10 Years On, We Speak To Noel Clarke About The Making Of 'Kidulthood'

“It was representing people who were underrepresented.”

Noel Clarke in the editing room for 'Brotherhood'. Photo by Elliot Simpson

A lot has happened in London since 2006. The death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent London riots. The elections of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The 2012 Olympics, the housing crisis, gentrification, the resurgence of grime, and the ascent of street food and craft beer.

But before all that happened, ten years ago this week, a small British movie called Kidulthood hit cinemas. The film followed 24 hours of swearing, fighting and fucking in the lives of a multi-ethnic group of West London kids, given the day off school following a classmate’s suicide. It helped introduce the world to the likes of Noel Clarke, Adam Deacon, Jaime Winstone, Femi Oyeniran, Nicholas Hoult and Rafe Spall, and ended up being discussed by David Cameron himself. It’s a film that would pretty much single-handedly create and define the whole sub-genre and cottage industry of British ‘hood’ movies. It captured what kids are actually like in a way no British film has since. It’s the sort of time capsule that the British Film Industry should be preserving and celebrating the anniversary of, but instead its influence seems to be forgotten, at least by the establishment and the mainstream film press. But screw them.

Though he didn’t actually direct it, Noel Clarke remains the name still most associated with the Kidulthood series.  Clarke wrote the script, and played the main villain Sam, the scary-ass older kid tormenting the main cast; and in the 2008 sequel Adulthood, Sam would become the lead character and Clarke would take the director's chair as well. Outside of the Kidulthood films he’s best known for appearances in the early series of Doctor Who and the Star Trek sequel, and remains a prolific (and sometimes controversial) British actor, writer and director. But it's Kidulthood he'll always be synonymous with.

This autumn, he returns to Sam’s saga with the long-awaited final chapter Brotherhood. It was in the editing room for this third part where I caught up with Clarke. He was crazy busy in the edit, desperately trying to get a cut together for an early screening, but was still willing to open up whilst working on a scene where Sam walks down the familiar sight of West London’s Ladbroke Grove.

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The script for Kidulthood was written in “1999 or 2000,” while Clarke was working in a gym. Not with the thought that it would ever get made, just because he could. He’d only appeared in a few TV shows by then, but says he already knew he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted. He cites Larry Clark’s NYC classic Kids as a key influence on the script. “I loved Kids back then. There’s similarities in the terms of the kids just hanging around for the day, which is what they do in Kidulthood. It was definitely compared to that and Boyz N The Hood. But it was never about race or anything, just young people hanging out.”

He set it on the streets of Ladbroke Grove, the the multicultural area of West London where he grew up, famous for it's West Indian culture, bohemian vibe in the 70s, and being part of the main route of the Notting Hill Carnival. It's where The Clash formed in 1976, and it's been name-checked in songs by Blur and Lily Allen. “70% of it is real stuff, me and my friends, and then the gangster stuff is based on it being a drama or people I knew”. One thing that really stands out is the diverse make-up of the kids featured . Lead trio Trife, Jay and Mooney (Aml Amenn, Adam Deacon and Femi Oyeniran) live on a council estate, but everyone is going to a party at rich kid Nicholas Hoult’s house that evening. Everyone interacts. The mix of race and class on display doesn’t feel like a forced diversity quota enforced by a corporate executive — instead a real reflection of what London is like.

Clark says that wasn’t intentional, just second nature to him. “It’s how I grew up. The bottom end of the area you have Kensington High Street, Chelsea, one of the poshest places in the country, and then at the other end up you cross into Brent and that’s rough. I went to school and college in that area, and there wasn’t a day of my life where I didn’t see black kids, white kids, Asian kids, everyone. It was a melting pot, and still is. So when writing the film I never thought about that, I just wrote the way I saw things.”

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Back in the early 2000s, people didn’t know what to make of the script. The reaction from those that read it was that it had a unique voice, but there was little interest in actually making it. And producers wanted to tone down the swearing, the sex and the violence, which of course didn’t happen. Whatever you think of it of the film, neutering and censoring the kids would have been terrible, murdering it of all its energy and spark.

One thing that Clarke did take advice and change though was the ending. In the original version, the lead kid Trife (who Clarke first wanted to play himself) survived the final confrontation with Sam, despite spending the film choosing to get involved with his uncle’s criminal underworld. But producers were quick to point out to Clarke that that sent out the wrong message. “What it was saying was if kids behave like this, then they’ll be fine. No, that’s not the truth. If you put yourself in a certain lifestyle, then you put yourself in danger. And then I thought about it and realised they were right, and that’s why he dies at the end.”

