“And I think what’s important is, is how he deals with being a young black boy in a village where there is hardly anyone, if anyone, who looks like him, especially his age. In this day and age, a black man with a knife, there’s only one answer. There’s only one place you go.” Tomi Ade on Demarcus
http://www.alt-africa.com is excited to break the news that Hollyoaks will explore a knife crime storyline this July with their teen characters DeMarcus, Joseph, Charlie and Vicky, in a special week of episodes from Friday 15th July, 7pm on E4.
In the Hollyoaks Summer trailer, viewers saw Charlie Osborne (Charlie Behan) telling PC Saul Reeves (Chris Charles) that DeMarcus (Tomi Ade) is carrying a knife. After enduring weeks of bullying by Joseph and his friends, DeMarcus has decided to take matters in to his own hands by purchasing a knife, mistakenly believing this will offer him protection.
During a special week of episodes, Hollyoaks delves into the impact this decision will have on DeMarcus and those around him, exploring the relationship between father and son, Felix Westwood (played by Richard Blackwood) and DeMarcus, as communication between the two breaks down.
Concerned for DeMarcus, Saul suggests to Felix that he join the police shadowing scheme. When the suggestion offends Felix, Zoe (played by Garcia Brown) becomes the voice of reason as they discuss racism within the police force and society. Alt spoke exclusively to writer Thabo Mhlatshwa Richard Blackwood and Tomi Ade about the storyline.
Tomi Ade plays DeMarcus Westwood
What was it like joining Hollyoaks in the middle of a really big storyline also knowing that Richard Blackwood was going to play your father?
I felt really privileged to come in at the time I did. I was lucky to join in The Black to Front Project episode, which of course was a predominantly a Black episode. There were good vibes from the start, I think I definitely got it easy in terms of just comfortability and really just getting used to the craft because I mean, this was my first job coming out of school.
I was a bit nervous starting somewhere new, I’d never been to Liverpool, up North. It was so different for me, but a lot of the people I made friends with and got close to were those people on the episode, who were all from London and out of coincidence all black. So we could relate on a lot of things.
Shooting that first episode felt more like a team building exercise, if anything, it really wasn’t work. And so the word I can really say is just privileged and, very, very fortunate.
Hollyoaks is about to deal with a new storyline which is dealing with knife crime. How does DeMarcus actually deal with this?
I think at this moment now it’s very shaky ground for DeMarcus because it’s territory he’s never really found himself in. He’s come to the village on a good note, he’s more or less been behaving himself and felt safe and protected by his dad and a lot of people around him. But this point in the story is the first time we’ve really seen DeMarcus challenged, by Joseph, by someone else who’s come from the outside, to the point where he’s felt like he’s had to acquire a knife just to protect himself.
And I think what’s important is, is how he deals with being a young black boy in a village where there is hardly anyone, if anyone, who looks like him, especially his age. In this day and age, a black man with a knife, there’s only one answer. There’s only one place you go.
Knife crime is normally associated with Black men and a London thing yet it’s very much a UK wide issue, how important are these stories are in terms of breaking down stereotypes?
I feel like it is exposure. It is being able to see these stories play out right in front of you, because there are lot of people who don’t live on the block. There are a lot of people who live very, very far away from things that are happening. So they can’t see it with their own eyes, but watching a show like Hollyoaks, where it’s visual, where they can see people like me in these sort of scenarios, they can then begin to empathize. They can then begin to understand. And I feel like that’s the first step to making change. If we all see what’s going on, we can then stand up. But if there’s only one or two of us who knows what’s going on, there’s not really much we can do.
What do you bring to your character as Demarcus and how much do you resonate with him?
I definitely think me and DeMarcus are very similar, we’ve sort of grown up in quite a similar way. I think our attitudes are very similar and so I think I just bring a sense of authenticity, if I can say that. Just growing up where I grew up and sort of living how I lived, I’m very similar to him in that way. Just highlighting people like me and stories like mine, I feel like that’s what’s most important.
And what does it feel like to be part of the Hollyoaks family?
It’s amazing, honestly, and I think I say that mainly because it’s a family on and offscreen, like these are people I am going to know and love for the rest of my life and that’s invaluable. So yeah, truly amazing.
Hollyoaks writer Thabo Mhlatshwa
How did this story come about, did you pitch the, idea to Hollyoaks, what is the process?
