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Director, Writer, Creative: The Many Lives of Henry Blake

Words & Photography: Luke Brown

The British Film Institute, known as the BFI, is a bastion of the British film landscape. With outposts located across London, it felt fitting to organise my meeting with award winning, critically acclaimed film director Henry Blake at the BFI’s Box Office, found within the equally prestigious Southbank Centre. After frantically manoeuvring my way through London I eventually burst into the foyer of the BFI Box Office, escaping the muggy September climate and was greeted by a relaxed, spacious vestibule, kitted out with a bar and open plan restaurant. I tried to compose myself and relax, for in a matter of minutes I would need to be sharp and astute for Henry’s arrival. Luckily, he was running late; a meeting in Piccadilly had allowed me a few more precious minutes.

Moments later, as I turned around from where I sat, a striding, stylishly dressed, self-assured gentlemen came through the doors, Henry Blake. After the formalities were over, we headed into the restaurant, upon which Henry ordered food, on account of being veritably famished. One thing that immediately struck me about Henry was his relaxed nature, and his superior eloquence. However, this should not come as a surprise. Having worked as a Youth Worker all across London, being articulate, relaxed and approachable rank highly on the skills required for the job. For me, this was the only logical starting point to kick off the discussion, because the experience gained as a Youth Worker fuelled the evocative and emotionally draining plot of his stunning, yet disturbing first feature film: County Lines. I dived in head first and asked Henry how he first got into social work, rather than youth work. Although rather clumsily, I made a mistake straight away.

Film Director Henry Blake

Swiftly correcting me, he stated that “firstly it is important to distinguish the difference between youth work and social work, although it is a very honest mistake. Fundamentally, the difference is indicative from the title: a social worker looks at the whole family, whilst a youth worker is concerned with young people.” An honest mistake indeed, but it was important that he pointed out the difference. Having fallen into youth work as a young, out of work creative in his 20s, his efforts that were borne out of not wanting to do hospitality jobs, soon translated into a journey of discovery. “I found out that I was actually quite good at it, and consequently ended up working with very complex cases, which often involved boys. I became known as someone who was able to work with difficult cases, and this expanded to working with young offenders, which is where I was first exposed to the world of county lines.”

For those new to the concept of county lines, it is a method used by organised criminals to move and supply drugs into one or more importing areas, using children and vulnerable adults as mules, often utilising coercion and intimidation to enforce their exploitation. It is a criminal process that is appalling, however one that seems to hide in the shadows, although recently it has become increasingly reported, raising widespread awareness. Alongside uncovering county lines, Henry was exposed to all of the landscapes of London. Continuing on, he reminisces, “in terms of learning the geography of London, that was certainly a real eye opener, as I covered quite literally zone 1-6 of London.”

“Real experience allows you to rapidly exclude anything that is not authentic and with greater efficiency.”

Being exposed to the raw underbelly of London whilst still in his formative years certainly had a pertinent effect on Henry, especially when it came to formulating his approach to directing and writing. This was documented most visibly in County Lines, and through its sublime cinematography which intertwined exceptional symbolism to extricate the deeper themes of the film, past experience was essential to the complete vulnerability that it portrayed. Drawing a breath, Henry explains how “every writer can’t help but use past experiences. It was very explicit in County Lines. It was essentially a diary entry for me, as there are scenes in that film that are verbatim. The links between me and it are extremely clear.” From a creative aspect, his understanding of that world was key, as it allowed him to extract every drop of authenticity. After a brief moment, Henry explains exactly what that means to him: “When you’ve been in that situation and had it right under your nose, you can smell the bullshit very easily. It’s a lived experience rather than reading a book and it enables you to extract texture. Real experience allows you to rapidly exclude anything that is not authentic and with greater efficiency.”

There can be no debate over the importance of lived experience, but as I sit listening to Henry, I know I need to excavate his past prior to youth work, to help me understand the different aspects that have contributed to his success. So I steer the conversation in a new direction, by asking “going back before County Lines, what was your background?” A story of twists and turns ensued; his response a portal into the many paths and avenues he had taken that had helped him arrive to where he is today. The osmosis to directing that Henry experienced throughout his twenties is a treasure trove of anecdotal advice that many young people would be wise to heed. Grinning as he speaks, he recounts that his career as a director “was a completely unconscious thing, I never meant to start directing, it was a gradual progression to it.” But what exactly was that progression? Well, it started as a professional child actor at the age of 12, after he was cast as the lead in Bugsey Malone for the school play. Growing up in New Zealand, he was also a promising sportsman, as is only natural being a Kiwi. “Because I was successful on the sports pitch, it seemed to give me a ‘get out jail free card’ allowing me to examine the arts. I was fascinated with acting, and wanting to be a star”, he recounts, laughing.

