Mind our manors

8th June 2012 at 01:00
Helen Ward meets rapper, actor and director Ben Drew (aka Plan B). Attending a pupil referral unit turned his life around. Now he wants to do the same for troubled young people

Ben Drew is a 28-year-old musician with a shelf of awards and Hollywood knocking at his door. He is working class and successful. He advocates hard graft. He praises the education he received at a pupil referral unit after he was kicked out of mainstream school. And he wants to do more than make money. He wants to change lives - one child at a time.

Since the dawn of rock and roll, teenagers have gawped at musicians as they saunter out of bed after noon, perform on stage to mass adulation, grin and revel in the after parties.

Their heroes may be dishevelled or triumphant, adored or jilted, but they are not ignored.

Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew, aka Plan B, knows what it is like to be ignored.

- We've had it with you politicians

- You bloody rich kids never listen

- There's no such thing as broken Britain

- We're just bloody broke in Britain

The thick, menacing, scudding pulse that opens his latest track Ill Manors is on a continuous loop in the fifth-floor bar of the Hackney Picturehouse.

A film projected on to the bar wall shows what it is like to live his life, to stride on stage towards rows of dazzling lights, towards the screams of thousands of fans. In his trademark grey suit, he turns and raises his arms in glory. He has arrived.

Plan B is a rapper, singer-songwriter, actor and film director. His first album was released in 2006. His second album The Defamation of Strickland Banks debuted at number one. It has sold more than a million copies and he was named British male solo artist of the year at the Brit Awards in 2011. His first film, Ill Manors, which he wrote and directed, opened this week. And alongside Ray Winstone, he stars in the film adaptation of 1970s cop drama The Sweeney, out this September. He works extremely hard.

Outside the Picturehouse, Ben Drew, his shoulders hunched against the chill Hackney morning, is being filmed by a BBC Three crew who are following him around for a documentary. Upstairs, yawning journalists help themselves to dozens of tall glasses of fresh orange juice, croissants and Danish pastries.

Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra have invited them here to launch the Hackney Academy, a three-week series of workshops that Plan B and local-girl- turned-X-Factor-superstar Leona Lewis are promoting. Other successful names are here: young, talented East Londoners such as rapper Lethal Bizzle and EastEnders actor Ricky Norwood, who will be taking part in the academy.

This is the Hackney whose youth played such a major part in last summer's riots. And Ben Drew believes that education is both the problem and the solution. He should know: his life experience is a one-man case study on the issues of inner-city education.

The film continues on its loop. Plan B has walked on to that stage 10, 12, 20 times, each time as an adored hero. Then he arrives in real life and he is (of course) smaller, but also more ordinary, more plain and more, well, forgettable.

That is, until he opens his mouth. His facility with words is remarkable. He starts hesitantly, almost diffident, but as he gets into his stride he becomes increasingly fluent and more confident. He leans forward. He is not interested in charm, but his cool blue eyes, his London accent, his physical ease with himself have suddenly become, well, unforgettable. And he can talk.

A visceral portrayal

The film Ill Manors has an 18 certificate. The video for the title track, which has a parental advisory warning, shows a teenage girl grinning as she films a gang setting a dog on someone and then proceeding to kick their floored victim; youths throw flaming bottles at riot police; looters run from police dogs; a police officer whacks a hooded youth and knocks him over. The view over London consists almost entirely of concrete.

He is asked about the track. He starts: "For me, in that song, I just took everything I ever read in the newspaper and heard on the news and turned it into the song. It's about all the bullshit, the way we treat each other, the prejudices we have towards each other. It's all perpetuated and manipulated, sorry to say, by the press. What David Cameron said - the whole `hug a hoodie' thing - what he said was positive and correct.

"Rather than being scared of them, people should try and engage with them. That's what he said. It's the newspapers that swung it round and called it the hug-a-hoodie campaign. That's not me attacking David Cameron; that's me taking all this shit that people are writing about and putting it in the song.

