South-east London’s flourishing district has a starring role in the big-screen adaptation of Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! and E4’s new urban comedy-drama, Youngers, billed as the the new Skins or The Inbetweeners. Liz Hoggard goes behind the scenes
Teenage kicks: Shavani Seth, Ade Oyefeso and Calvin Demba play three 16-year-olds with a passion for music in Youngers. Picture: Cathal Macilwaine
05 December 2012
Not since sitcom Desmond’s has Peckham been the centre of so much film and TV attention. It can’t be the first location that springs to mind for scouts looking to film on the streets of London, but shooting is just about finished on E4’s eight-part urban comedy-drama, Youngers, in which the jerk chicken shack on Peckham High Street plays a starring role. Writer Bola Agbaje, meanwhile, is a couple of streets away with another film crew, shooting a big-screen version of her award-winning play, Gone Too Far.
Set in modern-day Peckham, both projects are about teenagers, their hopes and dreams, loyalties and allegiances. And both aim to give a truthful, funny representation of the area. Although there are gritty storylines, neither has drugs or violence as the backdrop.
Billed as a cross between Skins and The Inbetweeners, Youngers follows a group of 16-year-olds with a passion for music. They are trying to make an impact on the UK urban music scene from their bedrooms, showcasing their creations on the internet. Jay (played by Calvin Demba) has skills as an MC but has failed his exams and is likely to end up fixing boilers; Yemi (Ade Oyefeso), the producing talent, is a straight-A student on his way to college; and the romantic complication comes in the form of singer Davina (Shavani Seth).
Written by Levi David Addai (another playwright who like Agbaje cut his teeth at the Royal Court, with Oxford Street and 93.2FM), each episode features comic asides from the “yungas”, who sit on a wall in Peckham dispensing wisdom. In real life they are YouTube heroes Mandem on the Wall (aka recent BRIT school graduates Joivan Wade, Percelle Ascott and comedy actor Dee Kartier), who have created a very successful online comedy brand.
Youngers is made by Big Talk Productions, which brought us Rev, Spaced and Black Books. The three young leads are very charismatic and early footage makes Peckham look stunning. It was important to Addai that filming took place in Peckham rather than a newly gentrified east London, the more popular end of town for contemporary British drama. E4 held open auditions to cast rappers and musicians in the series so locals felt included. “Everyone’s had the same goal — they wanted to get it right,” Addai says.
Peckham has its challenges (for years it battled a reputation for poverty and crime) but these days it’s a flourishing community. Money has been spent on regeneration. The worst tower blocks have come down; independent shops and galleries have grown up organically. You can shop for plantain in the African market, or buy vintage furniture on Bellenden Road.
Agbaje, 31, regards herself as an “ambassador for the area”. Her family moved to Nigeria when she was six, then came back to the UK two years later to live on an estate in north Peckham (her mother still lives in Camberwell). Gone Too Far, the feature film of her 2007 Olivier-award winning Royal Court play, about a day in the life of two newly met brothers (one British, one Nigerian), is one of the first projects to get backing from the revamped BFI Film Fund, with a budget of under £1 million.
Last summer, Belong, her political satire about a British MP who moves from London to Nigeria, was staged at Peckham’s Bussey Building, as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local Project. It was important to pay back. “Growing up here, in a positive way, is what inspired me to go off and write. There was such an eclectic mix. It made me want to tell a story that had 3D characters,” she says. Some of the scenes are filmed in her childhood hairdressers, Julia’s in Rye Lane, and Will Alsop’s library.
Addai, 29, who grew up down the road in Lewisham, is also keen to reflect Peckham’s diversity. With Youngers, his aim is to capture the street language of inner-city teenagers in a warm, humorous way “that’s not issue-based or dark”. He admits that when E4 first approached him about writing an urban drama, he was wary. “I thought, what’s their motivation? When I went in to see them, I said, ‘I can see the potential but these are the things I would do: make it fun, make it real’.”
Gang culture has no place in his scripts. “Channel 4 already has shows like Top Boy [Ronan Bennett’s drama about gangs in Hackney] which show one side of the culture. But I didn’t feel there was enough showing the other side — everyday life. In Youngers you’ve got two 16-year-old boys who really believe music can be a way to make something of themselves and I wanted to tap into that ambition and youthful optimism. I had it as a kid; you think you can do anything.”
Born in south London to Ghanaian parents, Addai planned to act (he studied drama at Brunel), but realised his potential was limited. “I looked in the mirror and thought: ‘Okay you’re 5ft 8in from Lewisham, you’re never going to play James Bond. You’re going to be Thug Number 2 in The Bill stealing the old lady’s bag’. I knew I couldn’t do that. But then I saw a poster for writer Roy Williams’s Fallout [a 2003 drama about a 16-year-old boy stabbed to death by a local gang] and that’s how I found out about the Royal Court’s young writers’ programme, Critical Mass, for black and ethnic writers.”
He submitted his first play, 93.2FM (set in a pirate radio station), and the Royal Court put it on upstairs in 2005. Then came his comedy about the ambitions of high street shop workers, Oxford Street, set in a West End discount sports store and starring Ashley Walters. The move into TV came when BBC3 commissioned him to write My Murder, the dramatisation of the “honey trap” murder of 16-year-old Londoner Shakilus Townsend.
Agbaje, who trained as an actress, was equally frustrated by the lack of strong roles and also enrolled in the Royal Court’s free 10-week Critical Mass programme in 2006. It was there she wrote Gone Too Far — a comedy-drama about cultural identity and the experience of second-generation African and West Indian teenagers.
“Although the backdrop is Peckham it’s not about characters who go, ‘Oh woe is me, look where I live, look at my life’. It really is a comedy, and it’s selling the idea that you can grow up in this area and just be a normal teenager with hopes and desires,” she says.
Like Addai she is thoughtful about urban drama fixated on knife crime. “I guess TV programmers think that’s what audiences want. But the reason why loads of kids watch shows like Top Boys is because when you want to see a representation of yourself so desperately, anything is good enough — just seeing a black kid on TV in an area you grew up in will make you tune in. But what we all have to do as creatives and film-makers is go, ‘It’s fine to have that sort of representation but it’s also okay to do comedies and stories that focus on the positive’.”
Gone Too Far is the directorial debut of Destiny Ekaragha; Agbaje says Peckham schoolchildren were transfixed to see a black woman in charge.
The film will be saturated with colour and reflect Peckham’s cosmopolitan identity. “From young to old, rich to poor, there’s a whole mix of society that’s never been presented on screen before. You’ve got the Chinese shop, the Asian hairdressers, a Persian deli, all of these accents and cultures living together.”
Her dream is that cinema audiences watching Gone Too Far will want to come and visit Peckham. “I’d love it to be like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Watching it you thought, ‘I want to go to Brooklyn’, because he made it look so fun and vibrant.”
Youngers is on E4 early next year. Gone Too Far will be released later in 2013.