Mhlatshwa career does not start here but he has served as a writer on Hollyoaks since April 2021, writing 13 episodes.
Mhlatshwa previously wrote, directed and edited a short entitled Revs, and also directed, edited and produced the 2013 horror film Young, High and Dead. In 2020 he was commissioned to write a twelve-part online series, titled My DG, which is a spin-off of the CBBC show The Dumping Ground.
Within Hollyoaks – in addition to being a scriptwriter – Mhlatshwa is notable for playing an integral role in the storylining process for the 2022 knife crime storyline (primarily involving character DeMarcus Westwood).
Thabo explains ALT how the storyline developed and what some of the processes that where involved from idea to paper then to the screen.
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.
The story involves police bias, that father, son relationship. So how did you develop this without making it look like a negative story about the police, what were some of the things that you wanted to make sure?
I wouldn’t say its police bias necessarily. I’d say it’s society’s bias, I wanted to point a mirror at society, basically with a story and like, say as soon as a black boy carries a knife, they’re guilty and nobody wants to hear any of the reasonings to why they might have carried a knife in that particular situation, why they might have been scared, why there might have been any other external issues that might have led into carry a knife. But it’s just, as soon as a young black boy carries a knife, they’re guilty. So it’s the bias, not just police bias but of society, ourselves included, you know what I mean? That was the bias I wanted to look at basically.
In terms of the way knife crime is portrayed it being a, a black youth thing, how far do you think this story speaks to audience in terms of this is not a black thing it’s more of a UK wide problem?
I think we certainly touch on that. We wanted to make clear that DeMarcus, obviously the young black boy, he carried a knife and now he’s in prison. There are other characters who used a knife and they’re living free. So like, we touch on those, those kind of things, and we were talking about the police, the police officer, who’s in the show, he’s a plays a big part he’s a black police officer and he deals with those kind of inherent issues that when you’re a black boy carrying a knife, you are guilty, but it’s not obviously just a black issue, it’s a society issue.
What do you want the audience to take from the DeMarcus, experience specifically?
The first thing I really want, if there’s any young, more specifically young boy, more specifically still young black boy watching, never put a knife in your bag, things can just go crazy in an instant. And it could be completely out of your control. You might be completely innocent. You might have the best reason in the world for carrying that knife. But at the end of the day, the world is gonna see you as guilty. And if things go crazy, it’s gonna be you, who the finger will be pointed at and nobody wants to hear any excuses. So that would be the first thing, like just that message to young black boys and then to society in general to stop and look and listen and think of the bigger issues at hand.
Yes. It’s young boys specifically, but this is a story about a young black boy carrying a knife, look at why a young black boy might feel they need to make that decision. Look at what society has done. The lack of funding for social clubs, for example, just the lack of strong male role models in the family unit, those kind of things. The school, what black boys are taught that they can achieve, which lead to young black boys feeling that they have no other choice, but to show out basically. So there are issues there. It’s not everyone just thinking, oh, the gangster life is cool. There are issues there. And look at those issues please.
In terms of the writing process, how do you manage multiple hours or across episodes in terms of keeping the vein of the storyline. So how do you work that in your head? Are you using like, cards?
Do you know what with a soap obviously the turnaround is so quick we’ve got such a great support team. And so I always feel guilty cause like, obviously it’s like me doing the interview, but there’s the storyliners, the script editor and so many people who are there supporting you at each stage of the way. The support unit just allows you to really get things done.
In regards to from paper to outline to script, how many changes are / do you, make. Are you still involved, after that process, once they start shooting, for example?
To a point yes, like once they start shooting, I’m normally working on two or three other scripts. So they can’t always bring me back, what I would say with this story because it goes on for a few more blocks, I’ve been brought in more at each stage than I would’ve been on like a normal storyline. Because obviously we all knew that it was so important, and we all wanted to get it right. But, at the same time there is a team and there is trust put into other people. But yes I was brought in from pitching stage to storyline. Not really so much as once things go into the set that’s where the trust has to be with the actors, with the directors, with the producers, et cetera.
Having written for CBBC, and children’s TV you’ve written for in the past? How different is this in terms of, the whole processes of writing?
It is always difficult, is is a different muscle, it’s a difficult question with Hollyoaks I am a lot more involved. When I have done children’s, I write what I have to write then I step out. Which is fine it makes for a quicker process.
Which scenes resonate most with you and make you most emotional?
I am literally going off the script, I know I am going to love the scene with Felix, Zoe and Walter, they are all talking about the police and they are just talking about their different views. The kind of conversation we would all have as a black family about our relationship with the police. And a scene between Saul and DeMarcus when Saul is the policeman who becomes a victim of the knife crime. He is a black policeman, he is the one who is trying to stop DeMarcus from carrying the knife. And there is going to be healing between Felix and DeMarcus as a father and a son which resonates with me.
With representation at the forefront of all conversations how important is it to you to be involved in a story that might help to dispel stereotypes?
It is very important, I often wish there was more of us. We are not a monolith, there is not just one voice of black people, there is multiple. It is improving, I have seen improvement on this show. All the time It needs to improve across the board with black producers, etc. We (industry) need to see in each stage of the production process change to really get that authenticity.
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