Film Director Henry Blake

The fascination transpired into early success with him landing various acting roles. At 16, he left school and was cast as the lead in a renowned New Zealand TV show. However, as he turned 18, the show ended, and it presented the first existential crisis of his life. “I was out of a job. It was a strange period in which I had one foot in the school world and one in the adult world. I didn’t want to go back to school, especially because all my friends were leaving and going to uni. I toyed with the idea of going to drama school, but the problem was I was too young, and I wasn’t interested in waiting another year.”

However, with British parents and a British passport, he had a mainline to London, where he also had grandparents. So he packed up and left New Zealand for a few weeks to see what he could find. Delving into the mental archives, Henry describes the next chapter, “I decided to cut loose for a bit and had the intention of sniffing out opportunities in the city, and the result was that I found it really interesting. I told a few people I met over here what I wanted to do, and they encouraged me to try. So I did just that and left New Zealand.” After arriving, he worked front of house at The Piccadilly Theatre and spent two or three years misbehaving around the capital. Simultaneously, he was auditioning for fringe plays, whilst also indulging his musical talents by gigging and song writing. He suddenly pauses and announces what probably was the most seminal point in his life to date. “When I was 21, I met my wife Victoria and I fell in love with her, and this coincided with this massive upheaval for me personally

where I began to fall out of love with performing. It was very daunting because acting was this thing that I had been obsessed with for all of my life, and for me to then fall out of love with it was terrifying!”

“I couldn’t have told you that at the time, I reflect back and think, what 14-year-old would have been exposed to that depth of thinking and rigour in a rehearsal room.”

Left at a crossroads, he was shedding his skin, but where next? Well, “at the time actors needed people to help them with monologue, so I decided to help, and I would always just put my hand up and say I’ll direct you. This was then picked up by my friends and Victoria, who had essentially said to me ‘with the greatest respect Henry, you’re a good actor but a better director’”. The change from actor to director was rejuvenating for Henry, and speaking with a definitive manner, he highlights how the transition breathed new life into him. “Directing felt like a complete relief; it enabled me to see things in complete clarity. I’ve always been energetic, but god, after my discovery of directing, it felt like I had a full blood transfusion!”, he says enthusiastically. His backstory is a telling reflection of the mentality of going with flow, not forcing your way down a path. He quickly reaffirms this approach by a word of reassurance, “you must also bear in mind that on paper, and this is something I really want your readers to take away, is that I have zero qualifications. None. “Even the qualifications I had in New Zealand are now redundant.” Henry represents a tangible figure and figurehead to those that may seem unsure or lost in their career direction. He has shown that it is possible to navigate your way through a highly competitive world, whilst “shedding your skin” and discovering new avenues and most importantly becoming highly successful.

Something that seems to stick with me as we delve deeper into conversation is Henry’s wisdom, but also how eloquently he explains things. Interestingly, Henry seems to have a theory as to where that may have come from. “The acting jobs as a child exposed me to new ideas and ways to think about the world that were way beyond my years. I was rehearsing on Samuel Beckett plays at 14, performing around these amazing New Zealand actors, some of whom are still regarded as the best of their time. I mean I didn’t understand a fucking word but what I did understand was the thematic exploration of these plays. These consisted, for example, of a huge existential poem about nothingness and the finite nature of our lives, and whilst I couldn’t have told you that at the time, I reflect back and think, what 14-year-old would have been exposed to that depth of thinking and rigour in a rehearsal room.”

