Neville’s documentary helps inner-city Manchester heal its wounds
Neville Thompson grew up in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, the era when clashes between armed gang members saw the city dubbed ‘Gunchester’.
His grandparents, who raised him at their home in Rusholme, warned him to stay away from Moss Side, the area south of the city centre where many of the shootings took place. But Neville found himself drawn to a place he describes as “the devil’s playground”.
He said, “I was still at school, but I was getting into a lot of trouble. I probably had a lot of issues because I grew up with my grandparents and had a lot of feelings that weren’t answered. I had a chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t a bully, but I didn’t let anyone take liberties with me.”
Neville’s love of music encouraged him to make tapes for young men he met in Moss Side, many of whom were gang members. He said, “I started to get enticed into that world. I said to them ‘I want to join up’. I felt protected at first, but it brought more problems as their enemies became my enemies. I might have felt protected, but I took on more than I realised.
“Also, I never had the foresight to think that this war [between gangs] could go on for years. If I could turn the clock back I never would have done it.”
Eventually, Neville was jailed for drug offences. When he was released his probation required him to attend workshops organised by Odd Arts, a National Lottery-supported project using theatre and the arts as a therapeutic tool in places such as prisons and secure hospitals.
Neville, now 47, made a connection with Rebecca ‘Becky’ Friel, the chief executive of Odd Arts. Years later, he came back to the project and asked for her help.
Becky said, “He told me ‘I’m ready to move on with my life, can you help me’? That happens quite a lot. We work with people when they’re in a dark place in their life and they come back. In Neville’s case he literally knocked on our door and said ‘I want to do something for my community – I need help.'”
Neville wanted to make a film – a documentary – about the gang violence that blighted central Manchester at the end of the 20th century and its impact on people living in Moss Side. The result is Scratching the Surface, a powerful film which was a runner-up in the CJA (Criminal Justice Awards) 2022.
Neville, who appears in the film, felt a great deal of responsibility to the other people who agreed to talk on camera. He said, “I had to make sure that their side of things was all good – I didn’t want to show them in a bad light or for it to come out wrong.”
The success of Scratching the Surface has had a profound effect on Neville. He said, “It gave me some direction for what I want to do with my life. It took me a long time to get that direction. I don’t want to do 9-5 every day, I want to do creative stuff.”
As well as laying the groundwork for another film and podcasts, Neville is looking to start a Community Interest Company, Inner-City Escape, working with Manchester’s young people. He said, “I’ve got a vision of where I want to go now. It’s exciting.”
9th May 2023
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