At first glance, Archie Johnson seems like a nice kid – the pinnacle of what the ideal sixth former should look like.
The son of two high-flying, well-to-do business types, Archie spends his time between his large, airy house in an exclusive suburb and his top-ranking private school.
Like his parents, Archie looks destined to be an overachiever – on the school rugby team, A* grades and an Oxbridge offer to boot. He’s quiet, unassuming: far less ostentatious and laddish than some of his brash mates.
So when Natalie, a fellow student Archie has had a flirtatious relationship with, accuses him of rape after his 18th birthday party, people are left sideswiped.
Archie was meant to be eschewing the grim lad culture that has permeated through his best friends, admitting he ‘felt like an outsider’ when compared to other students. Could he really be capable of something like this?
This sense of being wrong-footed is something writer Emma Dennis-Edwards was keen to get across in her provocative new one-off drama, Consent.
‘I wanted the audience to question what a perpetrator looks like,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I find this culture of misogyny in young men really concerning, and I wanted to show how that group mentality can really filter through.’
Consent, which airs on Channel 4 tonight, is set in the fictional elite private school of Burlingdale. Formerly a boys’ school, the prestigious institution has recently started admitting young women into the sixth form – with all the students hoping to land a place at a top university.
However, there is an insidious culture of sexism that is steeped through the boys at the school, made evident through Archie’s WhatsApp group with his mates, grossly titled ‘Sluts and Stuff.’
Emma turned to the Everyone’s Invited website – an anonymous forum for girls and women to share the horrific incidents of misogyny and abuse they’ve faced at school – as part of the research process for writing the piece. Something, she says, she found ‘really difficult.’
While Archie and Natalie’s story is entirely fictionalised, some elements we see on screen are not dissimilar to the testimony on the site. Archie and his friends film and share content of girls they’ve been with as part of a vile ‘points’ system. Emma recalls seeing stories about from young girls, saying how their intimate pictures were shared online without consent when they were underage.
‘We’ve talked about incel culture and misogyny and how that affects society in general, but the manifestation of that in schools felt like something I really wanted to explore,’ explains the writer.
‘I guess this sort of culture is very much exacerbated amongst students now, because of social media. I think it’s bigger and more intrusive, which I wanted to show with the Sluts and Stuff WhatsApp group. I wanted to show how this affected Archie’s behaviour, because this misogyny is just so deeply entrenched in how he and his friends talked to each other.’
Emma does not shy away from extremities in the language, even fighting to keep in more disturbing elements of the WhatsApp chats when executives were keen to tone down certain aspects. Explicit sexual slurs are used throughout: in the opening scenes, Raffs tells Archie to ‘shut Natalie up’ by ‘shoving his d*** in her gob’ or ‘riding her p***y bareback.’
‘I understood why there was concern,’ she says. ‘I mean, the original title of the drama was Sluts and Stuff. I get why that had to be changed.
‘It’s really important that in the storytelling, the characters I created were truthful. Although there was controversy around some of the language, these are things that we found regularly in our research. I felt like we shouldn’t shy away from it, like we don’t shy away from anything in the drama.’
What is equally uncomfortable is Archie’s immense wealth and privilege simply making Natalie’s accusation fade to nothingness.
The headmaster’s desperation to keep the story out of the headlines, alongside Archie’s parents threatening to pull their son out of the school, leaves Natalie in a powerless position.
This more unique relationship between a private school and their relationship with their students was based on Emma’s own real life experience as a tutor to the immensely wealthy in the London borough of Wandsworth.
‘As someone from a working-class background, I had never met a person from a private school until I was around 18,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t really aware of the “client” relationship these private schools have with the parents that sent their kids there.
‘The culture of the client relationship was really interesting, and how you provide a service, is quite different. That sector is not just to learn. You’re not just paying for the best education. You’re paying for connections and experiences within that school.
‘It’s the kind of world experiences that money does buy you, that I found really interesting as a tutor.’
With only 7% of the UK going to private school and possibly understanding this unique dynamic, it was important for Emma to write Natalie as a Black, working-class girl who attends Burlingdale on a scholarship. She serves as a cipher for the audience to see into a world that’s alien to her, and to most of us.
Emma is a Black woman herself, and was keen to stress how it is Natalie’s modest roots, calling out a world that has actively fought to exclude her, that was the driving force behind the school’s simple dismissal of her accusations.
Even Natalie’s best friend (and Archie’s twin sister), chooses not to believe her, dismissing the rape as a ‘misunderstanding’.
‘I included the racial dynamic because when I was researching the piece, this was quite a big part of it,’ Emma explains. ‘It’s really interesting as a lot of these schools are actually quite international. Our prime minister went to one of these schools.
‘I wanted to emphasise it’s because of the difference of class as to why Natalie isn’t believed, and how we are all responsible for upholding patriarchy and misogyny.
‘It was important to show Archie’s sister as a perpetrator of this violence against women.
‘It’s why we don’t show the video Archie recorded until the very end. I want the audience to really ask themselves if they believe women.’
Despite the grim subject matter, Emma is pleased that Consent will finally be released to the wider world, and hopes it can spark vital discussion and debate in regard to sexism in schools.
‘We need to really tackle this stuff head on,’ she says.
‘Ultimately, it shows how we need greater discussion about consent in sex education in schools, and we need to be discussing this with children way, way sooner.
‘By reading Everyone’s Invited, I was heartened to see so many young women are now able to articulate what happened to them, and acknowledge that wasn’t okay.
‘People are a lot more ready to say: “I won’t be spoken to like that” or “the way boys are doing this is making me really uncomfortable.”
‘I am heartened by the fact that younger women are speaking up in a way I didn’t feel like I could.’
Consent airs tonight at 10pm on Channel 4.
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