Crossing Boarders

Crossing Boarders

By Michael Pickard
February 19, 2024


Boarders creator Daniel Lawrence Taylor, director Ethosheia Hylton and executive producer Madeleine Sinclair take DQ back to school to discuss making the BBC comedy drama, how the story is inspired by real life and working with the young cast.

When five talented, under-privileged black students from inner-city London win scholarships to a prestigious boarding school, they enter a world they can only describe as something out of Harry Potter.

Jaheim (Josh Tedeku), Leah (Jodie Campbell), Omar (Myles Kamwendo), Toby (Sekou Diaby) and Femi (Aruna Jalloh) find themselves surrounded by lush playing fields and cloistered grandeur – but they quickly come face-to-face with the complex social rules they must decipher quickly in order to survive at St Gilbert’s, which is attempting to rehabilitate its image after a problematic video involving one of its students goes viral.

But across the six-part coming-of-age comedy-drama, they also go on a journey to learn about themselves, their identity and what it’s like to live alongside the one percent.

Tackling themes such as race, class and wealth, the series comes from creator and writer Daniel Lawrence Taylor (Timewasters), who drew on his own experiences at university for the foundations of the show.

“It deals with a lot of race, class and stuff like that, which is the stuff I dealt with while I was at university and I always found it quite interesting,” he tells DQ. “So I wanted to put that into a world where I could look at class and race within an institution – and a boarding school was the perfect place to do that.

Boarders focuses on five black teens who enrol at a prestigious boarding school

“When you think of boarding schools, you do think of the one percent. You think of it being a completely other world to the majority of people. It’s such an interesting thing to dive into, especially from my background. I come from a very working-class background, so when I went to university, I came across people I’d never ever come across before, and their problems were completely different from my problems. That was such an interesting thing to delve into, so that was the starting point.”

Lawrence Taylor also has a small role as the protagonists’ mentor, Gus, in a series he first started developing about four years ago. Boarders also represents his first steps into drama, having previously worked solely in comedy, though he says the show was once more dramatic than the final version that will debut on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer tomorrow.

“The journey was trying to find that sweet spot between drama and comedy, because I feel like sometimes the most serious issues are best told through comedy, but with a dramatic edge to it,” he says. “The whole writing process was very much trying my best to straddle those two genres. I think we’ve done it.”

Studio Lambert executive producer Madeleine Sinclair joined the project when an early draft of the pilot script was in the works, and the BBC greenlit the series shortly afterwards. She then worked with Lawrence Taylor and three other episodic writers – Emma Dennis-Edwards, Yemi Oyefuwa and Ryan Calais Cameron – to storyline the rest of the series.

Lawrence Taylor wrote three episodes, with Dennis-Edwards, Oyefuwa and Cameron picking up one each during a nine-month writing process before the series went into production last summer.

The show comes from Daniel Lawrence Taylor (left), who also has a small on-screen role

Time constraints would have naturally prevented Lawrence Taylor from penning all six episodes, but even before he started working on the show, he was keen to collaborate with other writers. “And what I wanted was young voices,” he says. “I also wanted to add an eclectic mix of people. When you watch the show, you’ve got these five strong black characters, and how they position themselves in that world is completely different. I wanted a similar thing from my writers room, so one of the questions we asked when we were getting in writers was, ‘Which characters do you relate to most from that pilot?’ I really wanted voices that reflected each character, so it was a decision very early on to have a mix of people.”

“It’s interesting how the writers are custodians of certain characters,” Sinclair notes. “In the writers room, you knew there are people who would always argue really passionately from that point of view. That’s what we really wanted.”

All five lead characters also play prominent roles in each episode, challenging the writers to keep their individual stories moving all the time. “We found once we got into the cutting room, we had five stories to keep moving and keep balanced through the episodes and the series,” Sinclair adds. “It’s a lot to keep in play.”

Steering the visual style of the series is lead director Ethosheia Hylton (African Queens, Sanditon), who shot block one before Sarmad Masud (You Don’t Know Me, Bulletproof) helmed block two.

“At first I just wanted to read the story and see what I could relate to,” Hylton says about joining Boarders. “Everything that I direct, it’s got to relate to me in some way – and I straightaway related to quite a few the characters. Plus I always wanted to go to boarding school so I thought, ‘Well, this is interesting. I get to go through these characters.’ I just loved what it was saying. I loved the world it was set in, and seeing these five talented characters in that world is great. I hadn’t seen anything like it before and they really just jumped off the page. It was a no-brainer.”