The film was finally made independently in 2004, between Clark filming episodes of Doctor Who. It was opening casting, with producers going around schools to find actors — Red Madrell, who plays pregnant teen Alisa, was found at a local college, as was Femi Oyeniran. By this point Clarke was too old to play Trife, which is how he ended up as Sam. He also admits deferring to the younger cast to make sure kids still spoke like they did in his script (the line “You dizzy blud?” was apparently the addition of Oyeniran).

"Nothing in that film wasn’t happening already, all it did was show that there were issues and problems."

Even when it was finally finished, the cast and crew didn’t know if it would ever see the light of day. “Nobody wanted to put it out. {Distributor} Revolver came along, and they’d only done DVDs before at the time. They were most famous at the time for Snoop Dogg’s porn (I don’t think he’s actually in it, he just raps while people have sex or something). And they said this was something special and they were going to put it out in the cinemas.”

Oh, Revolver Entertainment. As well as making Noel Clarke, Kidulthood also put that British indie distributor on the map. If any company was synonymous with the late 00s hood movie boom, it was Revolver. The cocky little upstarts with a knack for courting controversy and an eye-catching publicity stunt would soon go onto produce the likes Anuvahood, Shank, Sket and Plan B’s iLL Manors, and for a brief period be a spectacular success story. They’d also be out of business by 2013. I’ve heard no shortage of horror stories about what it was like to work for them or deal with them, but at the same time it’s hard not to romanticise their story — a bunch of rebellious kids who did things their own way, probably had to much fun and ultimately screwed it up. It’s hard not to admire them, in a way. But that’s a whole different story.

When Kidulthood did eventually come out, it was a modest financial success, but it was the subject matter and content that made the biggest impact. The Sun said it was a “happy slapping” film, and The Daily Mirror called it “a harrowing, uncompromisingly bleak but thoughtful look at the anguish of being a young and poor in Britain.” It was instantly controversial. Those who praised it said it was important and realistic, its critics said it glorified and encouraged teenage sex and violence. Campaigners called for it to be banned. Revolver were quick to take advantage of the controversy to advertise the DVD, erecting a giant billboard in Earl’s Court with the faces of Gordon Brown and the then-current cabinet photoshopped over the cast (Tony Blair replaced Sam). Clarke says he didn’t expect this reaction — in fact he wasn’t expecting any reaction, it was just something he’d written about him and his friends.

But he’s quick to defend the film. “I think the film represents a group of people who were under represented. I think the film gets a bad rap, because of a lot people forget what they used to be like when they get past that age. It doesn’t represent all kids, but it represents those kids. I’ve heard the film be blamed over the years for doing this or that or negative connotation — the film did not influence society.” You can tell as he’s saying this that he’s tired of having to explain this to people. “Nothing in that film wasn’t happening already, all it did was show that there were issues and problems. It wasn’t like, oh, a negative film with a black kid that dies at the end. It was saying that if you behave like this, look what could happen to you.”

The film even went as far as being name-checked by David Cameron. Back in 2006 he wasn’t yet Prime Minister, then just the oily new leader of the Conservative Party with a cheesy smile and a ream of soundbites. In the summer of 2006, as part of his attempts to change the perception of the Tories, he gave his infamous “Hug a Hoodie” speech, where he suggested that instead of vilifying young people, we should reach out to them (quite ironic, since his policies have shown very little of that whilst he’s been in power, but whatever…). In that speech he directly referred to the film. Having the future-PM mention that little film you wrote might sound like a big deal, but Clarke says that he was young and didn’t care. “Even now, you mention that Hug a Hoodie thing, I remember it happening now, but I definitely didn’t care. At that stage anyway, there was nothing that he could tell me that would remotely change my life in a positive way. I’ve got three kids now, I’m probably a bit more establishment (I’m still not establishment, and definitely not for David Cameron), but back then I really couldn’t care what he said.”

Looking back from 2016, it’s easy to make parallels between the unruly kids in Kidulthood and the London riots that would explode five years later. But Clarke isn’t a fan of any notion that his film anticipated the unrest. “It’s nonsense,” he says, clearly annoyed by the suggestion. “The whole thing was bubbling. Because people in positions of power don’t care about people they’ve put in those positions. They need a wake up call. The films are nothing to do with that, it’s ridiculous. The riots would have happened anyway. The riots weren’t caused by people who believed in an injustice, about Mark Duggan or anything like that. The original protestors believed in a cause and stood up for that and then the looters and hoooligans came out, and caused the actual riots. Half the people doing the rioting were posh middle class people. And I love seeing them go down for six months for nicking a television, I loved it.”

"I went to school in LADBROKE GROVE, and there wasn’t a day of my life where I didn’t see black kids, white kids, Asian kids, everyone. It was a melting pot."

