloucestershire, won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, after two silvers in previous years.

For the first six months the staff of A New Leaf are working under the Government's New Deal scheme, which allows the unemployed to work while drawing benefits, although this ends in August.

Channel 4 provided start-up funds and loans but the business is owned and run by its staff. If they fail to turn a profit, they will lose their livelihood.

The series, which is to be screened later this year, aims to show the difficulties faced by ex-offenders who try to overhaul their lives.