Because there are so many main characters, Hylton jokes that her first task was just to remember all their names. But once she started designing how she would film the series, she led with their perspectives so viewers would always follow the action through their eyes.

The production was based at an ‘old Harry Potter-style’ school

“But it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,” she says. “It is a lot, but it worked out well. There was a hell of a lot that we shot, and most of it made it in.”

That final footage includes scenes with Lawrence Taylor’s Gus, though on his first day on set, he was still writing lines when he was called to be in front of the camera.

“I told him, ‘You have to switch off now because I need actor Daniel,’” Hylton remembers. “It was great from the beginning. We talked a lot about the feel of the show, the look, and Daniel was an active part in a lot of that. And it was really good for the cast to be able to speak to him because he was on set. It was just like an open conversation that we were constantly having, and with our HODs as well. It was very collaborative.”

When it came to finding the five leads, casting director Rosalie Clayton trawled theatre groups, spoke to agents and even searched on X and Instagram to identify the right actors to embody the roles.

Then when Tedeku, Campbell, Kamwendo, Diaby and Jalloh – the latter two making their screen debuts – were brought in, “very quickly it felt like you couldn’t imagine anyone else playing those roles,” Sinclair says.

“After the chemistry tests and rehearsals, I didn’t want to go into too much depth with the scenes,” says Hylton about working with the young cast. “I was just getting them to know their characters and doing improvisation exercises around their different experiences, about their life before they would come to the school. Then we took the first scene where they’re all together at the community centre, and we would just feel our way around. It’s a very wordy scene.

“We did rehearse that, but it was great because on the day they just springboarded off of each other and they got to know their characters really early on. It was really beneficial for them.”

Boarders will air on BBC Three in the UK and has also been picked up by Tubi

The actors also brought parts of themselves to their roles, so much so that on occasion they might suggest script changes if there was a more natural or authentic way of saying the line.

“It was a good hybrid, really, that the script points were always met but actually, if they felt like, ‘It sounds better if I say it like this,’ there was room for that,” Sinclair says.

Filming around the south west of England, the production based itself at an “old Harry Potter-style” school during the summer holidays, when they could use the buildings and its grounds both for shooting locations and for production offices, green rooms, changing rooms and hair and make-up.

“Opposite the school there was a zoo that had just closed down, so we actually used that for our production offices at the beginning of production,” Sinclair reveals. “There were a few animals still there, which made for a bit of a strange production office, but that was brilliant. It actually worked quite well because you just had a base and everything was in that one location, so you’re not moving around and using time and money.

“We did have an interesting summer looking for the locations, which was quite fun really because you get to nose around all these very posh schools and peek behind the curtain.”

Hylton continues: “The campus is huge and you think you’re just filming all on the school grounds, but moving from location to location is a bit of a trek. A lot of these schools don’t have lifts or anything like that, either. It was great for us though, getting our steps in.”

Another important element of the series is the music, which comes from musical director Mykaell Riley – a writer, producer and founding member of the British roots Reggae band Steel Pulse and Britain’s first black pop orchestra, the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Music is such a big part of TV shows in general, and it speaks to the authenticity of the show because we wanted music that was very relevant and spoke to our characters and very much spoke to the London they were coming from,” Lawrence Taylor says. “All of those things were quite important, so that’s why we wanted to team up with someone like Mykaell.”

Distributed by All3Media International, BBC series Boarders will also air in North America and Latin America after it was picked up by ad-supported streamer Tubi. The show premiered at Content London last year and will also be screened next month as part of the international competition at French television festival Series Mania.

Lawrence Taylor now hopes to return to the world of Boarders and is developing ideas for a second season. But as an actor with credits in How Not to Live Your Life, Hunderby and his own show Timewasters, he wants to take his screenwriting career further.

“It’s always about getting your foot in the door, and once you get that first show off the ground, it’s about showing people what you’re capable of, your style, your talent and so on and so forth,” he says. “It means that a lot more doors are open to me now [after Timewasters and now Boarders], so let’s see if I can squeeze anything else in. I’m still spinning it; acting’s slightly in the background. But every year, it’s always something different, in a good way.

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