There was already going to be a knife crime story and it was going be centred around teenagers. And it was me who suggested to make DeMarcus, one of the black teenagers in the show to be the one who first carried a knife.
I’ll be honest with you, I was loathed to do it because he’s still only been on the show for less than a year.
The way I write, I don’t normally write knife crime stories, I try to write the antithesis of that. And even when I was pitching it, I wasn’t sure. But I live in Croydon and I grew up in Peckham and there is an issue about this in the community. I felt there was a social responsibility, and I think a lot of the time you have a social responsibility to tell these difficult stories and educate, try and educate the audience.
I pitched it not as a knife crime story, but as a father and son relationship story. So the knife crime become a shorthand, but ultimately it’s a father and son relationship story.
How much of the idea was on paper before it’s actually given the green light?
There was a lot of to and froing to get it to this stage, I’d done a lot of work on it because I wanted to get it right. Because as I said, it’s not the kind of story I’d normally tell and it’s obviously such a big issue. I knew I had to get it right. So I’d done a lot of work on paper before I actually pitched it. And yeah, there was a lot of work and they were very receptive, both at Hollyoaks and then at the Channel 4.
You said, you don’t normally write these kind of stories, but where you grew up these things happened, so when developing this story, how close to home was it for you if at all?
I’m going be very honest and say, I’ve been very fortunate in that knife crime hasn’t affected me as powerfully as it has affected a lot of other people, I’ve not lost anyone through knife crime. But it’s something that I see every day within the area that I’ve grown up in. So it’s something that does affect me. And yeah, I don’t want to say that I’ve got complete and all knowing about knife crime, but I’ve got an understanding of why someone would do that. Why someone would carry a knife, feel they have a need to carry a knife.
With that in mind, what were some of the challenges and, or support that you had in terms of getting the story factual, whether it’s forensic or police support, etc?
Firstly Channel 4, Lime Pictures, and Lucy Allan (Executive producer of Hollyoaks), they’ve all been very supportive, more so than any other story that I’ve worked on. I was brought into see the actors who were part of the story. We all had a conversation just about the story and about the issues that surround the story. And, it wasn’t just the actors, it was also other members of the #Hollyoaks production team who were involved in that kind of discussion and at each stage of the way I’ve always been consulted, not just on my episodes, but on other episodes that, come through. And there’s just a bigger kind of support unit that comes part of working with a soap. There were things that I didn’t think I would be allowed to say, especially one scene where, the Deveraux’s and the Westwood’s are just talking about the police. And it’s the kind of conversation you’d have in a black home. When I wrote it I thought, they’re not going to allow this. But that scene hasn’t been changed at all. So it’s great to have that kind of support.
Richard Blackwood (plays Felix Westwood)
There is a new storyline around knife crime how does Felix deal with DeMarcus being involved?
He backs him because he trusts his son. He also knows what kind of son he’s got. He knows that DeMarcus, he’s going through stuff, but he’s not a tough guy. He’s not tough like Felix, he knows that regardless of the estranged relationship that they had, he knows that his son was more pampered, and he didn’t have to go down that road like he did.
Felix was a foster kid, he was in a home, the care system from day one. There is a scene where he says to his son, you don’t know how easy you’ve got it. Like, no one cared for me when I was growing up. You’ve actually got your mum, even though we’re not together, she cares for you. And I care for you, you know? So to Felix, there’s a part of him that kind of doesn’t understand why he’s acting up. Cause he’s like, you’ve kind of got it good in comparison.
That’s been really nice to play as well because essentially Felix is not used to a kid just going through adolescent stuff. He thinks there must be a reason, you’ve got to be going through stuff. You can’t just have an issue for no reason. But when it comes to knife crime, now he knows that his son is not that. He cowers from a bully in a fist fight. He’s not a person that wants to do something like that.
Knife crime is associated with being London centric, associated with young black men. How much, do you think stories like this go to breaking down those stereotypes?
I think this one is, because yes, unfortunately we have a vast number of young black boys out here getting involved with knife crime. But what we deal with here, number one, how potentially a young boy could be walking around with a knife because sometimes it’s not with the intention of using it. Sometimes it’s just out of fear.
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Hollyoaks is now streaming first on All 4, with new episodes dropping every weekday morning. The show airs Monday to Friday on Channel 4 at 6.30pm and on E4 at 7pm. The episodes begin airing on July 15th. Selected omnibus episodes are available via Amazon Prime Video.
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