Rikki Beadle-Blair was just 15 when he caught the attention of a film director. It was 1976 and the Bermondsey Lamp Post, the experimental, anarchic south-east London free school he attended, had financially collapsed and been shut down. With little to occupy him, he began writing and producing plays in the streets where he lived.
Bugsy Malone had recently been released at the cinema, and Beadle-Blair thought it would be perfect for a big neighbourhood production. Today, the writer and director of the pioneering Channel 4 show Metrosexuality can look back on a career that includes writing six films, directing three more and writing and directing more than 40 plays. But back in the 1970s, he was advertising his show in shop windows and asking local children and other teenagers to audition. “What was great about Bugsy Malone,” he says, “was that it was a multiracial film. So it encouraged a multiracial turnout.”
While the demographics were straightforward, putting on a show with no money needed all of what he calls the “working-class grit” and imagination that growing up in Bermondsey had given him. “We had to be inventive. I had to find a way to do all those splurge guns and things. We did it with mashed potato wrapped in tissue paper. So we would wreck these halls that we performed in, and spend hours cleaning them up afterwards.”
Beadle-Blair also wrote to Bugsy’s writer and director, Alan Parker, for permission to put on the show. The director, who went on to direct Fame and The Commitments, was obviously impressed – not only did he give his blessing, he sent along his production assistant to watch the children’s play. Beadle-Blair often played Tallulah, while he cast his younger brother, Gary Beadle, who later appeared in EastEnders, as Fizzy, and his sister Carleen played Thelma.
Afterwards the assistant connected them with the Anna Scher Theatre, “an extraordinary place in Islington, a million miles from us. At the time in Bermondsey, there was no tube or anything. So, we’d go on the bus and go to evening classes.”
These classes meant Beadle-Blair and his siblings became part of a cohort of working-class talent that went on to disrupt television, theatre and film. “So many amazing people were at that place,” he says. “It turned into an agency, and a whole industry. It was the perfect place for us to go because they accepted all voices.”
Back then, Bermondsey was “post-Dickensian”: “The first council estate we lived on didn’t even have a bath, we had to go to a local swimming pool. But I really, truly loved it.” The deprivations only enriched his sense of wonder. “Having very little money made me very creative. So if we’re working on a play or a film, I can make it out of matchsticks.” His neighbours, meanwhile, inspired him in other ways. “There were all these old ladies that had lived in the houses that were on the site of our estate, before it was bombed out. And they had amazing stories about the war.”
But there was also poverty and racism – including the presence of the National Front. “The kids growing up around me, a lot of them were poor, a lot became incarcerated. And as we became teenagers and drugs came in, they were often moved on to the big estates that you had by Elephant and Castle, like the Aylesbury and the Heygate. A lot of them aren’t alive now. And that breaks my heart, because they were some of the funniest, wittiest, smartest people. And it’s always been a big part of my agenda to show the wit and intelligence and warmth of working-class voices because of them.”
Beadle-Blair was the oldest of five siblings, raised by their mother, Monica, who was a social worker. Monica, a lesbian, is a well known figure in the LGBTQ community, and in 2019 became the subject of a short film, Monica – Loose on a Cruise, which was shown at the Lesflicks film festival. “It’s a documentary about her galvanising effects on all the lesbians on this big Caribbean cruise,” says Beadle-Blair. Thanks to his mum, by the age of three, Beadle-Blair had already decided to become a novelist. “My mum taught me to read as soon as I could speak. And I loved reading. So I thought, ‘I want to write books and give people this magical door to another world.’” But by seven, he was in love with theatre. He recalls, with excitement, first seeing a pantomime-like interactive production of the Ghanaian folktale Anansi. “I thought, that’s it! That’s what I want. I want my characters to move around in front of me. And then I started writing plays for my friends at school, my friends in the estate … I love superhero comics. And I would act them out and we’d be very involved.” Seeing Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes, about a young working-class boy and his kestrel, made it seem possible. “I just thought, oh, my God, you can literally write about people like us, like the people I grew up with.”
Coming out as gay, he says, was a gradual process. The early 70s glam rock movement was under way and, in the classroom, David Bowie was king, while Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan and Elton John blared from record players. “My friends, for a bunch of tough Bermondsey kids, were quite accepting of any flamboyance I had, and I felt quite safe to be myself and experiment with whether I wanted to kiss boys or girls.”
Despite his mother’s sexuality, he was reticent to discuss his own with her: “It was still a classic adolescent, ‘How do I talk about this, how do I talk about partners or sex with my mum? It’s icky!’” His emergence into the London gay scene was joyful, however – full of fun, chaos and lots of singing.
At 15, he joined the Old Vic Youth Theatre where he met his “defiantly gay” close friend, the director and writer Robert Chevara. The two of them began “blagging our way into gay clubs”. In 1977, he attended his first Pride march with just 150 or so other attenders. “Everyone else was much older than us and felt wiser than us. And we felt, really, like we were a bunch of punks, just getting involved and seeing what’s happening.” He formed a trio with Chevara and the singer Michelle Baughan, singing a cappella and harmonies in shows organised by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
Going out into the world in his late teenage years, Beadle-Blair felt constrained by his lack of drama school training and felt “too black, too gay, too strange”. But he soon realised, he says, “the only glass ceiling that can hold you down is your own”. He began to work for himself, organising a dance group with friends and performing in London nightclubs, joining a band, even developing his own snake act. Meanwhile, he was still writing plays. A-Z, in particular, written in 1979, earned him much praise for the way in which it captured the textures of growing up in the city and the social issues that framed life for young people just like him. “Sex and sexuality, getting a job, not getting arrested, getting home without getting searched, I wanted to write about that. At the time, working-class narratives were the flavour, and they were on TV – but it always slips back to the middle-class paradigms.”
