Interview with Perrie Balthazar and Matt Evans, creators, lead writers and executive producers

PHOTO: Summer (Lauren Corah), Billy (Alex Draper), Rani (Tara Webb), Khaled (Krish Bassi) & Darcy (Jayden Hanley)


BBC iPlayer

Tell us about Phoenix Rise?

M: We always said we wanted to focus on kids who had fallen through the cracks in the system, who were given one last chance to make a success of their time at school. That’s why we called it Phoenix Rise, because it’s six kids who are given one final chance to rise from the ashes to succeed at school. We wanted the show to be a hopeful place about second chances and it’s also about how school can bring positive change to kids who have widely been written off by society. Everyone loves an outsider, especially the ones who have a will to survive and a kind of guile and wit beyond their years.

P: Phoenix Rise champions the underdog, shining a light on kids who don’t often get a chance in the spotlight on British TV. Everything’s always played with a twinkle in their eye, there’s always a lightness to it and a sense of fun.

There’s a long history of TV dramas set in schools, what’s different about Phoenix Rise?

M: We’ve both worked on school dramas before, so our starting point was to find a fresh way into this and that’s when we hit upon the idea of looking at a new school through the eyes of these outsiders. They become our eyes and ears as we go into the school. We had a rule from the start that this would always be from their point of view, we even had a ‘no staff room’ rule so that we would never tell any stories from the teachers’ point of view.

P: Using these unique set of characters, we get to portray teenage experiences that young people go through: first love, friendship, family problems, mental health issues, we tell all those stories through the lens of these kids who are a bit different. So we explore quite different issues from those which young viewers will be used to seeing on British TV.

M: Every kid is trying to find a place where they belong. Our group forms a club of outsiders and we want viewers to feel like there’s always going to be a place for them and a group of friends for them, even if they feel like they don’t really fit in. It’s a celebration of the fact that you don’t have to fit in to find your tribe.

Why is it important for children to see themselves and their lives represented on screen?

P: We both grew up watching Grange Hill and it’s a massive inspiration for both of us. It was ground-breaking and went to places that other shows had never done before. I saw kids who looked like me, being mixed-race and being from a council estate, they were doing things that I did and my family did. It felt really relatable and quite aspirational to see yourself on TV. In a world where most stories have been told, we wanted to tell new stories and be a bit different with our approach. Nowadays it’s important that children from working class backgrounds are seen on British TV. We wanted to show the joy growing up and being a teenager regardless of your circumstance, no matter how difficult things might get, there will always be your friends who you can have a laugh with, you’ll still fall in love, you’ll still pass an exam or win a prize at school unexpectedly. Hopefully kids today will watch Phoenix Rise and see themselves. We’re really proud of that. We wanted to create something very British, but very real that wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues but always with that air of hope, optimism and fun.

M: Hope was a key factor for us. We felt that working class stories aren’t always depicted in a realistic or relatable way. Me and Perrie felt we wanted to be truthful about the struggles facing families today, but also celebrate the love and the joy within that. Billy and Rihanna’s estate for example is rundown but we really wanted to fill it with joy, we wanted to find the colour amidst the grey.

What are the central themes you explore?

P: When we started writing this, we were hearing about young people struggling with lockdown, not being in school and being isolated from their friends. We were very aware that, for many, home wasn’t the sanctuary that it is for other young people. School for some kids is the place where someone asks how they are or they get a decent meal and they see their friends and can maybe escape what’s happening at home. We all saw the joy of those kids going back to school. At the time, I think everyone was really happy to get back to school so we wanted to embrace that, that school can be a place of sanctuary, friendship and safety.

There have been a lot of headlines about the cost of living crisis and for most people who are living in less wealthy areas, there’s a constant crisis. I think that’s a thing that a lot of kids are used to but it’s not often portrayed and it’s not often understood by people who are not from that background. With Billy’s story we wanted to show the day to day grind of trying to survive, to keep the electricity on, to keep food in the cupboard but also at the same time, dealing with your hormones and all the standard things which go with being a 15-year-old. Having a crush on someone, not having decent trainers to wear for a party, these are big issues when you’re 15.

