Plan B: Do you want some, middle England?
Ill Manors is the first feature film from Ben Drew, aka Plan B, and it’s as shocking as his riot-referencing single of the same name. It’s not about heroes in hoodies, he tells David Smyth, but a fight against middle-class prejudices
04 May 2012
“I guess I’ve got everyone’s attention now,” Ben Drew says, slouching at the head of the boardroom table in the Holland Park offices where we meet. He is referring to the angry reaction to his controversial recent single, Ill Manors, a furious rap about a certain kind of urban life lived among drug addicts, dealers and damaged people, and seems to have spent more time than is wise perusing the YouTube comments beneath his incendiary video. The clip features him miming Nero’s fiddling on a London balcony, as well as real footage of the London riots and the chorus: “Oi! What you looking at, you little rich boy?/We’re poor round here, run home and lock your door/Don’t come round here no more/You could get robbed for real/Because my manor’s ill.”
Britain’s underclass and the prejudice against it, last summer’s riots and what is to be done are major themes for the 28-year-old, who becomes louder, swearier, almost belligerent and much harder to interrupt as he talks about them. It would be easy to be cynical about another pop star wading into politics, a Geldof for gang members, but when he finally looks in my direction and zaps me with icy blue eyes, what’s clearly visible is a powerful determination.
“It’s got under people’s skins and got people discussing an issue I felt was swept under the carpet,” he continues, dressed all in grey and looking significantly slimmer than he has done in recent times (the result of an action role in another film, a remake of The Sweeney with Ray Winstone due in the autumn).
He has every intention of using his music, and the feature film also called Ill Manors (an album of the same name follows) which he has directed, to achieve real social change. The word “chav” is his first problem. Putting it on a par with racist and sexist language, he says: “There’s a lot of ignorant, classist people walking around with prejudices that they shouldn’t have because they’ve never been in direct contact with the people they have an issue with. They’re the ones the song’s about.”
His point — that if you have preconceptions about people they will play up to them — seems to have been too subtle for a percentage of YouTube watchers who believe he is trying to ignite a class war. He’s even put a lengthy statement on his website in an attempt to clarify matters: “If you’re born into a family that’s had enough money to educate you properly, you are privileged. You’re not better than anyone else, you’re just lucky. Certain sectors of Middle England, not all of them, but the ignorant ones, need to wake up and realise that, and stop ridiculing the poor and less fortunate.”
The film, which is out next month, is so gritty it could keep London’s roads free of ice all winter. It spray-paints a black picture of lives damaged irreparably. There’s a crack-addicted prostitute, a fascist child abuser, absurdly young gang members armed with guns and bottles of urine, and a drug dealer whose overreaction to a lost phone is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen at the cinema.
“I’m not trying to glorify them,” Drew says. “This film says, ‘ This is the reality of it.’ It’s not a fairytale, you’re not going to go on some f***ed-up adventure and come out the other end. It’s not glamorous, it’s not romantic, it’s f***ing dark and disgusting.”
Varied plots, all equally cheerless, wander off before eventually intertwining in Pulp Fiction style. This is Drew’s first directing job and he appears on screen only for a couple of seconds, Hitchcock-like, but acts as off-screen narrator, rapping the life stories of his protagonists over crunching beats in a way that gives a credible explanation as to how they could have ended up with moral compasses that only point down.
“People hopefully will get some understanding by watching it and see that there is a reason behind every despicable crime that happens. It’s not just some mindless thug taking their anger out on someone. It usually stems from some really deep-seated, f***ed-up places.”
Britflick stars Riz Ahmed, Nathalie Press and Dannielle Brent head a cast that portrays an assembly of wretched characters. There’s Chris, raised in a crack factory by a lifelong dealer, and Aaron and Ed, who turn feral togpether in a children’s home. Jake seems like a nice enough lad until his first day in a gang goes drastically, terrifyingly wrong. “Poor kid, she ain’t got a hope in hell,” says one prostitute about another’s newborn baby.
Damaged childhoods produce damaged children and young adults, the film stresses again and again. If you’re at all close to that kind of life, Drew wants you to be repelled. “This is what could happen to you, so think about it.” And if, like me, you’re lucky enough to be so far away from that world that you think he must surely be exaggerating for effect, think again. Most of Ill Manors is adapted from events Drew has seen or heard about while growing up near but not on an estate, somewhere between lower and middle class, in Forest Gate in the Olympic borough of Newham. “It wasn’t hard for me to see someone doing something illegal and be so near to it that I was almost involved in it,” he says.
For further confirmation that these are especially bad times for London’s poorest, look at last summer’s riots. Drew voiced his disapproval at the time, saying, “What did you break into Lidl for? And you are going to do time for it? It’s stupid. And you’ve got people like me who are trying to change the way Middle England look at the underclass, have a bit more compassion for them — how can I stand up for that any more?”
Today he seems to have a bit more sympathy. “They weren’t thinking about what they were doing, they were just following the crowd. They just wanted the stuff that society has made them believe is important. Society judges you if you wear shit trainers or haven’t got the best clothes. When I was at school, if I wasn’t wearing Nike or Adidas, people would make fun of me.”
And he could so easily have been smashing windows alongside the rioters. With an absent father at five months old, he was kicked out of school in Year 10, aged 16. He ended up at Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit in Plaistow, a last-chance saloon that provides “education otherwise than at school”. There he felt encouraged for the first time. “This school changed my life,” he says.
It must have been a long climb to the heights he reached two years ago with his triple-platinum-selling, Brit-winning soul album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. His hard-hitting, largely rapped follow-up to that will be Ill Manors, the comeback album from his alter ego, Plan B.
Fans of Strickland Banks’s retro pop are in for a shock, but anyone who has followed him since his bitterly raw rap debut, the 2006 album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, could have guessed he wouldn’t stay cuddly for long. As well as the six tracks that feature in the film and deal with the relentlessly grim back stories of its main characters, he promises songs that offer solutions to the ills. “Instead of sitting there bitching and pointing the finger, talking about who’s to blame, let’s actually go out and change things. I’ve got to be very clear about what I say next, and dispel any notion that I’m glamorising anything.”
None of the new album I’ve heard so far is quite so livid as the song Ill Manors — one song samples the dreamlike Aquarium segment of classical composer Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals — but the tone remains bleak. “You pick yourself up, that’s when they knock you back down,” is one repeated line.
Today he speaks passionately about the need for each of us to lift up those less fortunate — the song Each One Teach One, by Seventies reggae star Jacob Miller, has become his mantra. Leading by example, he talks about hiring unproven young actors for his film from Rokeby School in Newham, and taking Michael Stafford under his wing — then an Irish teenager in trouble with the police back home, now singing star Maverick Sabre.
“I gave him somewhere to stay, I listened to his songs and explained to him how he could make them better. Then it was like, ‘ Off you go now.’ He needed a bit of help to turn the rawness into greatess and I planted those seeds.”
He used a speech at a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference to outline his final goal, “to try to create an umbrella organisation that is going to bring in money and disperse it among individuals working within their communities doing positive things”.
At the moment, though, it’s the job of his film and music to eke something hopeful from a very dark place indeed. “We help people who look like they’re physically struggling, like a mother with a buggy and bags of shopping. But we never do that with mental issues. When it comes to kids with emotional problems, we run a mile. It’s time we started having a bit more compassion for each other.”
Unexpectedly warmhearted words from a man trading in shock tactics — all this filth and fury could yet turn to good.
The film Ill Manors is released on June 6; an album of the same name is released on Atlantic on June 25. time4planb.co.uk.