Despite this early success, he encountered significant barriers to pitching plays and television shows. The response from studios would always follow the same formula. “Someone would say: ‘It’s fantastic, we’d love to take it further. But do you think you can make the gay characters straight? Could you make the lead a different colour?’”
It wasn’t until 2001 that his groundbreaking show Metrosexuality arrived on Channel 4, with its racially and sexually diverse relationships. The public response was enthusiastic, but the press was more hostile. Headlines, he said, denounced his “rainbow vision” for “not including the white, heterosexual, middle-class man”. The reaction, however, only made him more determined to stay true to his own experience. “The idea was that ‘He’s trying too hard’ or ‘Channel 4 are being too PC’, when I was just representing the world that I live in – which is one with every colour, sexuality, political persuasion, age. The resistance was a real lesson to me, but I had to double down, triple down, octuple down! My mission was to find my own place in this world and attract people to me, and not keep banging on the door and asking other people to change.”
In 2002, straight after Metrosexuality, he founded his own production company, Team Angelica, to draw in emerging, diverse talent and create acting parts for them in his productions. In 2005, through Team Angelica, Beadle-Blair wrote and co-directed the play Bashment for the Theatre Royal Stratford East – focusing on homophobic attitudes in the Black community, the themes of which echoed the early 00s debate around “murder music” – dancehall music with lyrics advocating violence against gay people. “There was a really violent queer-bashing in the middle of the play. And some of the audience would be crying, and some would be like, ‘The batty man deserved it!’ My journey was to take them from ‘the batty man deserved it’ to clapping and cheering – in fact, giving a standing ovation to a pair of gay men dancing while doing a dutty wine on stage.”
It was inspired by a trip to Jamaica a year earlier to produce his Sony award-winning Radio 4 documentary, Roots of Homophobia, on the same subject. Beadle-Blair interviewed members of dancehall group TOK, whose controversial track Chi Chi Man was a particular source of outrage.
Before he went, Beadle-Blair was warned people wouldn’t speak to him about homosexuality or would react violently when asked about it – but he found that, despite some initial hostile encounters, a discussion was possible. White-led pressure groups were keen to join their crusade against murder music, but he preferred a “more nuanced approach”, he said, rejecting the idea homophobia was an intrinsic part of Black culture. “Homophobia is not a Black thing,” he says now. “It’s just a kind of atavistic way our society works. But when you challenge that, there’s a real person inside that, waiting to have a conversation, and waiting to meet somebody who’s different from them – and waiting to have a stimulating debate.
“That’s what I try to do with all my work, entertain first, then have the audience go out and go, ‘OK. There are people in the world who are like me, who I didn’t think were like me, I reside in other bodies and other lives in a way I never thought I did.’ And Bashment really, really did that.”
It also won rave reviews (the Observer called it “brave” and “important”), but, as with Metrosexuality, it was criticised for its happy ending. For Beadle-Blair, this joy is essential in order to ensure that queerness is not just represented as trauma. “I’ve come through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, all of that – and I’m happy, I’m integrated, my mental health is strong.” He doesn’t flinch away from darkness, but insists that Black queer lives deserve happy endings, too.
It’s an ethic he’s carried through to his 2017 play Summer in London, which was said to be the first theatrical production in the UK to have an all-transgender cast. It won four-star reviews in the Times, who said its “quick-witted, lyrical script gleams with irony”, while Time Out celebrated the “frothy fun”. “I wanted to be joyous. I wanted to be uplifting, and I wanted to spotlight them – and they were all absolutely fantastic,” he says. “We’ve all been trained to be like, ‘We’ve got to talk about the trauma’, but I didn’t want it to be about dysphoria. I wanted them to be people who are just up on the stage doing their thing.”
With so many films and plays to his credit, Beadle-Blair’s talent and career has spanned multiple art forms and genres. Yet it’s also true that he does not have the recognition of other writers, directors and producers of his era. It was partly this, he says, that made him accept an MBE in 2016, despite an internal conflict over the ethics of doing so. “When I recommend a writer, and I’ve got MBE after my name, it helps them get grants, and interviews, and it helps them get seen.”
Just like when he was 15 and back in Bermondsey, Beadle-Blair is still making his own opportunities. So, in response to the pandemic-created crisis facing the arts, he says simply, “You have to work with what is there, that is what art is.”
He’s not, however, interested in a “return” to the arts and theatre industry of pre-Covid life. “A lot of theatre was shit, and a lot of theatre was weak, and a lot of theatre was racist.” And, after all, a return to normal, for him, would mean continuing to be excluded from arts spaces that excluded him in the past. Instead, he sees reasons to be positive. When we speak, he’s just returned from working with a drama school. Following the widespread reckoning of institutions in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, many Black drama school students had spoken out about how the lack of Black directors commissioned to work at their schools, and the inability to sensitively cast Black actors, made the experience especially harrowing. Beadle-Blair is now working with many of them to “write parts for each person that stretches them, but in a way that respects what they can do and who they are.”
For Beadle-Blair, the theatre industry and drama schools need tough love. “A year on the naughty step will be good for some of us. The caterpillar has had some time in the cocoon and can now be a butterfly: we can really bring entertaining work that includes everybody – Black voices, working-class voices, older, younger. Everybody up there, instead of what we had before. The pandemic’s been rough, but you know what? It was time for a change.”
This article was amended on 21 May 2021 to correct the name of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. A previous version of this article referred to it as the Royal Stratford East.