We also explore mental health with Summer’s story. On the surface you see a beautiful, confident, popular girl but we really get below her skin and see these problems that are facing so many teenagers. They’ve got a lot on their plate and we wanted to show that without being too heavy-handed. We see Summer becoming more resilient and more self-aware, she takes herself off to get help when she needs it. It’s a huge step for her, learning to live with her mental health issues rather than seeing it as a massive problem that she’s got to cure, she’s learning to live with it. At the same time, she’s got a crush on a boy, she’s got problems at home with her mum but she’s learning to stand on her own two feet. I really hope that people relate to her because she always deals with her problems, which I think is inspirational.

M: I think one of the biggest themes that we always come back to is that these kids are all put in a box, they’ve all got a label put around their neck saying ‘trouble’. Really this is about finding your voice, stepping out from the crowd and showing that you’re not the person that you are perceived to be. Especially with characters like Rani and Khaled, it’s about them finding their voice. Khaled was bullied at a previous school. Rani has had trouble with her family who are political refugees. They find strength through their friends and that’s always what we come back to, that whatever adversity these kids face, as long as they’ve got each other they can get through everything.

What do you enjoy about writing teen characters?

P: I love writing teen characters, they’re so wide-eyed and want to experience everything. As you get older, you get so jaded and bogged down in daily life that often you lose that zest for life. It’s the time of your life where you have the biggest problems, because they feel huge! Teens are so resilient, they have this energy for life and just keep going. As we said with Phoenix Rise, you just can’t keep them down, they keep coming back and I love that.

M: There’s a fearless quality to them. As you get older you become more guarded and worried about what people will think of you, what you’re going to say. Teenagers don’t care about that, which is so fun to write.

What are the challenges in writing for this audience?

M: We did a lot of research by going into schools and talking to lots of kids. I think we both realised that the language, the world of teenagers has changed, when we were at school there was no social media. But as Perrie said earlier there are universal experiences we all went through and that hasn’t changed. In some ways the language of the world has changed but we can still tap into the feelings that we had at that age and that’s really reassuring. I learnt that the world is a lot more accepting place than it was when I was at school. Now kids dare to be different and we get to celebrate that.

P: In general, they’re much more accepting and kinder, and curious about the world. It’s such a cliché but I feel like they can teach us such a lot in their attitudes.

Why did you choose to film in Coventry? How did you draw on your own experiences of growing up in the Midlands?

M: We’re both from the Midlands. I’m from the West Midlands, Perrie’s from the East Midlands. Coventry was always the middle ground for us. I always felt growing up there that sometimes the search for identity is more pertinent because you’re not a Northerner, you’re not a Southerner and you don’t feel like you quite fit in. That’s how I felt personally and that’s one of the things we wanted to tap into.

P: Coventry was bombed in the war and they re-built from the ashes. Their symbol is the phoenix because they rose from the ashes of WWII. Coventry also has an incredible musical heritage, with a mix of immigrants all living together, which you get in a lot of cities but they came together quite famously in the 70s and 80s to create their own genre of music. I love that about Coventry, it’s in the bones of the city. You walk through it and they’ve got these huge murals of the music artists from back then. We loved filming there. We also worked with a music producer from Coventry who read some early drafts of scripts and wrote bespoke music for the show. It’s very contemporary British music which is local to Coventry.

Tell us about the casting process?

M: We wanted local talent and authentic voices. We wanted to pick out raw talent and see that represented on the screen. We had quite an extensive casting process where we went via youth clubs, via social media and really had quite an exhaustive search for this. In a way, we wanted to feel like we weren’t getting kids to act.

P: We wanted it to feel real so you’re with those kids as they go through their rollercoaster journeys. The casting was a lot of fun and we found some absolutely brilliant talent. We’ve got young people in our show who had never acted before and they’re incredible, they light up the screen. I think the natural character of a lot of our actors definitely gives us a buzz and an energy. We had a weekend in Coventry where we had almost open casting. We had hundreds, it was so much fun and really difficult to choose in the end.

M: We also insisted that we had quite an extensive rehearsal period before we started filming. This is a show about friendships, we wanted to allow those relationships to blossom off screen so by the time we started filming, they’re six outsiders who become friends.


Phoenix Rise is available on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday 21 March and is on at 7pm, Friday 24 March on BBC Three.

Source BBC iPlayer

March 1, 2023 3:00am ET by BBC iPlayer  


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