Growing up Black and British in the 1990s was a perplexing yet interesting period of time. It was colourful, soulful, and with a lack of technology to absorb your attention, an era that demanded people to be present.
We were all mostly invested in the same things: music, food, and cultural attitudes adopted from a variety of backgrounds. We attended the same house and hall parties, where we spun decks or played music through CDs and sensitive cassette tapes, blaring pop, Motown, the new sounds of UK garage, two-stepping to reggae, Highlife, afrobeat, and an almost compulsory course of R&B, soul and hip-hop. Unlike today, Black British culture wasn’t so openly celebrated—but on our old, fat-backed TV screens and hefty radio players were a small handful of prominent Black British people who became superheroes to millions.
In my eyes, ears and young, impressionable heart, there was Trevor McDonald, Trevor Nelson, Jenny Francis and Reggie Yates. Of course, there were sports stars and the famous-for-whatever-reason in between, but with someone like Reggie, he was always that guy. A staple on our screens, acting, hosting and presenting for over three decades, his career path has been an inspirational joy to watch. Many of us observed his transition from child actor in the comedy series Desmond’s to being a presenter on SMILE, Top Of The Pops, The MOBOs and Glastonbury, to becoming the voice of Rastamouse and hosting shows for BBC Radio 1 and fronting countless documentaries. Simply put: Reggie Yates is a British national treasure, and his directorial debut, Pirates, is a projection of the type of stories he’s always been interested in telling.
Pirates is a brilliant film about three UK garage-obsessed friends who are looking to secure a motive for 1999’s big NYE celebrations into the millennium. Two Tonne (Jordan Peters), Cappo (Elliot Edusah) and Kidda (Reda Elazouar) string together a joyous chemistry that is absolutely absorbing, heartwarming, and smoothly projecting of the culture that captivated a community of garage lovers in the late ‘90s. I genuinely left the cinema not wanting to leave these characters behind. It’s very rare something is created that epitomises an era of behaviour that you sorely miss, so to rekindle it through these characters was amazing. And right from the jump, the film pays homage to UK garage, as Azzido Da Bass’ “Dooms Night” takes you back to its glory days.
The film contains a lot of necessity, utilising characters that many know exist, and channelling sound as a way to summon feeling. To feel the music, like Wookie and Lain’s “Battle” and DJ Luck & MC Neat’s “Little Bit Of Luck”, being celebrated in this way was truly endearing. There’s also no sign of Black Trauma—which is refreshing. If anything, it felt like I was watching a compilation of my own friends, with bits of their personalities clipped and instilled into these characters. In all, Pirates has become one of, if not the first film that made me feel truly at home. It’s a funny film, too, one filled with countless gems of an underrepresented time.
We caught up with Reggie Yates in Central London to discuss the importance of UKG’s early era, what it was like being in a garage crew himself back in the day, and why it’s so important to tell a story like Pirates now.
“This is a moment in culture, Black British culture, that has never been highlighted, never been supported, or given the love it truly deserves.”
Jude Yawson: The other day I saw Pirates with another Black film reviewer, Raya, and we both left feeling overwhelmed by it.
Reggie Yates: Really?
For real. I’ve seen pretty much everything that’s come out this year, but Pirates has become a personal favourite for many reasons. The cultural importance of it is just up there and we both knew it.
There’s a lineage of Black Britishness when it comes to notable people from our community, especially when it came to television and notable characters. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it felt like there was Trevor Nelson, and there was Reggie Yates.
[Laughs] Pretty much just us two for a while, innit.
And a spread of sports personnel in between, plus Lenny Henry. So it’s nuts to see your journey from being on our TVs, acting, hosting, presenting, to now being here—producing and directing films. I feel like the first thing I should ask you is: pandemic aside, why now? What made this the perfect time for Pirates?
Well, I mean, it’s more a question of: why now film, more than anything. I feel like the story of Pirates needed to be told and if it wasn’t me, hopefully it would have been someone else. But in terms of my greater journey, as someone who has expressed themselves in various different ways over the years, now as a moment to express myself through film is very much a symptom of growing, maturing, and getting to the place where that feels like the best way to tell stories for me. Having told stories through documentaries and, to a degree, entertainment, this is the most holistic version of that for me—to be able to write a screenplay and be able to decide what songs are going to be played, for example.
I love a great soundtrack or original score. During the Q&A after a viewing at Soho House, you pointed out that a lot of these tunes didn’t have the chance to be mixed down properly back in the day. I was very conscious of that. I knew this was a cinematic experience, but the way these songs were booming into my head felt entrancing. That, for me, was a big plus—to feel garage through the big screen.
Yeah, man. The music is such an important part of the story and an important part of what we were trying to do in the film. As you heard me say in that Q&A, this is a moment in culture, Black British culture, that has never been highlighted, never been supported, or given the love it truly deserves. I feel like there was a whole generation of kids that didn’t really know what it was like back then, and didn’t know how big it was back then. It was life for so many of us. Everything was about what you wearing on Saturday night. “Have you got your tickets yet?” “Have you heard that new tape pack?” “Have you heard that EZ just got a radio show?” There was so much focus and conversation about DJs, and songs, and remixes—it was everything for us.
I’m 28 now so I caught this lineage of music from early garage to grime through my olders. I ended up singing along to all these songs in the film.
That was an active decision, to try and make sure that the records people knew were in that. Don’t get me wrong: all the songs that are in there, I love. Some of them are personal favourites. Like, [Sunship’s] “Check 1 Check 2” isn’t necessarily a big garage record, but people loved that tune and played it all the time. I am a massive Heartless Crew fan, and DJ Fonti used to play that record all the time. So there were certain tunes in there that weren’t massive hits, but they work as a score in a lot of ways. To be able to treat a lot of these classics and make them feel cinematic was a big deal.