Film Director Henry Blake

As he finishes his last mouthful of his Caesar salad, the direction of our discussion shifts to fashion. A passing comment about clothing from myself leads to Henry making a proclamation. “I love clothes man! I thought you’d never mention fashion”, he says chuckling. Similar to his acting career, his fashion predilections stem from his childhood. “My mum was a huge fashionista. She has got a beautiful taste in clothes and as I was growing up, she would wear fabulous stuff. As a result, I have always loved clothes, as well as buying them! My mum was very generous in the way she would buy me clothes, and as a consequence I became very plugged into the fashion world.” As we venture down the path of fashion, I sense that Henry has an acute sense of quality. As if reading my mind, he begins to list off the brands that he is besotted with, and the names Nudie Jeans, Sirplus, Universal Works and Wax are soon mentioned and he immediately expands on why. “I adore British brands. Fast fashion just isn’t my thing, and the result is I have fallen in love with these 3 or 4 brands. The issue is, they don’t give me any reason for not buying it, and they wear so beautifully. In another world, I would have loved to have gone into fashion, but I don’t really have the mind for it. However if I can keep representing these brands then I will feel like I am doing my part.”

After the major success of County Lines, and firmly establishing himself on the British film landscape, he is in the run up to his next feature film. Having no details about this next project, I tentatively ask about it, knowing that I may not be privy to know the details. However, upon asking, Henry’s eyes light up and he begins his elevator pitch for the film. “It’s called The Golden Radiance of the Beetle, and it’s a horror love story set in the east end of London at the start of the 20th century. It is about a British girl, who is an aspiring journalist, and she falls in love with a Chinese dock worker. Throughout the duration of the piece, the love becomes deeper and more profound and as this happens, she transmogrifies into a golden beetle.” A horror love story all right. However, upon further investigation, Henry gives the back story into the film and what he reveals is quite profound. A film that is rooted in historical fact, the project delves into various themes which include the fallout of The Alien Restriction Act of 1919 which closely monitored immigrant workers, by what they were up to and restricted what they could and could not do. Henry then provides more detail, “it also declared that if a British woman was married to an alien, they would be stripped of their British citizenship. The film, therefore, is a metaphor for the disproportionate political hatred that Britain had at the time for its own citizens if they mixed with immigrants.”

"The pursuit of excellence is the goal for me and if that means I only made two or three films in my life, but they are of the highest quality, well I can live with that.”

As we delve deeper into the back story of the film, it reveals parallels to our own contemporary society, regarding the weaponisation of the press towards immigrants. A major aspect of the production focuses on how the press were printing horrific headlines about the Chinese community. Henry immediately expands on this, “they were also promoting the idea that if British women got into relationships with Chinese dock workers, they would transform into a hunched over, befouled yellow skinned object. Thus, that was where the idea of the golden beetle was borne from.” Whilst on paper it is a horror love story, The Golden Radiance of the Beetle, promises to be so much more; a deeply powerful, moving and historical project that investigates actions of the past but also is germane to our current polarised political society. Excited by the premise of the film, I ask how long it will be before it graces our screens, however Henry replies quickly with “two or three years, we are still in the process of clearing the script!”, so make sure to keep a keen eye out for its release.

After mentioning the timescale for The Golden Radiance of the Beetle, I am intrigued by the process of making a film and why they take so long. As Henry begins to reveal his secrets of film making, I notice how his attention to detail is so fine tuned. From character development to script writing, Henry is a director who throws all of himself into each film. In a state of reflection, he details how “you don’t fully comprehend that as a writer you never switch off, you never stop thinking. Without doubt, that is the greatest price you pay and essentially you forfeit psychological downtime.” This is only furthered by the all-consuming nature of writing, which Henry acknowledges as a necessity, especially when it comes to your characters. “But you may ask, how do you build characters? Well the simple answer is you need time. The whole process is very time-consuming, but I can’t understate how essential it is. It is crucial you spend time with them, they have to feel dimensional. Not only that, but it is key to have a constellation of characters. The problem I often see is when characters are underdeveloped, which leads to affectation and clunky ideas to form.”

Film Director Henry Blake

This is a refreshing approach in a world that is dictated by a culture of impatience, and where quantity of content overpowers quality. As streaming giants churn more and more films and shows out, Henry is in firm belief that something will have to give, and perhaps it already has; the loss of quality and depth of thinking. However, Henry is principled in his approach, as he firmly places his cards of the table and dictates how he pursues the art of directing and writing: “The most important thing for me is quality thinking and working with quality thinkers. The pursuit of excellence is the goal for me and if that means I only made two or three films in my life, but they are of the highest quality, well I can live with that.”

The interview was featured in The Guide: A Lifestyle Compendium Vol.1, which you can buy here.


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