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The Northampton creator of new BBC school drama Phoenix Rise talks about being an outsider; her childhood obsession with Grange Hill and her desire to give teenagers’ hope.
By Sarah Becker
“Most people have at some point in their lives felt like outsiders looking in.”
When Northampton screenwriter Perrie Balthazar was approached by the BBC to create a new school drama she wanted to offer a new perspective.
It was the first time the former screenwriter for Eastenders and Coronation Street was to create a kids’ TV drama.
It was also the first time that she and Matt Evans were to be creators, lead writers and executive producers of their own show.
She and Matt Evans were approached by the BBC separately to create a drama that would attract teenagers watching YouTube and streamers. “We were asked for a new kind of Grange Hill,” she said.
They decided to collaborate to create a school drama from the viewpoint of six characters who fell outside the mainstream dominant culture – who come to secondary school ‘Phoenix Rise’ from a pupil referral unit.
“I had loved Grange Hill – when I was a kid – I was obsessed with it. I grew up in Northampton on a council estate in Lumbertubs and it was a very racially mixed area. At the time, I felt Grange Hill reflected my friends and family on the estate.”
“I had never written for kids’ TV before – it had never appealed to me - a lot of it was very old fashioned British upper class sanitised version of kids’ lives.”
The series, Phoenix Rise is a gritty realistic school drama whose main characters, Billy, Summer, Khaled, Rhianna, Darcy and Rani, come together to deal with their struggles including mental health; bullying and financial hardships. It’s been described by a reviewer for The Guardian newspaper as a kind of ‘Grange Hill meets the ‘Breakfast club.’
The first series has now aired and was so popular that it has been commissioned for another two series. The second series is due to be aired in September.
“We just heard last week, it’s the second most watched show among 13 – 15 year olds on I player after Eastenders,” says Perrie.
“It’s about outsiders who don’t fit into the main cliques,” she says.
“I felt there is an audience of teenagers who don’t see themselves on mainstream BBC – and we wanted to show them in a more positive light and some of the specific problems they face as well as the universal themes of being a teenager.”
One of the challenges Perrie wanted to portray in the drama was the on-going financial struggle facing many families in the UK “that is only getting worse,” she says.
Mental health was another area that is explored through characters such as Billy - whose dad is dealing with mental health issues. “In series two, you see Billy dealing with his dad’s mental health, confronting it and coming to terms with it.” Summer is character who suffers with anxiety and Khaled with severe PTSD from bullying.”
Despite their problems the drama shows that by coming together and finding ‘their tribe’, the teenagers can find a way to navigate through life.
“We were conscious to show that life is going to hand you problems but you can get through stuff and there are still ways to have a fulfilling life with whatever hand you’ve been dealt with,” says Perrie.
“Most people at some point in their lives can relate to feeling on the outside of what is going on.”
Were there any autobiographical elements in the story-telling?
“Being mixed race, class has actually played a big part in my career – not so much when I was young. I grew up on a council estate so everyone around me was working class, but when I got a scholarship to a private school – the Northampton High School for Girls – it was the first time I was aware that I was not the same as these girls and I definitely felt very different. I had a great time and made lots of friends but was always aware that I was different.”
It was a theme that was also to touch Perrie’s career as a screenwriter for major TV dramas. She was a core writer on Eastenders for three years, Coronation Street for four years and wrote for Hollyoaks for a few years.
“Traditionally on TV, it’s a very middle class or upper middle class profession. Sometimes you’ll pitch a working class story or a story about the Midlands and it’ll land as an alien landing on a foreign planet.
“In my career, I’ve always wanted to tell stories about people like me so they can see themselves on the screen.”
As executive producers on Phoenix Rise, both Matt and Perrie had a lot of creative control over the show.
The series was shot in Coventry, “a city that has so much heritage of different cultures – a big West Indian heritage, Irish, South Asian and we wanted to reflect that within the show.”
The cast were also picked from thousands of young people with little or no acting experience.
“We are very proud of the cast as most of them haven’t done any acting before. We were blown away by how brilliant they are,” says Perrie.
Currently writing for the next two series from her home in Brafield, Perrie says she knows she can push the young actors a bit more knowing what they are capable of.
Fresh from a writer’s room last week, some new writers have been introduced to bring some fresh blood into the show.
“We’ve always said we wanted to cover grief in a very realistic way through the eyes of a teenager. Grief is huge – it affects everyone but when it happens at that age, you react to it in a completely different way. I’d also like to look at toxic masculinity – how does a lovely young boy turn into a misogynistic young man?”
I asked Perrie where she drew inspiration for these storylines.
She said that in fact it was her early years as a reporter on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo from 1999 to 2004 where she ‘cut her teeth’ as a writer listening to other peoples’ stories.
“My years on Northampton Chronicle and Echo were my best training as I interviewed so many different types of people and heard so many heart breaking stories. That was my biggest inspiration.”
Perrie herself left school at 16 and got a job at St. Andrews Hospital in Northampton when she saw an advert for a trainee reporter on The Chronicle and Echo.
“I had always wanted to be a journalist but had been told at school that you needed ‘A’ levels and a degree. It felt out of my reach and I had given up on my dream. When I saw this advert, I applied for it and to my amazement from hundred of applicants I was offered the job.
After five eventful years as a reporter she said she was beginning to get itchy feet when she saw a job advertised as a storyliner on Emmerdale.
“I had no idea what that was,” she laughs, “but it looked a bit different and I managed to get it.”
From there she went on to work on Hollyoaks and after three years went onto work on Eastenders.
“I remember writing for my favourite episode on Hollyoaks - it was a teenage domestic abuse storyline with a 15 year old couple. She had a baby and it showed them struggling to survive and it descended into a violent relationship. It was quite an honour to be given free rein to write about it.”
She was then to land a job as a writer for Coronation Street.
“Coronation Street was my dream job,” she says. “It felt huge when I got my first day on the set in the canteen – it felt surreal. I was there for three years but I felt very respected and nurtured there.”
As creators, lead writers and executive producers on Phoenix Rise, she says that it’s the first time she has created a show from the ground upwards with a lot of input and creative control. She has previously written for other peoples’ characters.
“This is the first time I have created the whole world; the characters, the setting, the music, costumes and casting.
“When it’s your world, it’s so exciting – frustrating, and hard work - but ultimately very rewarding when you see your creation on the big screen. It’s the best thing.”
She and Matt wanted to share this feeling of positivity and aspiration to the kids who watch the show – to give them a bit of encouragement.
“I grew up on a council estate in the Midlands – it’s not a background where you think you are going to go on and do amazing things. It’s not been easy, but it’s been fun and enjoyable. A lot of people work hard and don’t get to where they want to be, but it’s important to try and if you want to get to somewhere that’s a bit different, then what’s the harm in going for it? It might just work out.”
You can see Phoenix Rise on BBC I player and on BBC Three.