Tough kids find it's cooler to be on TV than carry a knife

From the street where headmaster Lawrence died David Leitch reports on a channel run by children
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The Independent Online
Everyone at Youth Cable TV is aware that just across the road headmaster Philip Lawrence was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old boy.

Nothing could have so clearly highlighted the way in which young people can be lured by a culture of casual violence and the shoddy glamour of bandana-wearing gangs than the story that unfolded last week at the trial of Learco Chindamo, convicted of stabbing to death the head of St George's Roman Catholic school, Maida Vale, last December.

At Youth Cable TV, though, there is a cool alternative to street life. It is due to some astute fund-raising by its founder, Sabrina Guinness, who charmed, persuaded and bullied her friends, the Beautiful People of the media, to contribute something to help young people.

Youth Cable TV is a children's TV station based on the Harrow Road, north- west London, which has given more than 200 local children aged 11 to 16 a chance to get involved in television. But it is anything but a toy. In two years its backers have raised pounds 537,000, with another pounds 100,000 promised, which has paid for a 5,000 sq ft live studio, editing suites, make-up, dressing rooms, wardrobe and storage space. The sound system is louder than anything even on nearby Ladbroke Grove, the spotlights brighter than Notting Hill neon.

YCTV works because its organisers have understood something fundamental about young people. Nowadays, they dream TV. In a century in which poor boys have dreamt variously of being engine-drivers, test pilots, or boxing champs, they now aspire to being Chris Evans.

Last week Ms Guinness's chums joined her to celebrate the second birthday of the TV station. The list of guests and sponsors would have warmed any accountant's heart: Rothschilds, a Cavendish, Vivien Duffield and Anjelica Huston, Maria and Philip Niarchos, Robert Stigwood, Sir Mark Weinberg and the Woo Foundation. Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger were absent with other things on their mind, but Guinness's sister Miranda, who works with Jagger, pitched in for most of the day getting things just right. Guests were impressed with what they heard of the achievements of the past two years, but there were also reminders of just how tough an area the channel is based in.

Jessica Connell, 22, YCTV's production co-ordinator, recounts that she recently had three ribs fractured trying to ban a boy who had sexually assaulted a girl on the premises.

Luke Hyams, 16, is already presenting YCTV films on Videotron, the local cable network. He sits making a video for the Big Birthday Party, enthralled by the vision of himself, mike in hand, interviewing a racing driver with all the aplomb of Murray Walker button-holing Damon Hill. Luke is more natural, more himself, on screen than off. His school career was a history of truancy and suspensions. "No one ever asked me for my opinion on anything until I came here," he says.

Like many of the YCTV wannabees, Luke suffered from something approaching a school allergy. Of five friends who attended a local community school he is the only one to survive to 16 intact. One is in jail, another has an unwanted pregnancy, another a drug habit. His world is one where children wear bandanas and "tax" dinner money from others on the pretext of being members of Chinese mafia gangs.

Jessica Connell foresees a time "when we'll need proper security". A sign saying "If at any time you are asked to leave, please do. Arguing will not solve anything..." is no longer sufficient in an area where carrying a knife is commonplace.

Luke is one of 200-plus children whose experience at YCTV has taught self-esteem as well as skills. YCTV kids give the impression of having been born with the box switched on.

Sabrina Guinness, meanwhile, at her party, declines calls for a speech from Pearson TV chief Greg Dyke and Michael Figgis, who made Leaving Las Vegas. She prefers to circulate "one-to-one" among the glamorous guests doing what she is best at. There is a pounds 100,000 budget shortfall and she is looking for more industry support.

Among the work which the children have been involved in is making magazine programmes for Videotron which give vent to local issues. They have also made in-flight material for British Airways and broadcast to Bosnia through the War Child charity.

Those still at school might abhor homework. But they think it's great to turn up for two hours after school and provide feedback on street culture after watching future episodes of Grange Hill. The kids insist that the protrayal of police turning up after noise complaints at a party is tame compared to the real thing. The party has too many lights - "Black people never have strobes like that. All you see are dark figures moving very slowly in the shadows..." Some will get a chance to draft Grange Hill scripts, even act in episodes.Even the youngest, like Leyton, 11, and Ricky, 12, have acquired screen credits.

Meanwhile, Luke's mother, Missy Hyams, is concerned about his friends still "on the streets - or nowhere".

She says: "One boy with a great talent for drawing has let it all go already. He needs a YCTV for young artists."