"Knife mad Britain", says the Sunday Mirror. "Girl 13, knifed in playground", is a headline in London's Evening Standard. "Crime of our time", opines the Daily Mail. Read virtually any story on knife crime and you are left in no doubt that the press sees it as a growing problem, with the ages of those involved helping to drive the subject to the top of the media agenda. But for award-winning writer Roy Williams, who has been commissioned by Channel 4 to shed light on this wave of stabbings by making a 90-minute drama as a centrepiece for its Disarming Britain season, tabloid stories do little more than scratch the surface of the issue.
"What the public gets is tabloid headlines – 'Black youth kills another black youth' – and that's all they get fed," says Williams, who was given an OBE for his services to drama in this month's honours. "I hope this is an opportunity for them to get a little more understanding of who these kids are, without condoning what they do because nobody could possibly condone it. The audience might not get access to seeing a drama about these young black kids with this much depth and I hope it will lead to a bigger conversation."
Fallout was originally commissioned from Williams as a stage play for London's Royal Court Theatre in 2003, the ensuing production earning Williams the Evening Standard's "most promising playwright" award. Five years later, and following an unprecedented spate of teenage killings, he has been asked to adapt the play for television as part of a week-long C4 season examining knife and gun crime. Williams says that the aftermath of the Damilola Taylor case in 2000 moved him to articulate his emotions.
"I remember the feelings that I had. Anger with the killers, anger with whoever had let those kids down," he says, expressing sympathy for the aggressors as well as the victim. "I felt it was important as well as necessary to write a piece that allowed all my feelings, and the feelings of those kids and the police to be expressed." His only previous experience with television writing came with the well-received series Babyfather, a drama exploring the complicated personal lives of four black men in London. Williams was not convinced that Fallout would work as a film.
"I didn't feel confident," he concedes. "I was confident enough that I was doing what I was told and that I was doing a good job, but whether it was going to work, you never know. That's just the risk you have to take as a writer really. I was confident in the story, and I was confident that we had something to say."
Williams, 40, is known for drawing on personal experience to inform his work. As part of his research for Fallout, he spent time with the type of young men who perpetrate knife crime. "I went up to Manchester and met some gangs up there and I hung out with a few in London," he says. The gangs may have had criminal lifestyles but Williams says he was more intrigued by their emotions than the potentially graphic nature of their activities, as material for his drama.
"I think they were looking for something [from the gang] that they weren't getting at home. That came across very strongly with all the teenagers that I met. It was a feeling of how lost and desolate they were. They were looking for a form of family, a sense of belonging." Arguably no character expresses these feelings of hurt and despair more than Dwayne, the leader of the knife gang that commits the fatal assault that frames Williams's drama. Played by the promising Aml Ameen (of Kidulthood and The Bill) Dwayne spends his time trying to create a sense of self-esteem and security that are the recognised foundations of a family unit. Unfortunately his short-sighted and often aggressive means to achieving this ideal lead him and his group further and further astray.
Fallout tells the story of an academically bright teenager, Kwame, who falls out with Dwayne's gang, who are jealous of his ability to get on. He finds himself confronted, robbed of his trainers, and left for dead. "I've been to school with kids like Kwame and Dwayne. I grew up with a lot of people like that," says Williams, a Londoner.
Assigned to investigate the incident is Joe, a black detective who finds himself frustrated both by being drawn back to an estate that he thought he had escaped from, and from the violence he finds among a younger generation. Williams says that Joe's rage at what he sees reflects his own sentiments and that of his peers.
"I've seen that kind of anger in a lot of black fellas that I know. I see it in myself a lot as well. Pretty much all of the characters I thought, 'Yeah, they come from an aspect of my real life'."
'Fallout' is on Channel 4 at 10pm on 3 July, as part of the Disarming Britain season, which runs from 30 June to 6 July