A film about a boy from Leeds growing up on the wrong side of the tracks has finally made it to the big screen. Lindsay Pantry reports
When former social worker Bernard Hare, who was born and brought up in Leeds, wrote his deeply personal memoir detailing his startling experiences with a gang in the 1990s, it became one of the year’s most compelling and best-selling books.
Now it has been vividly brought to the screen, filmed on the very streets that inspired it, starring The Hobbit actor Richard Armitage, Neil Morrisey and Anna Friel, and a group of mainly unknown young actors.
But while the real events that inspired the book took place more than 20 years ago, the film’s director and producer, the award-winning Candida Brady and Hare say its core themes are just as relevant today in a post-recession, Big Society, cut-back Britain.
Hare, now 57, was living on one of East Leed’s roughest estates and had abandoned a promising career as a social worker when he first came into contact with Urban, the then 12-year-old son of a woman he had an on-off relationship with.
Even with his experiences of hard-living, he was shocked by the life Urban – real name Lee Kirton – was living. Not registered at school and with a dangerous solvent habit, his average day was spent sitting around a bonfire with his mates smoking drugs and stealing cars. Eventually, it was the friendship and support offered by Hare to Urban and his friends, know as the Shed Crew, that pulled them through, and 20 years on many now have successful jobs and families.
Hare’s book chronicling their friendship, which ultimately led to the writer adopting Kirton, Urban and the Shed Crew, was described by The Observer as ‘another City of God, this time for Britain rather than Brazil’ and sold 50,000 copies.
Brady had initially tried to secure the film rights to the book soon after its release, but contracts had already been signed. That film however, was never made, and it was only a chance remembering of the book in September 2012 that led her to contacting Hare, and ultimately bringing the film to life.
She was promoting Trashed, her award-winning documentary on the effects of the global waste problem starring Jeremy Irons, in New York at the time when she approached Hare.
“I’d never forgotten the warmth and observation in Bernie’s writing, and it suddenly came back to me,” she said. “It was amazing to me that nobody had already done it.
“It was such an extraordinary and horrifying story, but with a sense of humour while dealing with such horrible circumstances.”
She met up with Hare, and members of the Shed Crew, and they began working on a script. It brought in elements that took place after the timeline of the book, and filming started in March 2014.
Brady, who gave the film the tagline, ‘it only takes one person to care’, said the film’s core themes of deprivation, struggle and despair are still relevant.
“Sadly we now watching a repeat of the exact same thing happening today. You only have to look at what is happening with Tax Credits. Poverty is a syndrome. The statistics on the numbers of people using foodbanks is shocking, and yet we throw away 50 per cent of our what food we make which children are starving.
“I have teacher friends who are bringing in food for their pupils. We are not a third world country, this shouldn’t be happening.
“Childhood should be sacred. Urban’s story was one of the most shocking. No child should go through that, particularly one born in England.”
For Hare, the outlet of the suffering experienced by young people today may be different to how it was expressed by Kirton in the 1990s, but the root cause is the same.
“Back then, the kids were stealing cars all over the place,” he said. “There’s not quite the disorder there was then but there is still the suffering and the poverty behind the scenes. I think the story is still very relevant.”
Writing the screenplay with the benefits of 2015 technology was a different task to writing the book for Hare, who then, “would write into the middle of the night on a typewriter, only stopping when the old lady in the flat below would start hitting the ceiling with her broom.”
Kirton, 32 and living in Leeds, and other members of ‘the crew’ were heavily involved in production, helping scout locations, advising on filming, and some making use of their professional skills now. The film was shot entirely in Leeds, in some of the very spots the Shed Crew spent their days – and nights, sleeping rough.
Hare said: “One of the lads now has a security firm, so he was given the security contract in the film, another, Sparky in the book, he does aerials and Sky dishes, so every morning before filming started on a street, he’d take down the Sky dishes, and every night he’d put them back up.
“All the kids in the book now are grown up now, most with their own kids. There’s still some issues, but we’ve stayed together as a family. They look to me as their dad.”
Hare is still writing and regularly appears on BBC Radio 4.
“I’m starting writing Urban 2, but I’m much more aware now of how these things affect people’s lives now, so it’s a challenge. They all feel part of it” he said. “There are no shocks for them with the film.”
The film’s young stars, many working professionally for the first time, had a harrowing subject to take on, but Brady said they responded brilliantly, particularly Fraser Kelly, the Scunthorpe-born actor who plays Urban.
Brady said: “He was extraordinary. I knew the moment I heard him read he was right. It was an incredibly challenging part, and Fraser is a very sensitive chap. Not many kids would be able to take on such a huge undertaking.”
The film is being supported by the charity Action for Children, which has been working across Yorkshire for over two decades to support young people.
Chief executive Sir Tony Hawkhead said:“Although the film is set over twenty years ago, its core theme of neglect and the desperate need for early action to avoid families spiralling into crisis is just as important today. We see examples of chaotic lives like these on a daily basis. The good news is that because of our frontline work, we also see the truth in the film’s central message of hope.”
Richard Armitage, who plays Chop, the character based on Hare, was so moved by the experience of filming that he began a fundraising page for the charity, which has so far raised more than £3,000.
Armitage, whose father grew up in Leeds, said he hoped the film raised awareness of the charity’s work.
He said: “Filming Urban and the Shed Crew was a special time for me as I saw more of Leeds than ever before; it opened my eyes to the continuing struggle of families such as Urban’s who fight for a decent life on a daily basis.”