“Do you know what acceptable loss is?” asks a youth worker of 14-year-old Tyler, who stays silent, slumped in his chair, his eyes fixed on the floor.
The opening scene of Henry Blake’s debut feature County Lines drills straight into the horrors at hand. As Tyler, Conrad Khan communicates everything we need to know about this wary, withdrawn teenager with just his body language. His blue eyes dart testily up to meet the youth worker’s, for just an instant, before his sullen lack of interest returns. Only the word ‘casualties’ elicits a flicker of engagement. When she asks Tyler more directly “Do you know what acceptable loss is in your line of business?” he remains silent, but from the steely look he gives her it’s clear she has hit a nerve. “You,” she says. “You’re the acceptable loss.”
Tyler’s line of business is drugs. He’s one of the estimated 2,000 London teenagers who are involved in ‘county lines’ networks in the UK, through which criminal gangs exploit children, some reportedly as young as seven, to transport drugs – chiefly heroin and crack cocaine – from urban areas to coastal, rural or market towns, staying under the radar as they cross police and local authority boundaries. Vulnerable lone children and young adults are prized as they are easy to groom and manipulate, and their youth means they can operate in plain sight.
Tyler makes easy prey for local self-styled entrepreneur Simon (a menacing Harris Dickinson). He’s solitary, disengaged and disruptive at school, while at home he must play father to his younger sister as his mother struggles to make ends meet doing night-shift cleaning work. Simon woos Tyler with trainers and tales of running errands and being the man in his house but, as Tyler will learn, the reality turns out to be a tub of vaseline, a cling film-wrapped package and a train ticket to a drab house in a coastal town.
His first trip across county lines reveals the true hell of Tyler’s initiation into drug running. He finds himself in a ‘cuckooed’ trap house (the home of a vulnerable person that has been taken over by dealers to use as a drug den), surrounded by people shooting up and facing the ever-present threat of violence.
In a similar way to David Simon’s TV series The Wire (2002-08), County Lines counts the human cost of the drug trade on the young people in its ranks, while also exposing the ruthless mechanics of the system that traps them. Here we witness a production line that sees Tyler replaced with another young runner – with still more deadened eyes – as soon as he gets the train back into the city.
Social realist tales that reveal Britain’s grim underbelly are nothing new in our national cinema, but Blake’s film is fascinating not just because it exposes the nightmare of the county lines phenomenon, but because it raises the question of how someone can escape from it. Halfway through the film, just when you might be expecting an onslaught of trauma, Blake skips forward six months and we arrive back at the opening ‘acceptable loss’ scene. “After that first trip away you get it,” says Blake. “You think: ‘Okay, this is fucked up.’ He is in way over his head. You don’t need to see that again.”
I met Blake before coronavirus hit the UK, in a distant era when the hope was that his film would grab headlines for its insights into a very different epidemic. Blake’s background is in youth work; before making County Lines he spent 11 years working with real-life victims of county lines drug operations. “In the last five years county lines has got more attention,” he says “but it’s been going on for 15 years.”
Blake never went to film school. A child actor in New Zealand, where he was born, he got into youth work as an alternative to a bar job when he was looking for acting work in the UK. Blake discovered he had a particular knack for working with boys. “There’s that file in the storage cupboard that no one touches for years – that’s what I was being given,” he says. “I came to be known as the guy who could handle all of that.” Filmmaking remained a side ambition, though, and gradually Blake started to direct short films – with his wife Victoria, who is also a youth worker, producing them – but none were directly inspired by their line of work. (“I was scared,” he says.)
Then, in 2015, Blake worked on a case that he describes as so awful, he decided “people need to know this”. He was also concerned that, given the growing interest in county lines, another film might be made on the subject that lacked the authenticity and scope he felt it required.
Blake rightly feels that his experience in youth work enabled him to bring a real psychological depth to Tyler’s character. “Is Tyler a victim or a perpetrator, or both?” he asks. “If children like this are both, then I don’t feel that our safeguarding systems across this country can house the complexity of that child, because the pendulum can swing from victim to perpetrator, as you see in the film. County Lines asks: ‘How do you support that, how do you safeguard that?’”
This nuance of character extends to the supporting roles, particularly Tyler’s mother Toni (Ashley Madekwe). “The tone of that family was very specific,” says Blake. “I didn’t want to make Toni a heroin addict or an alcoholic. She’s a real mum who thinks her son is slinging some weed, but doesn’t understand the depth of the exploitation. She’s probably the character that I’ll defend to the hilt, because I know her.”
