A new drama about young male offenders draws on grim reality to warn that a life of crime usually only ends in one way. John Davies talks to director Dominic Savage and his cast
Two adolescent boys, one black, one white, watch a succession of people pass in an underground walkway before pouncing on a couple and swiftly robbing them of their mobile phones. The victims offer little resistance; the two boys jog away exultantly and the title Out of Control appears, as if describing what we have just seen - and are about to see. Just the first few moments of next Sunday's BBC1 drama are enough to indicate that we're in for some gritty realism more in keeping with the heyday of Play for Today than the channel's usually more anodyne current fare.
Writer-director Dominic Savage agrees that his new film is "a tough viewing experience". Filmed in the streets of Camden and south-east London's Thamesmead estate, and inside a young offenders' unit, Out of Control follows the lives of several teenage London boys from their adventures in petty crime to their almost inevitable incarceration, also observing the efforts of a mother and various authority figures - among them magistrates and prison officers, but no teachers - to "control" or help them.
The film is, says Savage, "a story for everyone - it's for the parents, the kids, the grandparents. And there are clearly messages in there, some hopeful, but obviously warnings too, about this life the kids lead and where it could end up." It's a view endorsed by one of the main actors, 15-year-old Akemnji Ndifornyen. Out of Control is, he says, "an honest film" with a message that "the straight and narrow path is not easy".
Savage, a former actor and documentary maker, has said in the past that he is an admirer of Ken Loach ("I love dramas that convince you as a viewer that what you're seeing is truthful, real and believable") and there are certainly echoes of Loach in the way he has used actors mostly new to television - the exceptions are Tamzin Outhwaite as the mother of one of the boys and David Morrissey, who plays a prison officer. He has also continued with the improvisatory methods used in his previous two dramas for BBC2, Nice Girl and When I Was 12 (about teenage marriage and a girl who runs away from home).
This means "the script is fairly basic but quite specific in terms of what each scene is trying to achieve", and the actors are left to come up with their own dialogue.
"It was an interesting process," says Akemnji. "You don't have to learn lines but you do have to reach a level of preparation. What you're doing is part of a larger arc - it doesn't limit your imagination."
Ruth Caleb, producer on all three of Savage's films, adds: "Dominic knows what he wants the actors to do but they may not. It requires trust all round. He's got a true feel for young people, and he portrays the world they live in with vigour and vitality. It's social realism for the 21st century."
Savage is keen to stress that for him the film-making process starts with research. He visited the Huntercombe young offenders' unit near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire - "a tough sort of place, where the majority of boys serving sentences are from London. I listened to what they had to say, and picked up on the things I felt were important to describe in the drama. For me, the issues needed to be right, the emotions needed to be correct - that was what the research went into."
Once he'd assembled his cast, they too had research to do. David Morrissey, for instance, went to Huntercombe "and spent a few days there shadowing officers and getting inside what goes on". It was not Huntercombe, however, but a Lancashire institution, Lancaster Farms, that was used for filming the young offenders' unit scenes - in some of these, we see "real" prison officers and inmates mix with the actors. "It was incredibly helpful to do that," says Savage. "In between filming, the actors were talking and learning, getting into being there. It all added to the authenticity."
It was in search of authenticity that Savage moved from making documentaries - which included the award-winning Rogue Males for Channel 4 - to drama. "With a documentary, you're going with what you have, and it's sometimes difficult to bring in the elements you need for the complete picture," he explains. "You can make a more effective piece as a drama, as long as you keep it as real as possible."
He hopes Out of Control will be seen as "unjudgmental" and admits "some sense of sympathy" for the boys he met in Huntercombe "because of their life circumstances. It's not them totally, it's actually how they've been treated and brought up, the opportunities they've not had. It's a similar pattern with all of them I spoke to."
At Lancaster Farms, Akemnji found much the same. "I talked to the inmates and got to understand some of the reasons they were there. They're people who have made mistakes," he says.
One of the few hopes for these young offenders' futures, Savage notes, is the influence of mothers, girlfriends or wives. "Boys would say, 'I've got to change because I love my Mum too much' or 'because I've got a baby now'. They do try the whole rehabilitation thing, it is something the officers care about. But it's not working because however much they try, 80 per cent still go back.
"I hope a film like this can make a difference, can make people think more about youth - that they're not bad, they just need to be taken care of. Locking them up is not a solution: stopping them going down in the first place, that's the thing."