In a six-part gripping drama on Amazon Prime, a substitute teacher who has worked in some of Greater Manchester’s “most difficult schools” has uncovered the presence of county lines gangs. James Twyman, the director and producer of Ringside, a film based in Wythenshawe, has had to remove handmade blades disguised as drywipe pens from students in his class since he was a child.
The 36-year-old works on film projects after work and throughout the school vacations, a passion he claims saved his life as a child when he was tormented because of his skin color. James wanted to represent the challenges that today’s young people confront, as well as how constructive communal forces might assist them find a path out.
It was with boxing in the case of Ringside, which follows 15-year-old Chad, who is ignored by his mother and has been expelled from school. Jimmy Egan’s boxing gym in Benchill, where champion Tyson Fury originally trained, was used to film scenes.
“A lot of these kids get a bad rap, some of the behaviour lends to that, but some of the stories these young people have, half of that would be difficult for an adult to deal with,” says James, who has worked in education for 17 years.
“At the school I’m at currently, we have a huge level of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs),” he added.
“We can never truly understand – our job as educators is to see them through that and not let them use that as an excuse but nurture them. We want them to flourish and sometimes school can do that, and sometimes, it takes an outside influence.”
According to James, one of the main challenges in Manchester over the last five years has been county lines, where illicit substances are carried from one region to another, frequently with the help of young and vulnerable individuals.
“Teachers are trained about it now because it’s so prevalent,” James said. “Young people who are incredibly vulnerable from a young age are being brought into gang life in a way that’s manipulative, they think it’s a good route to go down.”
After seeing a turnaround in one of James’ former students, he was inspired to write the drama Ringside. For a variety of reasons, the youngster was furious and ‘difficult’ in years 7 and 8. “He had joined year 11 and I walked up to this person, who was an incredibly polite, mature, and lovely young man. I said ‘oh you’re new’ and he said ‘no it’s me, do you not remember?’
“I spoke to him about that transition and he said it was because of boxing, it taught him discipline. That was what made me go ‘this is the story I want to tell.’ Boxing can take a young person making all the wrong choices and give them the nurture they need to take themselves to where they want to be in life.”
Working with children who have been exposed to crime is a topic that James is passionate about. He was held at knifepoint as a small kid in Kent before moving to Wythenshawe at the age of ten, and as an adult, he had to calm down a man with a knife at a house party.
“I grew up around knife crime, I saw more knives in my childhood than anyone should in their lives,” James continued. “I had a knife held to me when I was about five. I remember it vividly. I was walking down the street with a friend in broad daylight and we were backed up against the wall by two lads with a small penknife.
“I remember not being scared at the time, the fear kicked in afterward. We were poor, we didn’t have anything. The brandishing of the knife was a status thing.”
When he was younger, James found a savior in movies, a notion repeated in his TV drama. His brother’s father became a role model for him, penning cinema reviews and reading to him about playwriting at night. He then joined a Wythenshawe acting club.
“By the time I hit year 5, I’d been subjected to racism, violence on the street. At the height of it, at 16, I’d been beaten up in the street,” James, said. “It got to a point where I didn’t know if I wanted to continue; for me, film saved my life.”
He added: “This TV show was a chance for me to communicate that to young people, to get them thinking about other choices. It doesn’t have to be boxing, doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s positive.”
James’ Black Card Productions crew consists of himself, a sound man, and a runner. Ringside was shot over the course of six months on a £1,000 budget, but it required years of preparation and editing before it was aired on Amazon Prime in February 2021. James claims that his fiancée Jenny Fisher’s support was crucial during the procedure.
Chad is played by Joseph Stanley, and his character’s girlfriend Ellie, played by Chante Keegan of Sale, experiences the effects of his involvement in crime. Chad’s adversary Meeky is played by actor Rich Brodie. James attributes the people of Wythenshawe’s kindness in assisting him in realizing his ambition.
Strangers even opened up their homes to allow him to film there. “One of the things about Wythenshawe which is often missed by a lot of people is the community feel, people are very loyal and want to see you succeed,” the filmmaker said.
“When it comes to Jimmy’s (boxing gym) I couldn’t have made it without them. They let me film there for a week, were incredibly helpful, and championed the story. They wanted the story to be told.”
“There is a lot of incredible work going on to help young people and schools fighting to make change; sporting institutions trying to get young people off the streets. I want people to feel proud of Wythenshawe.”