County Lines isn’t an easy film to watch. Following six months in the life of a 14-year-old who gets groomed by a local drug dealer into a violent trafficking business, it ends with the statistic that up to 10,000 children as young as 11 are now involved in something similar across the UK. Violent, angry and painfully authentic, the film feels more realistic than most for a good reason – it was made by a guy who actually knows what he’s talking about.
“I’ve been a youth worker for 11 years”, says director Henry Blake, who moved from New Zealand to London when he was 24. “I worked predominantly with young boys aged 10 to 17 – really fucked-up cases. I was seeing a hell of a lot of neglect, poverty, sexual abuse, physical abuse… unfortunately within the social care sector it’s what we call the ‘standard stuff’. But in 2015 a colleague rang me up and asked me to help out with a group of boys who were all being traumatised, trafficked or exploited by County Lines gangs. I’d heard about it before, but that was the first time it was alive in the room for me.”
At its simplest level, County Lines involves moving illegal drugs from A to B, often over local authority boundaries – using dedicated mobile phone lines to take orders, and using highly vulnerable young children to do the trafficking. Operated at the top level by large organised crime networks, it’s a system that runs on exploitation, with older dealers grooming younger kids to keep their distribution lines flowing.
“The lightbulb moment for me was when I was working with a 15-year-old boy who’d been missing for three weeks in Plaistow,” says Blake, walking NME around his flat via Zoom. “He came back into the area and the first thing that happened to him was that his own criminal network slashed his throat, because he’d lost their drugs. He survived, and when I asked him where he’d been for three weeks he told me he’d been in Aberdeen, Scotland. Suddenly all this information, and all this trauma, just came spilling out.”
Spending his days as a youth worker and his evenings trying to develop short film scripts with his producer wife, Victoria Bavister, Blake started toying with the idea of turning his social work experiences into a drama – but hesitated when he thought about how painful the experience could end up being for anyone involved.
“These young boys were really, really messed up,” he says. “Most people were looking at them and just seeing young drug dealers that need to be locked up, but I was getting this whole other side of it. These were just kids, and they were being absolutely ripped to shreds by the system. I went home that night and I said to Victoria, ‘if we don’t do this, someone else will do it, and they’ll do it badly’.”
After making a short (2017’s County Lines), Blake screened it at training centres around the UK for social workers and police forces, calling it a “short, sharp stab that’s pretty uncomfortable to watch.” Deciding there was still too much ground left to be explored, he decided to develop the idea into a longer script – showing each draft to friends, colleagues, gang workers and reformed criminals (including one ex-dealer who became the model for the film’s main dealer) until he had something he felt was honest.
Casting new British talent Conrad Khan in the lead role of Tyler was easy – “He walked into the audition and the whole atmosphere was different”. But Blake wanted to tell a hundred real life stories at once, so he needed his main character to be the opposite of what most people might expect from the young dealers that make the local headlines.
“Tyler is the embodiment of every young person I’ve ever worked with,” he explains. “What most people would see, when they meet Tyler, would be six months later – when he’s a fucked-up, defiant, aggressive, malnourished, filthy kid. Most people look at him and go, ‘That’s what’s wrong with our society’, but I see that first six months.”
Lonely, poor, and vulnerable, Tyler is befriended by older dealer Simon (Harris Dickinson, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil) in a carefully planned pattern of grooming that Blake has seen played out too many times before. “They’re not going to choose the gobby shitbag who’s going to run his mouth off and be the big tough guy,” he says. “They’re going to choose the quiet kid who’s walking by himself on the way home. It’s very psychologically targeted. The grooming process will be very covert, and the victim won’t even know it’s happening. Like you see in the film – it’s fulfilling a deeper social, economic and psychological vacancy in their lives.”
As Blake explains, the biggest problem with County Lines is that it’s incredibly easy. Built around a simple and effective business model, it feeds on vulnerability and renews itself organically as younger kids grow up and start looking for ways to exploit others in the same way. Worse still, it only ever thrives in Britain’s growing economic underclass.
“Poverty is everything,” says Blake. “When you criminalise a child you often ignore a lot of things. They’re doing what they’re doing because they don’t want to be at home. Home isn’t always a safe place for them. Then you have to look at situations where the parents are profiting from it too… If a child is bringing in enough money to pay the gas and leccy, and when the esteem of the whole family has been beaten down by poverty, then naturally the child is going to carry on doing it.”
As Tyler gets more deeply involved, and as his mum (Ashley Madekwe) starts to rely more heavily on his income, things start getting violent. Slowly turning from victim to perpetrator, Tyler suffers brutal attacks himself before getting aggressive with his own family, with one harrowing domestic scene forming the turning point of the whole film.
“That was scene 81,” smiles Blake, remembering it all too well. “People don’t know how personal that scene is. I’ve been in that scene. I’ve had to restrain a son who has been physically assaulting his mum. And I can’t tell you how many other parents I’ve spoken with who are afraid of their child, who have seen their child transform before their eyes, and who have been physically assaulted by them. It was tough to shoot, and I was trying to get as close to it as I could. When you’ve seen it in real life, you can spot the bullshit.”
Blake hopes as many people as possible will see the film – and that it starts new conversations around tackling the problem. Awareness is key, he says, from kids who might not know what’s happening to them to the politicians in a position to do something about it. However, Blake has a realistic outlook about what the future holds for kids like Tyler.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he says, leaning in closer. “On my honeymoon I was fortunate enough to go to San Francisco and I did the Alcatraz tour. I stood in a prison cell and I heard the guide explain how prisoners could hear the sounds of the city carrying through the bars – all the sounds of freedom and happiness. It drove them mad. That’s how a lot of children like Tyler feel in London. So many go with, yet so many go without. It’s always just within arm’s reach. And it could all be so different.
“The economic impact of this year is obviously going to be felt for a generation. There needs to be a growing and consistent and rigorous examination of poverty in this country. I know it’s an uncomfortable discussion and I know it makes some people roll their eyes, but if we don’t start soon it’s just going to get worse. I always go back to my favourite quote from James Baldwin: ‘Not everything that is faced will change, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’.”
‘County Lines’ opens in cinemas and on demand from December 4