He does think the film has improved things for a new generation, and he points to Peckham-born Star Wars: The Force Awakens star John Boyega as proof. “For example, {director} Joe Cornish has said that Kidulthood inspired Attack the Block. Arguably, without Kidulthood, there’s no Attack The Block. Without Attack The Block, you wouldn’t get John Boyega as the biggest movie star in the world. John’s talent would have taken him there anyway, but my point is there’s direct things that that film has caused, that have given Trife’s imaginary younger brother opportunities that he wouldn’t have.”

Talking about this has definitely improved his mood. He clearly prefers talking about something positive, rather than running through the criticisms of Kidulthood for the umpteenth time. I get him to expand on his thought about kids getting a chance in the industry. “I feel like there are more opportunities behind the scenes {than ten years ago}. What hasn’t changed is people knowing about those opportunities. And I’ve tried make sure people know that you don’t always have to be the actor, you can be the DOP, you can be the soundman, you don’t always have to be the footballer, you can be the physio. That’s still not getting across to all these young people right now.

“People talk about, for example, racism in the industry, and in football, why are there no black managers, that sort of stuff, and it goes all the way back to the school system. If kids don’t know that they can do that job, because all they ever see is the rapper, the footballer and the film star, they won’t want to do those jobs. And what needs to be happening in schools is them saying there’s more than just that. And I feel that these industries wont change until that stuff is ingrained.” 

Kidulthood really kicked off that wave of British hood movies, which probably created a lot more of those opportunities — is Clarke proud of creating his own sub-genre? “Arguably yes, arguably no. I feel like it was an important genre to have because it was representing people who were underrepresented.” He didn’t seem to eager to speak up any great works of the genre, but he’s right, these films were important. British film can’t all be The King’s Speech and Eddie Redmayne and Harry Potter. People need to see themselves reflecting on-screen, especially the ones who are suffering the most in society.

One entry that he’s probably most kind to is Kidulthood’s 2008 sequel, Adulthood, which he stepped into the director’s chair for. The film sees Sam coming out of prison six years later, and plays more like a straight thriller than the day-in-a-life structure of its predecessor. It apparently came about because that’s all anyone wanted from him post-Kidulthood. “I had all these scripts where this guy was a boxer, or a lawyer… and nobody wanted to make any of them. They were like, well done for making that thing, and when I got them to look at these they weren’t interested. I wrote the second one because nobody would make anything else.”

"I DIDN't CARE WHAT DAVID CAMERON SAID. there was nothing that he could tell me that would remotely change my life in a positive way."

Unlike it’s moderately successful parent, Adulthood was proper box-office hit, making over £3 million in the UK — and straight away studios were asking for part three. But Clarke declined. “I didn’t have anything to say in a third one straight of the back of the second one. It would have been the same film.” A producer did apparently try to get a Clarke-less sequel off the ground at one point, but was turned down by the studio when they found out he wasn’t involved.

So what’s changed to make him make Brotherhood now? A lot of it stems from Clarke now having three kids, and how being a father has changed him. “The moment that kid is born, you look at things differently. You become so much more docile, but your reactions are so much stronger. Me being younger I’d be more than happy to get in a scrap, whereas now I’m not interested in any of that sort of stuff, and do things the proper way. But if you cross the line, I will react a lot more fiercely than I would have done beforehand. What Brotherhood is about that character that killed a guy, served six years for manslaughter, what is he doing ten years later. How does he deal with kids?

Brotherhood looks to fully focus the trilogy on Sam’s story — not returning are Adam Deacon and Femi Oyeniran as Trife’s cohorts from the first film, who had taken two very different paths in Adulthood (Deacon has suffered from mental health issues, and last year was convicted of sending threatening messages to Clarke on social media. Clarke politely but firmly declined to discuss any of this). One new face joining the cast however is grime’s man of the moment Stormzy. “Stormzy’s role is the film is one of the new kids that has his own little journey, about how feels he should behave, and then ultimately how the decisions he makes change his behaviour,” Clarke said about the MC’s first acting part.

It’s also apparently the definite finale to the story. “I could be broke, sweeping the streets, and I’m not making any more of these. Without giving too much away, with the last line of this film, it’s done. I wrote that line for a reason.”

However Brotherhood turns out, Kidulthood will remain the defining document of London kids in the mid 2000s. It’s the perfect time capsule, with the old Nokia cameraphone, tribal-decorated flip Game Boy Advance, early Pro Evolution Soccer, Boxfresh hoodies, Burberry caps and A9 Akademiks tracksuits all being precise period details. But more than that, looking back a decade later, it really does feel like it does for London what Kids does for New York or La Haine does for Paris. It feels rough and exciting and still dangerous. With the gap between rich and poor ever-growing in London, communities more and more ignored in favour coffee shops and luxury flats, it – in some ways – seems more important than ever. Yes, like La Haine and Kids, it might be immature, attention-seeking, obnoxious, and probably not as clever as it thinks it is (especially watching it back as an adult).

But isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?

Brotherhood will be in cinemas in the autumn.

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