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An Anchor for British Teens

Television * A London studio offers a creative outlet for youths, many of whom come from troubled backgrounds.


LONDON — The studio is set up to tape an interview show, "Pass the Mic," as in microphone. The familiar tools of television production are in place. Thin metal beams overhead support spotlights, and dark, sound-muffling curtains encircle an audience of 40 or so people seated on wooden bleachers. Two cameras are pointed at cushy chairs on the tiny stage for the host and interviewee.

The members of the filming crew are in position, some wear headsets, some carry clipboards, all wear black T-shirts with white lettering reading "BBC."

This is not the British Broadcasting Corp. but the small production facility of Ladbroke Grove in a tough section of North Kensington, London, not far from the briefly famous Notting Hill neighborhood.

The T-shirts are donations from the giant corporation to a small nonprofit organization named Youth Culture Television, or YCTV. The entire crew and most of the audience are teenagers, and the guest is none other than Mick Jagger.

YCTV is half skills center, half sanctuary from the mean streets outside. Most of the teens at YCTV (ages 11 to 20) are out of school, whether dropped or kicked. They may have failed in or been bored by traditional academics, messed with drugs, gotten pregnant or been in trouble with the school administration or, in a few cases, the police.

Ladbroke Grove was hastily converted from an automobile showroom in 1994 to provide a home base for the fledgling organization. The brick building was carved into one studio with an L-shaped gallery above, three editing suites and several offices.

Jagger is not the only famous person to offer himself up as guinea pig for these novices. Over the last few years, Anjelica Huston, Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Iman, Jeremy Irons, Sir David Frost and Jerry Hall have dropped by the studio. Many of them have been persuaded by a very persuasive woman named Sabrina Guinness.

Guinness, 45, founded YCTV and is its director. She is related to the world-famous brewing family but quickly points out that she has always worked and is not rich.

From the mid-1980s until 1993, Guinness lived in Los Angeles while working in the film industry. She saw firsthand the results of the 1992 L.A. riots, when much destruction was caused by teens who felt they had nothing to lose. Soon after that, CityKids, a New York organization offering training in music and dance to inner-city teens, started a branch in Los Angeles. Guinness saw the group produce real change, and she hatched the idea of doing something similar in London.

Central to YCTV is the idea that if young people, especially those in trouble, are given a chance to prove they possess something important--creativity--they can do amazing things. Music, dance and, at YCTV, television provide natural outlets for this creativity.

Guinness believes television must do more to approach its potential as a positive influence, especially for young people. Her suggestion is to give youth, who watch a lot of television, the chance to make television more relevant to their lives. Guinness and her full-time staff of 10 start from the premise that most television for the 13-to-18-year-old market fails teenagers by patronizing them.

Asked how one successfully combines multicultural and multiethnic teens, some confused, others downright rebellious, with expensive television equipment and rigorous production schedules, Guinness says, "We concentrate on giving them a sense of ownership, and usually an attitude of responsibility follows."

The sense of ownership is not an illusion. The young people fill all production roles from grip to director to "talent." They produce their own shows from their scripts in what comes to feel very much like their studio. They are responsible for all aspects of the production; Guinness and her staff are principally advisors.

For youths who have a tough time picturing what they will be doing next week, let alone five years from now, YCTV offers short-term goals--skills--and long-term goals--jobs.

Luke Hyams, 19, hosted the Jagger interview. A handsome young man with an open, friendly conversational style, Hyams may be on his way to a television career thanks to YCTV. Four years ago, his life was on a much different track.

"I had a difficult time at a school in London which eventually asked me to leave. No other school wanted to take me in. I had no job qualifications, no future."

Learning Life on the Job

Things started to get better when he heard about YCTV. "I was able to dive straight into a new kind of education where I learned lots of different 'televisual' skills."

Hyams has been involved with many cable productions in his nearly five years at YCTV, but "Pass the Mic" is a show he has guided since just after the basic concept was created. It was the first show the organization sold to a broadcast, rather than cable, station. It will air on BBC2 for four weeks in October.

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