Blake’s experience also helped when it came to selecting his lead star and shaping Khan’s performance. Out of 300 tapes, he and casting director Aisha Bywaters auditioned 12 boys. “I was looking for an actor who could essentially do two roles: pre-trauma and post-trauma,” he explains. “We gave them the showdown scene with the mother as the audition [a violent scene that was inspired by an encounter Blake witnessed]. I wanted to see if the young actors would engage with the emotional warfare element of it, because it’s a war at that time in the household.”
In Khan, Blake spied an emotional intelligence and diligence. “Often when you’re working with young people, you’re having to give notes maybe three or four times before you get to that, and I didn’t want that,” he explains. “I wanted an actor who just responds. I said to him: ‘For 23 days of the shoot, you’re going to hear two words every single day, which are your safe words, those are action and cut, so no matter what happens in between, no matter how hard that is, you’re always going to hear those words.’ Children who are really being exploited never hear those words. He understood that and took it on.”
Angry diatribes don’t always make for great art, but County Lines balances its polemic and drama with bold stylistic choices – though as Blake cautions, “they’ve always got to be driven by the script”. And so, abrupt cuts jolt you between the different experiences of Toni and Tyler; there’s the imaginative framing of bodies and body parts, such as Simon’s eyes in a rear-view mirror lingering on Tyler as he notes which flat he lives in. In order to more vividly capture the heightened experience of Tyler’s trauma, the film becomes more impressionistic as Tyler makes his journeys out of London.
As for visual influences, Blake references the abstract manner in which Japanese street photographer Fukase Masahisa captured loneliness in his seminal 1980s photobook The Solitude of Ravens, as well as Elem Klimov’s legendary war movie and tale of lost innocence Come and See (1985).
Klimov’s film was also influential on Blake’s approach to filming violence, which, when it does erupt, is blurred and disorientating, something Blake and cinematographer Sverre Sørdal helped evoke by constantly altering the depth of field (Blake felt strongly that the typical handheld camera approach of much social realism had long been overdone). “A lot of filmmakers find violence very cinematic to shoot but I found it very distressing, because I have seen it,” he explains. “Trying to recreate it… you know when it’s bullshit. But trying to essentially fly as close to the sun as possible, that was very taxing.”
County Lines sits in a lineage of British films that have been made specifically to highlight overlooked social problems – be it Basil Dearden’s powerful examination of state-sanctioned homophobia in Victim (1961), Ken Loach’s Nell Dunn-scripted Up the Junction (1965), which exposed the horror of backstreet abortions; Alan Clarke’s indictment of the borstal system in Scum (1979); or more recently Loach’s lambasting of austerity with I, Daniel Blake (2016). These films contributed to widespread national debate, and in some cases actually led to changes in legislation (such as Up the Junction’s influence on the decision to legalise abortion in the UK in 1967, and Scum’s background influence on the Criminal Justice Act in 1982, which abolished borstals).
Catching up with Blake six months after the pandemic hit, he tells me that lockdown has been detrimental to the safeguarding of vulnerable children and adults, as youth workers haven’t been able to do their jobs: “For children in care and from dysfunctional families, during lockdown there was a lot more dead time, and dead time is a risk as they become much more susceptible. Pre-lockdown recruiting online via social media was happening already but lockdown has pushed it along. It just shows how sustainable and wilful criminal networks are under these circumstances.” But the pandemic shouldn’t be an excuse for not tackling county lines: “There is always something that is distracting people’s attention from focusing on this. Before the pandemic it was Brexit.”
If County Lines does contribute to a groundswell of awareness, what outcome is Blake ultimately hoping for? “There’s currently no national response to county lines. It needs a much more substantial, national response that looks at it from the ground up and that protects those most vulnerable,” he says. “The point of the film is to spill over that awareness into the public’s mind, because that’s where you’ll start to see pressure being applied to senior leadership across the country – from local authority all the way up to the highest levels. So whilst I don’t think the film in itself will change anything, it will contribute to that groundswell.
“As a front-line youth worker I have seen it get worse, year after year,” Blake continues. “I can’t do the job if you commission me for four or five weeks, just one hour a week, and expect me to tick all these educational boxes, as well as repair the family. You have to start taking what we do seriously. We’re not parents, we’re not the police, we’re not social workers, we’re maybe the only trusted adult, but we can only do our work if we are given time… and that means money. So that’s what I would love, because if you look at the film, it comes back to that ‘acceptable loss’ speech – that’s when the penny starts to drop with Tyler, and change becomes possible.”
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