Shropshire Star

Shrewsbury TV producer's childhood experiences spark new BBC drama

A Shropshire writer and producer has spoken about his new coming of age drama based around his experiences growing up in the Midlands.

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Shrewsbury writer and producer Matt Evans, right, with Phoenix Rise co-creator Perrie Balthazar

Phoenix Rise is a ten-part teen drama that follows the stories of six misfit students who are taking their first tentative steps back into mainstream education after being excluded.

Set in Coventry, the new series which was released on iPlayer on Tuesday, was written and co-created by Shrewsbury producer Matt Evans.

Matt, whose recent credits include A Town Called Malice, A Discovery of Witches plus more than 100 episodes of EastEnders, says he and co-creator of Phoenix Rise, Perrie Balthazar, based the series on both their childhoods.

Matt said: "We’re both from the Midlands. I’m from the West Midlands, Perrie is from the East Midlands. Coventry was always the middle ground for us.

The main characters in Phoenix Rise are Summer (Lauren Corah), Billy (Alex Draper), Rani (Tara Webb), Khaled (Krish Bassi) & Darcy (Jayden Hanley)

"I always felt growing up there that sometimes the search for identity is more pertinent because you’re not a Northerner, you’re not a Southerner and you don’t feel like you quite fit in. That’s how I felt personally and that’s one of the things we wanted to tap into."

Phoenix Rise was produced by BBC Studios Kids & Family and distributed by Sinking Ship Entertainment, and the cast are played by up-and-coming actors largely from across the West Midlands.

"We wanted local talent and authentic voices," said Matt. "We wanted to pick out raw talent and see that represented on the screen.

"We had quite an extensive casting process where we went via youth clubs, via social media and really had quite an exhaustive search for this. In a way, we wanted to feel like we weren’t getting kids to act."

Matt, who was Bafta-nominated in 2017 and 2018 for his work on CBBC’s Hetty Feather, said they wanted the series to be about young people who had fallen through the cracks in the system.

"That’s why we called it Phoenix Rise," he said. "Because it’s six kids who are given one final chance to rise from the ashes to succeed at school.

"We wanted the show to be a hopeful place about second chances and it’s also about how school can bring positive change to kids who have widely been written off by society. Everyone loves an outsider, especially the ones who have a will to survive and a kind of guile and wit beyond their years."

He added that the Covid pandemic was also an inspiration for the new ten-part teen drama.

"When we started writing this, we were hearing about young people struggling with lockdown, not being in school and being isolated from their friends.

"We were very aware that, for many, home wasn’t the sanctuary that it is for other young people.

"School for some kids is the place where someone asks how they are or they get a decent meal and they see their friends and can maybe escape what’s happening at home.

"We did a lot of research by going into schools and talking to lots of kids. I think we both realised that the language, the world of teenagers has changed, when we were at school there was no social media."

He continued: "I learnt that the world is a lot more accepting place than it was when I was at school. Now kids dare to be different and we get to celebrate that."

Phoenix Rise is available on BBC iPlayer from today, and is on at 7pm, on Friday, March 24 on BBC Three.