Still from County Lines - silhouette of family
County Lines (2019) Broder Blake
Stories & Ideas

Mon 04 Apr 2022

Shining a spotlight on child exploitation in the UK: Henry Blake on County Lines

Film Interview Representation
BFI icon - author


British Film Institute

As a youth worker, Henry Blake has firsthand experience of UK's illegal drug networks, and the effects of child exploitation and abuse on communities.

Watch County Lines at ACMI

More films in the Dissenters, Lovers and Ghosts: New British Cinema program


Stuart Brown: Hello, my name is Stuart Brown. I'm the Head of Program and Acquisitions at the BFI in London and the UK. I had the great pleasure of curating the season that's happening at ACMI.

I should probably say as well that, I acquired County Lines for release in the UK. It's been a really important part of British film culture, here in the last couple of years and a really, really important part of the work of the BFI.

Without further ado, I'm going to welcome our special guest, the Director of County Lines , Henry Blake.

Henry Blake: Hello, everyone.

SB: How are you, Henry?

HB: Good, mate. How are you?

SB: I'm all right. Thanks. Very well. Very well. Very happy to be doing this with you.

HB: Yes. Thank you for having me and thanks for acquiring the film.

SB: It was absolute pleasure, absolute pleasure. As you know, we've discussed many times in the past, I saw the film during the London Film Festival. Immediately got on to it, wanted to work with it. It felt important and moving. All of the things that I think cinema can do, it did to me.

I was wondering, for the audience in Melbourne who've just seen the film, maybe if you could talk to us about the phenomenon that is county lines because I, honestly don't have much of an idea whether something similar exists there or whether this is a new concept for people in Australia. Obviously, in the UK, it's kind of, part of our lives in a way.

I wonder if you could just give us a description based upon your real-life experience of it.

HB: Of course. County lines is the term which has come in very much into the consciousness, the British consciousness over the last, I would say, 10 to 15 years. Especially in the last five years, it's really ramped up that term in the headlines.

What it refers to, national drug distribution lines that are ruthlessly organised and very sophisticated, and run by many criminal networks. The drugs, the main two drugs that are trafficked are crack cocaine and heroin. One of the devices to traffic, one of the most commonly used devices to traffic those drugs are children.

Over the last decade, export towns or cities such as London and Liverpool have become oversaturated. The drugs markets have become oversaturated. What criminal networks have done in a very entrepreneurial way and imaginative way is, extend their drug distribution lines outside of those cities. Those lines now span the whole of the UK.

Obviously, with expansion comes more need to traffic the drugs, to move them. That's where children, a lot of the time, children who either come from low socioeconomic status, who have been expelled or removed from mainstream education, and they go through a grooming process. Then they are trafficked out of their home area, and can be trafficked very, very large distances.

One of the key component with county lines, really is the exploitation component. That's what makes it so dangerous and so traumatising, is that children as young as 10 can be groomed and then they'll be exploited, and they can be sent as far away... I've worked with a boy who was trafficked from East End London to Aberdeen, Scotland. Over the course of that trip was physically abused and saw some terrible, terrible things.

It's a unique scenario that's... I think has got to a stage, which you just said, Stuart, which has unfortunately become pretty commonplace.

SB: Yeah. When you say you've worked, maybe you could explain what you do when you're not directing films, and what your journey was into making County Lines as a feature.

HB: Alongside my filmmaking, for the last 11 years I was a youth worker in London, working with very, very vulnerable children aged from about eight years old all the way up to 18. I was going all over different boroughs doing that one-to-one mentoring, trying to reengage young people who had been taken out of mainstream education.

Through that work in 2015, I was working with two groups of children in an educational facility known as a PRU, a Pupil Referral Unit who were being exploited and trafficked via county lines criminal networks.

Obviously, over the last 10 years, you as a filmmaker, you're working on projects, you're developing, but at the same time you have to pay the rent. Youth work was paying the rent, but it also afforded me this very tough but fascinating insight into, really another world and a different Britain. A Britain that, on some levels was being neglected, and didn't really have any sort of authored voice to it, certainly within cinema.

SB: I think that's quite an important thing to understand, is that county lines had been, at least my experience was, it had been reported a bit in the media here. Actually, most reference to it, when I saw the film that, I recognised was actually from UK hiphop or grime, because it's quite a big subject matter or reference point within a lot of those tracks. That's how I latched on to what it was.

When we released the film over here, a big part of the release was about awareness raising, wasn't it? It was to try and get as many eyeballs as possible on this, I guess, to use it as activism, a social campaign to try and get some more coordinated work done in the various police forces up and down the UK, on this.

HB: Yeah. Mark Kermode referred to the film as an authored piece of cinema, but at the same time like a public service announcement, which I think's a really nice way of putting it.

SB: Yeah. It's a sort of wake-up. There's definitely a kind of thing where there's this feeling that it's a taboo as well, because if you look at the numbers of people who are affected by this, it's a really massive, massive number of people. The extended, kind of –

HB: Yes.

SB: – the victims and then there are your families, then the wider circles. I think people just are very reluctant to talk about it. Hopefully, the film and the release have changed that to some degree.

HB: Yeah. It's an uncomfortable truth especially when you're dealing with children. This is also British children who have been exploited, really heavily exploited. Safeguarding communities across the UK are really struggling with the scale and depth of trauma that those children are exhibiting once they return home.

It's been a huge, huge undertaking for the safeguarding communities. It's also exposed massive weaknesses in security force communities and safeguarding practices because you've got children who are going cross-boundary, sometimes multi-cross-boundaries.

On a bureaucratic level, who is responsible for that child? Obviously, the first answer there is the parents. What do you do when a child who is being exploited via county lines doesn't have parents, or is in a foster home, or is in a care home or another setting like that?

It's a massive, massive challenge and it has, essentially changed as of this year. It's changing the architecture of safeguarding practice in the UK. We've never had anything like that. I mean, probably the other massive structural safeguarding issue that we had was Rotherham, where the girls were sexually abused, but county lines is bigger than that.

SB: They're very interesting in relation to one another in terms of problems this country has been dealing with in the recent period. I want to bring it back to identity. The season we're presenting at ACMI is part of a wider UK, Australia, kind of cultural exchange season across lots of different art forms. We were asked to respond to a provocation which is, 'who are we now?'

I hope that me and my co-curator, Nia Childs, have put a season together that answers that in some way, or presents collectively, a kind of idea of Britishness which is authentic and real.

Viewers in Melbourne might have noticed your accent. I certainly have been more aware of it in this session. I wonder, can I ask you about your identity and how Britishness is part of that?

HB: I grew up in New Zealand, in Wellington and Tauranga, and I'm first-generation New Zealand. My parents are from Britain, and immigrated over to the country in the 70s, I believe. Then, I'm a child of the 80s.

It's an interesting one because it was a wonderful, wonderful upbringing, you know? It's outdoorsy, and there was lots of sport and a lot of physical freedom and very safe. I grew up with a really strong flavour of British and Britain, you know?

I always remember the BBC News being on, Casualty, The Bill, Harry Enfield, Mr. Bean, Kevin & Perry Go Large, Fawlty Towers and a lot of British literature as well.

It was funny, and I spent many holidays over here, so it's not unfamiliar for me. A lot of my family, my grandparents onwards are British. It's always felt like home.

SB: When you were writing and putting the film together, particularly casting the film, did you have a feeling of a British cinema or was it more laser focused on the subject matter at hand?

HB: I had a sense of what had come before, and you can have a very strong sense of what has come before with whatever film you make. At some point in the process, you have to do you, you know?

Because of my relationship with the subject matter, which I always describe this film as a diary entry because it's so personal, and the characters are so personal and very painful. I was never looking in the rearview mirror at those, maybe more presumed references.

SB: The reason I ask about the casting ... I'll ask you about the performances, which were extraordinary, in a second. If you look at the cast, it is in itself, very multicultural. Was that, from the outset, an important part of the story making process or was that just an accident of casting? The way you conceived the story, was that already in there?

HB: No, it was a very... I wanted the film and its casting to reflect my work as a youth worker. Turning up every single day, you're walking into rooms that you haven't been before, and you see such an eclectic, and meet such an eclectic mix of young people and professionals.

There had been this very tired and lazy stereotype up until 2015 that, county lines could be attributed to one community, i.e., the black community. My experience of it working with children was far broader than that. I wanted the film to reflect a much wholesome, inclusive fabric of Britain.

SB: The performances that you've managed to get from the cast, it was a brilliant cast that you've got, are really extraordinary. I remember it knocking my socks off. I'd never heard of Conrad before, and I immediately got out and started Googling Conrad Khan.

Not just Conrad, across the board, I think that the performances are really, really extraordinary and powerful. Can you, maybe talk a little bit from the perspective of being the director, what was your method and how did you get everyone on to that frequency which is there in the film?

HB: I think with Conrad, we cast him a good year before we were shooting. Him and I would just meet up, maybe once every two weeks. I would just send him away with questions. You know, it was very gentle work.

I think with an actor like that who has a huge degree of sensitivity, you don't want to micromanage them, but you also don't want to dump a dossier of prep because it can become a burden. It was very gentle work. Then trying to create that relationship with deep trust, because obviously there was a big responsibility there.

With someone like Ashley, Ashley Madekwe who plays Toni, his mother, she had a very, very clear in from reading the script, which was her mother. Having grown up in South London, she had a really strong sense of what this was.

My main note to her with Toni was dignity, you know? Was, we can take her through the ringer, but I want her to have dignity at all times. Then with Harris Dickinson, it was, again, just meeting up and talking about his life, Simon's life outside of him grooming young people and actually having a whole other identity, if you like.

It was just about creating well-rounded approaches and not being too heavy-handed as a director, because I think sometimes that can go against you, you know?

SB: Yeah.

HB: I spend my time doing this, most of the time, Stuart: "Let's go again, but just less," at the set –

SB: That's advice to anybody who –

HB: ... the visual languages, because when you author a really strong visual language and a visual philosophy, then a lot of the time, with the actors, you're saying, "Look, you don't need to do all the work. I'm doing a lot of the heavy-lifting for you."

SB: Yeah. Well, I have to say, for my money that the performances make the film is absolutely extraordinary. Again, just thinking about this season as a collective thing that we've put together, I wanted to ask you about your ... Do you feel part of a community of filmmakers or creatives in the UK? Is there some sort of, sense of community of practitioners?

HB: I think it's interesting because I didn't before County Lines and that was purely because of what I did with youth work. I hadn't been to film school, and none of the short films that I made were successful. I was very much darting around the city, trying to get my filmmaking activated.

It's interesting, the year that we are included in, and many of the films, the 2019/20 year, which a lot of them are in this season, there has been a sense that we are part of a similar... Well, not a similar approach, but a new voice of British cinema coming through.

I would say, the BFI and your work has really made me feel that as well. It's nice to know that there are other people out there making similar work, or at least have a similar intensity in their work. I would say yes, but I very much keep to myself quite deliberately in terms of the industry, you know?

I'm quite obsessive when working on something, and I'm not much used to anyone else and networking events, et cetera. I just crack on with the work and I think that's the most important thing, really.

SB: We can work on that together.

HB: Yeah [laughs].

SB: Just leading on from that, I wonder in terms of where British cinema is at, at the moment, is there anything that you've been particularly inspired by, or is there anything you think might be missing from our national cinema?

Do you have any strong feelings about where we are going or where we should be going, or do you just focus on your creative practice and get on with that?

HB: I would say, for the most part I'd probably just focus on my creative practice. What I would say is that there's been some amazing films over the last... From Mark Jenkin's Bait, and then Rose Glass' Saint Maud, Aleem Khan's After Love. There's another couple there, excuse me for forgetting. Those are three that I think, if you were to look at those, that's super exciting work.

What I would say about them, if you were to look at all three of them is that the central performances of them are extraordinary. I would say it's [British cinema] in really good health, you know? For me, acting is, it's really important that the performances are really strong. I think there's filmmakers out there now who are getting incredible performances. You know, Morfydd Clark is incredible in Saint Maud.

SB: Yeah.

HB: Joanna, Joanna Scanlan in After Love.

SB: Yeah. She's nominated for a BAFTA, which is in a couple of Sundays' time.

HB: Mark is just doing such an original and really important style of cinema which is not London, it's Cornish. Performances there are reflecting that sort of anthropological approach, which I love. I'd say it's in really good health.

SB: Yeah. I think that those of us in the industry, I think we feel we are in an interesting moment for national cinema.

HB: Really.

SB: My own feeling, having been a bit of a veteran of the industry now is that, for a really long time, people talked about the need to diversify, the need for more voices to come through, the need for more women to be making decisions in filmmaking processes, whether that's writing or directing or other –

HB: Absolutely.

SB: I feel like there was lots and lots of talk, but I do feel like the last five, six years, change has started to happen. It does feel like, now we've got a richer and more representative national cinema which is probably reflecting life in the UK better than it used to.

HB: Yes.

SB: I think there's always a long way to go with those things. The work is never done. Hopefully, we're on a trajectory now, where that's going to keep changing, and we're going to be welcoming a wider multiplicity of voices into the frame, as it were.

HB: Yeah.

SB: I think we're out of time, Henry.

HB: Okay.

SB: I want to say thank you to you for giving us your time and talking about your brilliant film, County Lines .

HB: Thank you.

SB: I want to thank our friends and colleagues at ACMI for working with us on the project. We're looking forward to the season that they're bringing to the BFI in London, which will be happening later this year. Maybe you can come down to the BFI and watch some of the films that you put on for us.

HB: Absolutely. I'm a huge fan of Australian cinema. One of my favourite, favourite, favourite films of all time is, Wake in Fright.

SB: Oh, great film.

HB: Which I think's just... They've re-released after Cannes, because it played in Cannes a few years ago.

SB: Yeah, that was a restoration, I think. Yeah. Yeah.

HB: Yeah, and I bought the restoration. I mean, that is a great, great film.

SB: Well, I think the season that they do for us will be in September, so come down.

HB: Definitely going to catch it. Thank you, Stuart.

SB: Thanks, Henry. Good to see you. Thanks. See you soon, yeah? Take care.

HB: Thank you, everyone. Bye.