Activism

Back to Black actor Eddie Marsan: 'There aren't any no-go areas in Tower Hamlets'

The actor's work as ambassador for East End youth charity Streets Of Growth gives something back to the area that formed him

Eddie Marsan and Streets of Growth boss Darren Way on a tour of Tower Hamlets. Photo: Adrian Lobb

Eddie Marsan is in Tower Hamlets, at the impressive offices of local charity Streets of Growth. Alongside Darren Way, founder of the charity that works with young people to combat gang and knife crime, Marsan is spending the morning taking the Big Issue on a tour of the area.  

Marsan and Way go back a long way. They grew up on neighbouring council estates off Bethnal Green Road, went to the same local youth clubs and night clubs in the early 1980s, and their lives have intersected at key points since – culminating in Marsan becoming a patron for Streets of Growth last year.  

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In the wake of recent comments by Conservative MP Paul Scully, a former minister for London, saying that parts of Tower Hamlets were “no-go areas,” Marsan is keen to show why he is so passionate about his manor. It is the reason he is talking about Streets of Growth today, rather than his role in Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black or big budget TV series Franklin alongside Michael Douglas. Because the words stung.  

“It’s populist, racist bullshit. That’s what it is,” says Marsan, never one to pull his punches. “And those words have real impact on the kids around here. 

“Because these kids, whether they’re Muslim, Bengali, Pakistani, white or of Caribbean descent, they are all subject to the same challenges, which is what Streets of Growth is trying to address.  

“And they’re the same challenges we went through. Demonising those communities to such an extent means you dehumanise them. And when you dehumanise them, you can justify not funding them and not helping them.  

“But I look at those kids and see myself when I was young. So that’s why I want to champion their cause the best way I can. Because it’s a great injustice. It’s simply not true – there aren’t any no-go areas. There just aren’t.” 

We set off through Tower Hamlets, walking through street food markets and traditional clothing and fabric shops, large council estates and gentrified coffee hotspots. All of East End life is here.  

Eddie Marsan and Darren Way talk about their childhoods, recall their time as bodypoppers in the 1980s, and talk with passion about the richness of the cultural education they received in Tower Hamlets, even as they grew up surrounded by poverty. 

Marsan even turns the tables on the Tory MP’s words about no-go areas. He instead talks about new developments catering for city workers and the extremely wealthy in the East End, which serve to push prices up, push local families out and divide the community.  

“The only no-go areas are these gated communities,” Marsan says, quietly, but with a look of barely contained fury we’ve seen in so many of his screen performances.  

“There are the new developments where maybe 25% are social housing. And the kids from the social housing are not allowed to use the playground. So those are the real no-go areas. And they are based on class prejudice.” 

This has been a tough week for Way. One of the young people they work with has been seriously injured and he is attempting to deal with the fallout – trying to prevent what he calls the ripple effect of violence.  

As we walk through the neighbourhood he knows so well, he explains how his life has intersected with Marsan’s through the years – including, ironically, on the film Gangster No 1.  

“It’s almost like Sliding Doors. We both grew up in Tower Hamlets, we were both into dancing and bodypopping, and my friend was his best mate,” he says.  

“I left school and ended up in construction, he went into the print industry before getting into acting. And I was looking to retrain as an actor.  

“We both ended up on this gangster flick filming in Kingston. He had a part and I was an extra. I banged on his cabin door and we had a chat. Then he really went into acting and I gave up my acting dreams to go into gang intervention work.” 

Way went to the Bronx, Philadelphia and Boston on a Winston Churchill Fellowship to get trained by ex-gang members in intervention work.  

“I started to learn how you link outreach and street work with building programmes that can progress them into employment, while still supporting them,” he says.  

“When they start coming into organisations like ours, they become more at risk. because they’re no longer involved in harm and violence and those they used to have trouble with can start picking on them simply because they’re trying to change. Getting kids out of gangs is one thing. Keeping them out is the toughest part.” 

Eddie Marsan and Darren Way with the Streets of Growth team. Image: Adrian Lobb/Big Issue

On 11 September 2001, Streets of Growth opened their first premises, armed with “10 quid and two chairs”, to tackle gang and knife crime and youth exploitation.  

This is complex and dangerous work. And it is exacerbated by the harsh times we are living in that force young people into short term decision-making, with long-term prospects appearing so bleak in terms of housing, employment, family.  

“In the last 24 years, we’ve worked with more than 5,500 young people. I can’t tell you how rare it is that young people talk about ever owning their own flat,” says Way.  

“For a young person to save up for a 10% deposit for a one bed apartment in Tower Hamlets on a low pay job, they would have to save until they were 55. It feels so unreachable.  

“They’re not talking about whether they can have kids because they haven’t even got a bedroom of their own. They might be sharing a bedroom with three or four other kids, so their bedroom becomes the street corner. And that street corner becomes the family and they get involved in crime. If all of a sudden, the young person’s earning 500 pounds a week, why would they go on a training course? And that’s how they end up trapped in that world.” 

Way talks of the stairwells in the council blocks where people like himself and Eddie would hang out now being closed to young people. Many of the football courts have been built on. But this is not the main cause of the issues Streets of Growth exists to combat. 

“The young people I speak to don’t want to talk about snooker tables and table tennis. Youth clubs are not the answer – only part of an answer. Because they want a job and to earn a decent living. What we’re talking about here is developing an approach that genuinely gives young people rites of passage from teenagehood to young adulthood,” he says. 

Photograph of children including a young Eddie Marsan from Philip Cunningham's Lost East End photo-series
A young Eddie Marsan (centre) with his brothers from the estate. Image: Philip Cunningham

“We are working on lifestyle, environment, education and career – and if we can give them a sense of a life that’s healthy, with those four pillars, maybe we’ll create the branches where they can reach out and grow above and penetrate this glass ceiling.” 

