The uplifting directorial debut of actor and TV presenter Reggie Yates, Pirates follows a pirate radio crew of three teenage boys who embark on a short and hilariously calamitous road trip. In a rickety yellow Peugeot 205, they set out from north to south London on New Year’s Eve in 1999. Their destination: the ‘Twice as Nice’ millennium party in Vauxhall.
Remembering the clubs, slang, music and fashion of the UK garage scene in the 1990s, the film is a fictional, comedy caper with autobiographical elements drawn from the 38-year-old director’s youth. Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) provided a visual touchstone; at the age of 14, Yates was blown away by that film’s breathless depiction of the Parisian banlieue. For Pirates, he was interested in portraying his London experience through the joy and uncertainty of three teenagers at a crucial point in their lives.
“So much of London and so much of my past is in this film”, explains Yates. “Subcultures have always been incredibly interesting to me. Quadrophenia (1979) was a film that I watched in my teens. I wanted to be a mod, I didn’t want to be a rocker. At that time, I didn’t realise that the subculture I was a part of could end up on film and be cinematic at the same time. La Haine [is] tonally very different; it just made me realise that stories of this scale could be cinematic in a lot of ways.”
We meet Yates and the film’s trio of young stars in Finsbury Park, just round the corner from where the original Freek FM pirate radio station transmitted from a tower block in the mid-90s, and the Seven Sisters Snail, a mural which appears in the film. For Elliot Edusah, who plays Cappo, insider knowledge was key to getting to grips with what it was like to live through the era. “Google can’t teach you this kind of stuff,” he says. “We got to speak to Lonyo and DJ Spoony. They explained to us how important garage was to them, how important going to the party was, how important the clothes were, the haircuts and all of that.”
Co-star Reda Elazouar, who plays Kidda, agrees: “You know what’s going on when you see an off-key Mosch! It marks the era.” Colourful Moschino shirts and ostentatious two-piece suits for the men were a key part of the subculture, with a rave night at the legendary multi-room warehouse nightspot Bagley’s in Kings Cross even named after the Italian fashion brand. “I don’t usually wear shades to the club,” adds Jordan Peters, who makes up the trio of young stars, playing Two Tonne.
Pirates’ soundtrack is packed full of ‘pure’ garage anthems, including DJ Luck & MC Neat’s ‘A Little Bit of Luck’, with Yates teasing the song and using the bassline drop in thrilling style. Pioneers of the UK garage scene Dreem Teem and names like Sticky, Ms Dynamite, So Solid Crew and Wookie will be familiar to any turn-of-the-millennium UK garage heads. Their music features heavily in the film, and for the young actors – who cite Dave, Stormzy and Burna Boy as current favourites – being introduced to it was an education.
“Reggie put his whole experience into it, and all the music in it is how I made my first UK garage playlist”, explains Elazouar. Before filming began, Yates took Edusah, Elazour and Peters to the place where he wrote the script for Pirates. At a weekend away at Richard Curtis’s Walberswick house on the Suffolk coast, they bonded over music and movies, watching Trading Places (1983) and Superbad (2007) for comedic inspiration.
The songs were always written into the script. “I’ve lived with those records for over 20 years,” says Yates. “As someone who started out as an MC, who got taught how to mix playing records, you know those songs intimately. You know when the beat drops. These songs are cinematic in a way that they’ve just never really been allowed to be before. From the beginning I’ve always wanted to use those records because they always sounded big to me.”
The young cast were also enamoured by the sense of freedom conveyed in a pre-smartphone era. Set in the days before everyone was connected via the internet, the way music was shared was a far cry away from what the three actors have experienced. “We want to live in that era. I wish I was Reggie’s friend back in the day”, says Elazouar.
Pirates captures all the excitement and energy of a good night out. It’s a joyful depiction of the London garage scene in the late 90s when gig tickets were purchased at the record store, pirate radio played the latest bangers and clubs refused entry if you weren’t wearing the right garms.
“I can’t even put into words how special that era was,” beams Yates. “In Bagley’s, the main room was 2,000 people. You talk about energy… no one is looking at their phone because no one had smartphones. There’s no VIP, it’s just that many people all in a room and when the bass drops… gosh!”
Pirates, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 26 November 2021