'FOR MANY people Peckham could be a distant foreign country,' caution the production notes for We the Ragamuffin. 'The area has the reputation for the highest crime rates, the most dilapidated housing and the worst education in the country. According to the media, the milkmen and the postmen refuse to deliver on 'no go estates' like the Gloucester and North Peckham . . . In some ways Peckham is more like the Wild West than a 20th-century city.' A nightclub in this neighbourhood has been selected for the world premiere of the film, which showcases the ragamuffin music (an offshoot of reggae), characters and street fashions of the local community.
When we hit the wild frontier at 8.30 on a Saturday night, however, it looks remarkably like any other run-down inner-city High Street. Inside the club, several hundred Peckhamites are sitting in orderly ranks awaiting the screening. There is a momentary glitch when it proves difficult to turn off the lights on the glitterball, which keeps scattering spots across the screen. Finally, it is dimmed and on to the screen flashes another glitterball - the glitterball. The film's opening scene is set in the club we are sitting in, and one is soon aware of a close overlap between the audience and the cast. We the Ragamuffin was shot on a budget of pounds 180,000, using improvised dialogue and local musicians essentially playing themselves.
They have turned out in force to see themselves on screen, among them Buckey Ranks, the dreadlocked star of the film, who tonight is resplendent in a velvet and sequinned suit, and enough gold chains and rings to keep Gerald Ratner in prawn sandwiches for the next 20 years. 'Music is unity. Unity is strength. I do hip hop, reggae, house. I'm a reality person,' he purrs. 'We make something from nothing,' says one of the other musicians, Leroy Simmonds, who wears a sharp dog-tooth check suit with a loose, tunic top. 'Ragga is raw, whereas reggae is more arranged, more composed. With ragga, you could make music from one bar. Reggae might have four bars.' Another of the players, Adrian De'Allie, adds: 'It's more hard core, heavy bass. It's power.'
For Russell Newell, the 25-year-old writer of the original screenplay, 'it's up- tempo, using the latest electronic drum machines and production sounds. The rhythms are basically African and Jamaican.' The lyrics, he admits, can be on the trigger-happy side. 'Some guys talk as feverishly about guns as they do about God. But in Jamaica 50 per cent of the population is under 20. There's a very strong youth culture, and it's being supplied with enormous amounts of weapons from America. These musicians are reflecting their everyday experience.'
Gun culture figures strongly in the film, the story of how two killers invade a club and the local musicians drive them, peacefully, from their manor. The publicity highlights it - 'the incident . . . is unfortunately almost commonplace in London' - but everyone concerned with the film would like to play it down. 'It's true that at big dances fights break out. But we're trying to show that we don't need violence. What we've seen in America, we don't want here,' Leroy Simmonds says. The film hopes to create a more positive image. 'We're going to get good publicity - normally it's adverse,' says Derek Clarke of the production company.
For We the Ragamuffin isn't just a small-scale community project. A few weeks from now, it will be transmitted - with subtitles - on Channel 4 in a season of British independent fiction. Channel 4 feels that the accents and idioms might prevent a large section of the television audience from following the plot (with some justification, it must be said by this viewer, having seen both subtitled and unsubtitled versions). But Newell is rolling up his sleeves for an argument. 'I disagree with the subtitles 100 per cent,' he says. 'These people are speaking English. The subtitles have been applied with total indiscretion. Basically we're being treated as foreigners.'
It's a familiar cry, from Peckham to Hollywood. This isn't the first film to have suffered compromises or to have its original intentions violated in the cause of attracting a larger audience. And it highlights the fine line that Channel 4's Independent Film and Video Department has to tread. The current season - the Department's third - includes 10 new British films made on an average budget of pounds 270,000-pounds 300,000 and has an unexpectedly good slot, at 10pm on Monday nights. Alan Fountain, the Senior Commissioning Editor, hopes for 'pretty reasonable' audiences - Hush-a-Bye Baby, the only repeat from the last season, attracted 2.5 million viewers first time round (it stars Sinead O'Connor, which might have helped).
But this season could also be the last. The Department, which also produces Out, Third World Fiction and South, had a budget of pounds 1.5 million two years ago. Last year it was in the region of pounds 800,000. Two weeks ago, next year's allocation was announced - less than pounds 500,000. 'It's certainly not a fiction budget,' Fountain says. It seems likely that, as Channel 4 finds itself faced with the prospect next year of selling its own airtime, the trend will continue. 'Recent changes have made the channel fairly cautious in its planning and it's no secret that it has been a very tough budget round. Personally I wouldn't want any greater trend than already exists towards the mainstream.'
His new line-up includes Derek Jarman's poetic essay on religion and sexuality, The Garden; Ama, a magic-realist fable set in London's Nigerian community; Dream On, about a ladies' darts team in North Shields; and Silent Scream, a portrait of the Scottish criminal and poet Larry Winters. 'If you look across the season, it's a snapshot of contemporary Britain. In television drama you rarely get work that you feel comes from an unusual perspective or an unusual part of Britain,' Fountain says.
We the Ragamuffin, it will come as no revelation, went down a storm in Peckham. Whether it (and the other films in the season) goes down as well with a national audience is vital for Fountain's remit to give airtime to parts of British culture that other programmes don't reach. The film-makers are pleased to be going into that wider public arena, but also anxious about it. The world premiere of We the Ragamuffin over, Clarke has one last message. 'You will write something nice about us, won't you?'
Channel 4's season of 10 independent British films begins on Monday. 'We the Ragamuffin' is broadcast on 7 September.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies