Phoenix Rise: Kids’ drama rises from the ashes

Phoenix Rise: Kids’ drama rises from the ashes

Thursday, 9th March 2023
Cast of Phoenix Rise stood against a wall
Phoenix Rise (from left): Alex Draper (Billy), Imogen Baker (Leila), Lauren Corah (Summer), Tara Webb (Rani), Jayden Hanley (Darcy) and Krish Bassi (Khaled) Credit: BBC
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

New children’s show Phoenix Rise tackles exclusion, bullying and anxiety but still manages to be funny. Matthew Bell was on set

Children’s TV hasn’t been the same without Grange Hill, Phil Redmond’s seminal series, but the new kid on the block, Phoenix Rise, is taking up the baton for teen drama.

It’s singularly British: realistic and gritty, but also laugh-out-loud funny – and never patronising. With an urban soundtrack and a diverse cast, American high-school glamour thankfully feels a world away.

As Matt Evans, co-creator of the 20-part BBC iPlayer series, admits, “There has been a Grange Hill-shaped hole in the schedule.”

Evans and writing partner Perrie Balthazar were talking to Television on location in a disused and freezing school hall last November.

The pair met in the EastEnders writers room and discussed working together again when their paths crossed scripting Channel 4 school drama Ackley Bridge. Both had been asked independently to pitch ideas for a new BBC teen drama and they decided to write in tandem. “We felt strongly from the beginning what we wanted the show to be – the themes are friendship, loyalty, sticking together and the underdog,” recalls Balthazar.

Phoenix Rise follows six misfit teens taking their first steps back into mainstream education after being excluded. The series is available on iPlayer, rather than CBBC, as it is skewed slightly older than the channel’s target audience.   

At the writers’ insistence, the show is set in Coventry – it’s “slap bang in the middle”, says Evans, between his home town, Shrewsbury, and Northampton, where Balthazar was raised.

The title takes its name from the mythical bird, the immortal Phoenix, which rises again from the ashes of its predecessor. The creature is the symbol of the new Coventry, rebuilt after much of the city was flattened during the Second World War.

Writers often leave kids’ drama behind when they start penning adult series, but not these two. “It’s a time in your life when so much is going on: it’s so exciting but scary at the same time,” says Balthazar. “You never really have those feelings again with that intensity – first love, making your first best friend, realising your parents aren’t perfect. Those firsts are what’s always excited me about writing for young people.”

Krish Bassi, Lauren Corah and Alex Draper run down corridor
Phoenix Rise (from left): Krish Bassi (Khaled), Lauren Corah (Summer) and Alex Draper (Billy)
Credit: BBC 

“Matt and Perrie really had something that could reflect the experiences of lots of different kids and champion the underdog,” says Tali Walters, creative director, BBC Studios Productions Kids & Family. “There were some other shows in the running… but Phoenix Rise stood out as original and relevant to this generation.

“British children are watching so much content on TikTok, YouTube or Netflix and that’s great… but they are consuming so much American experience…. It’s really important that they get a chance to see their own lives reflected on screen and something that’s uniquely British.”

The estate where lead character Billy Hopkins lives, says Balthazar, is “really similar to where I grew up in Northampton. We wanted to show the fullness of that kind of childhood, but also that it’s not all misery and poverty. You can be poor but still have strong family ties, a sense of loyalty and purpose, and a sense of community.

“The class element was huge for both Matt and me. We felt that these kinds of children are not represented [on TV] and, if they are, it’s not very authentically.”

The pandemic, although not part of any storylines, had an effect on the writers’ thinking. “We talked a lot in our pitch about the euphoria kids felt when they were finally allowed to go back to school and we wanted to capture that,” recalls Evans.

“School is not always a terrifying place; for some children, it’s a sanctuary,” adds Balthazar.

The pair scripted eight episodes and set up a writers room to produce the other episodes. “We got writers from different ethnic backgrounds, writers with disabilities, young and working-class writers,” says Balthazar.

Phoenix Rise was shot during the second half of last year in and around Coventry, largely at a former secondary school, Woodlands Academy. “There’s not a huge amount that gets shot in Coventry, so this was a huge commitment to the area,” says Walters.