We visit Oxford House, a youth centre both Darren Way and Eddie Marsan recall with fondness. It is currently home to an exhibition of Philip Cunningham’s 1970s photographs called Lost East End – which includes one of a young Marsan, in a Superman costume, surrounded by his brothers from the estate. 

“I grew up on Kedleston Walk, just off Bethnal Green Road. It was mainly white and Afro Caribbean – there was a very large St Lucian community at the time,” says Marsan.  

“My parents had a difficult marriage. They did their best, but it wasn’t easy for me as a kid sometimes. And there was a St Lucian family on my state – my best friend Emmanuel, his brothers Nelson and Alan – and the door was always open to me. I took a kind of emotional refuge with them.  

“I’ve called Mrs Mitchell ‘mum’ since I was 10. My kids go and see her still. When I look back now, I benefited from the kindness of this family. Mum came over in about 1958, so just after the Windrush, but she’s of that generation. And they saved my life. They instilled in me a love of films, art and music, they taught me to dance, they fed me all the time. And they gave me unconditional love as well.” 

Ray Donovan star Eddie Marsan outside the old Donovan Bros shop on Crispin Street in London’s East End. Image: Adrian Lobb/Big Issue

Eddie Marsan’s eyes brim with tears a few times during our conversation. This place and these people are in his bones. He knows how much he owes to Tower Hamlets and the social housing he grew up in. 

“I’m the product of social housing. I think it was a very privileged upbringing,” he says. “Not in an economic sense but in a loving sense, and in the sense of diversity. It instilled in me an incredible curiosity.  

“I’m working with Shelter on a campaign to encourage more social housing. It’s very close to my heart. There has to be a sense of economic justice. If you create poverty and economic pressure, people make short-term choices.  

“We need to give people economic stability and take away the unbelievable pressures they are under at the moment in order for communities to thrive and people to blossom.” 

Our walk ends at Pellicci’s café on Bethnal Green Road. This is a real home from home for Marsan, who is greeted with warm embraces, huge smiles and traditional East End banter by Nev, who runs the café with his sister Anna and cousin Tony. They have known each other since Marsan was four. It is like witnessing a family reunion. 

Eddie Marsan with old friend Nev, who runs Pellicci’s in Bethnal Green. Image: Adrian Lobb/Big Issue

“They knew me when I wasn’t famous. And they loved me when there was nothing in it for them,” says Marsan.  

“When you do become, to a certain extent, famous, it does complicate things. It comes into the room with you. So when you see the people who loved you before all that, you appreciate the love they had for you and that generosity. I am just Eddie here.”  

He explains how he would break up the journey home from Basildon when his mum was terminally ill in 2018 with a stop at Pelicci’s. “Tony knew my mum was dying. He’d be opening up and would just sit with me. I can’t tell you how much it helped with what was going on.” 

Marsan and Way have lasagne, The Big Issue chomps down a huge plate of cannelloni. The food is delicious, the atmosphere joyous and convivial. We even get extra chips because we are with Marsan. I never want to leave.  

“Look at the life here!” grins Marsan. This is the East End they want to celebrate. This is true community. He poses for pictures with a Canadian family of Ray Donovan fans, who can’t believe their eyes on seeing one of the stars of their favourite show at the table next to them.  

This is why Eddie Marsan is very particular about how he portrays characters from round here in his work.  

“I don’t play cockneys on coke. And I don’t work with cockneys on coke,” he explains.  

“Why do you want to make a film about nasty people? Don’t make a film about gangsters taking money from shopkeepers, make a film about somebody like Darren. Make a film about the Bengali youth workers or the person saving a kid’s life, like they do here. That’s the story to tell.” 

We return to Streets of Growth, a charity working to protect and build the community that Eddie Marsan cherishes, where the important work continues.  

“They have spent the last few days with a kid who’s in a coma,” says Marsan.  

“They’re trying to stop other boys reacting. So while you’re interviewing me, the ‘movie star’, Darren is in the room next door trying to save someone’s life.” 

Find out more about Streets of Growth here.

Eddie Marsan at the ready

In his high-profile day job, Eddie Marsan has a couple of big – and very different – roles coming up.

Back to Black

It’s a beautiful tribute to Any Winehouse. I’m very proud to be part of it. Marisa Abela is incredible playing Amy and Jack O’Connell is amazing as Blake. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a love letter to her. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a film that sanitised or demonised the family – addiction is the only bad guy in this film. So I wanted to tell the complexity of the story, because great stories have the courage to sit with complexity and nuance. Reductive, didactic storytelling is an affront to our intelligence. 

Franklin

I was going to play John Adams years ago in the HBO series about him. I was working with Paul Giamatti on The Illusionist and said to him that they had approached me to play John Adams. I said, why don’t they get you to do it? He said, they’ll want an Englishman to play him, that’s the American mentality. Anyway, HBO, as quite often happens, dropped the project, dropped the director, cleared the decks, they didn’t need me. And six months later, Paul Giamatti played John Adams and he was brilliant.

Then, when I was filming Fair Play, the writer Kirk Ellis emailed to ask if I would play John Adams now for him, opposite Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin. So I lucked out. I researched John Adams and I loved him. What an amazing man. And it was brilliant working with Michael Douglas. I’m an actor who gets very into character, but there was always a point in every scene where I would be thinking: fucking hell, it’s Michael Douglas! I couldn’t help it. But he was so generous and such a great company leader. He took responsibility for his fame and his position and put everyone at ease. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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