"And so, yeah, I done it in an angry way and made the video very visceral and I think that for me to make a statement like that, make a video like that and then not actually put the time in to change things myself kind of makes me a hypocrite."

Once he's started, he doesn't stop. "And I think the reason I had the balls to make a video and song like that is because I knew I was willing to put the time in to make a change.

"It's about spending time with young people, planting seeds, educating them and teaching them, because the education they are getting is shit."

It is worth pointing out that he is certainly not attacking individual teachers or schools but the wider system, the society that is alienating the youth.

- What needs fixing is the system

- Not shop windows down in Brixton

Of course, the images grab your attention, the music remains swirling around your head, but what Plan B wants you to hear is these words. It is, The Guardian reckons, "the greatest protest song in years".

Praise for PRUs

Ben Drew is from Forest Gate in East London. He and his sister were brought up by his mother, who worked for the council. His father, Paul Ballance, who was in punk band the Warm Jets and is still involved in the music business, left when he was five months old and disappeared completely when he was 6. His schooling was troubled; he was kicked out in Year 10 and ended up at Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit in Plaistow, which he credits with turning his life around.

This, it is worth stressing, is an A-list celebrity who wants the world to know about how wonderful his education in a pupil referral unit was. Heard that before? Thought not.

The BBC Three documentary being filmed is about his returning to Tunmarsh, meeting the students and preparing them to perform a show at the Radio 1 Hackney Weekend.

"It fills me with so much purpose going back to that school," he says. "I met positive people in that school: teachers - great teachers - who gave me the confidence to do what I do now. And if I hadn't gone to that school I might be doing something a lot more negative than what I do now."

Plan B was invited to give a talk at the TEDx event run by The Observer in the spring. The audience - a very different crowd from the adoring fans who pay pound;50 to watch his live shows - at first sit in silence.

He chats, he tells stories and anecdotes, he gets personal, he gets political. He talks about specifically targeting the poor schools in his neighbourhood to cast his film, rather than the more obvious thespian drama schools. Rokeby School in Newham, East London, welcomed him in and there were "real gems" there: five boys he believed could play the part. He had to choose one.

He talks eloquently about the feeling of purpose and the kids believing in him, expecting him to pull through for them. How could he just sit back and enjoy the success of The Defamation of Strickland Banks? He couldn't, not given where he came from. He cannot sit back while people are being demonised, described as "chavs" just because they are poor. The audience applauds.

He recognises that he, too, is a product of that community. When a gang threatened him during filming in Manor Park, his crew's reaction was to pack up and run. His reaction was to talk his way out of it and, when that did not work, stand his ground and hope he could take one out before the others jumped him. (He did not need to: an even bigger group of lads came around the corner and scared off the first lot. In thanks, he gave them a part in the film.)

But he recognises that while the working class may be defined by a lack of money, it is the lack of attention that cuts deepest. And he is determined that now he has money - and attention - he is not going to ignore those kids.

Plan B's message is about respect. Not the empty notion of respect spat out by would-be gangsters but respect for yourself and your community.

"I'm going to try and wrap this up," he says at the TEDx event, before ploughing on, with even greater intensity. "You know I can talk for hours."

It only takes one person, he argues, to plant a positive seed within a youngster's head, within their heart. He is prepared to do that. He knows teachers who do it, social workers who do it, business people who do it.

He wants others to join him. The next step, he says, is to create an organisation to raise money for projects that have been set up by people who are prepared to put in their time to inspire youngsters.

"Find out what those kids are good at, what they care about, what they like, and try to draw it out of them because it will change their lives. Like it changed my life. Like I changed people's lives."

Plan B is on the stage, behind the microphone. The lights are shining on him and people are standing up, applauding. He nods and gives a mumbled thank you.

No one ignores Plan B. He has arrived.

Photo credit: Camera Press

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