The BBC Studios Kids & Family production worked with ScreenSkills to bring trainees on set and with local schools to find 300 extras. “We’ve had such nice feedback from teachers in those schools, about how it’s changed behaviour and aspirations. Local kids got experience of what it’s like to be on set and think of television as a possible career,” says Walters.

Coventry is the home of Two-Tone acts such as The Specials, and Phoenix Rise features contemporary Coventry music talent. “We set out to get young, unsigned artists from the local scene and give them an opportunity to create our soundtrack,” says Walters. “Goodness me, we found some talent.”

Both writers plump for Grange Hill, which ran for a staggering 600 episodes from 1978 to 2008, as their favourite children’s show, although Evans also picks the BBC’s mid-1990s stage school drama, The Biz, starring Paul Nicholls, who also appears in Phoenix Rise.

Early in his career, Evans wrote for Grange Hill: “It was a pinch-me moment to get to work with Phil Redmond. I learnt a lot from him about how to write kids’ drama… that you should always tell the story from the kids’ point of view.”

Balthazar adds: “We always said we didn’t want to talk down to the kids and we wanted to make a show that they wouldn’t feel patronised by. Grange Hill did that in my era.”

Can Phoenix Rise become as significant to today’s kids as Grange Hill was to their parents and grandparents? “That’s the ambition, that Phoenix Rise might leave such an indelible mark on this generation that it’s something they talk about to their kids or reminisce about with friends later in life,” says Walters.

Phoenix Rise is unique. It isn’t a copy and paste Grange Hill in any way – but we would like it to be as impactful.”

No grandstanding in Coventry

Credit: BBC

‘There was a real effort to cast in the local area. We didn’t want to get everyone from drama school in London and ship them up to Coventry – that would have changed the whole feel of the show,’ says the BBC’s Tali Walters, creative director at BBC Studios Productions Kids & Family.

The production worked with a casting agent, recruiting via social media and visiting schools and theatre groups. All 35 principal roles were cast from the Midlands, with many from Coventry itself. ‘As local and as unpolished as possible,’ was the casting motto, recalls co-creator Perrie Balthazar.

Phoenix Rise’s main character, 15-year-old Billy Hopkins – who is left to look after his 11-year-old sister after his father (ex-EastEnders actor Paul Nicholls) fails to return from a lorry driving job – is played by Alex Draper, who was discovered at a Nottingham workshop. ‘He’s a proper little star, really authentic, very naturalistic and that’s what we wanted to go for – no jazz hands,’ says co-creator Matt Evans.

‘A lot of the aspects of Billy I recognise in myself at 15 years old.… I can relate to him,’ says Draper, who is now 19.

‘I can be serious with [the role]; I don’t have to go too over the top comically and I can put on a performance that I believe is real – that’s my favourite kind of acting.’

Has Phoenix Rise given him a taste for acting? ‘I feel very blessed and lucky. It’s a good feeling,’ says Draper, who has appeared in the BBC One soap Doctors. ‘I’m going to keep pushing myself out there and whatever happens, happens. I would love more jobs like this… I’m going to keep doing my thing and see where it leads me.’

Jessal Kullar-Bell and Josh Cullinane play a couple of troublesome kids. Kullar-Bell, who is from Kenilworth and recently turned 20, describes her character, Cassidy Dhillon, as ‘horrid; she’s so rude. She doesn’t care about anyone or their feelings… she’s a bully.’

Cullinane, 18, plays Nathan. ‘He has layers to his character. Obviously, he is a bully but there are reasons behind it… he has different sides.’

Cullinane, who is from Coventry, says: ‘It is a nice city and I do think Phoenix Rise will help to show it in a more positive light instead of grey.’

And, adds Kullar-Bell, smiling, ‘Miserable’. She says the series portrays the city in all its vibrant diversity: ‘It’s so nice, especially as we’ve both grown up in and around Coventry, that it’s getting the recognition it deserves.

‘Hopefully, Phoenix Rise will inspire a lot of young people from Coventry and the surrounding area that you can always have a second chance.’

The first 10 episodes of Phoenix Rise come to BBC iPlayer on 21 March; the second 10 episodes in the autumn.

You are here