Ellen: a searing piece of drama with a brutal final punch

Jessica Barden shines in this one-off piece from a team of talented female first-timers

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“I think being a teenager is really difficult and it‘s much more difficult when you live in poverty.” Those are the words of writer Sarah Quintrell, the woman behind one-off drama Ellen, airing tonight on Channel 4.

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It’s the sort of television that creeps up on you – you think you know what you’re getting, in this case a gritty portrayal of life on an estate, but all of a sudden a wave of emotion wells up inside you as the narrative delivers the most brutal of twists.

The story follows the eponymous Ellen, a 14-year-old teenager sharing a pokey flat in a council block with her absent mother (an almost unrecognisable Jaime Winstone, below) and ailing grandmother. Ellen is the sort of girl you’d avoid sitting next to on the tube. She’s fearless, gobby, plays loud music and shouts at strangers – obnoxious and brassy but, as we quickly learn, it’s a thin veneer. She’s as vulnerable as any other teenager and then some. Sure, you and I probably had our own growing pains, but the likelihood is we had at least someone to look out for us. Ellen has no one – as Quintrell explains, she may not fit the stereotype of a defenceless girl but she’s just that.

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“I feel there is a section of our society – young females – who aren’t heard because we have this idea of vulnerability in our society. We have a perception of what a vulnerable girl looks like and that is maybe someone who’s quiet or malnourished or skinny. Vulnerability comes in many guises but one of them fools people and that’s if a girl is mouthy, difficult, smoking, drinking – she has sex and decides to explore her sexuality. She seems to be almost living like a grown up and rather than using those things as a sign that maybe they need someone to step in and check they’re okay or give boundaries, we use that as a sign to write them off.

“A big part of writing Ellen was me wanting to say, ‘let’s look at vulnerability, let’s look at that girl’ and I don’t want to dress it up – she’s probably a pain in the backside. She’s difficult, she’s not easy to get through to, she’s not easily loveable on the surface, but let’s see who she has the capacity to be. Who else is she?”

One means of Quintrell’s exploration is through the friendship Ellen finds in Kayla (Yasmin Monet Prince, below). Teenage companionship is a well-worn topic on screen, but the flinty intensity shared between these two characters gives it a freshness.

“Often when I see female friendships on telly, which is rare anyway, they’re very cuddly – they spoon in bed and they’re all over each other and I didn’t grow up in that world,” says Quintrell. “I grew up in a world where if someone cried you looked at the floor and thought ‘oh s**t, what am I going to do? Just give them a minute.’ We were harder than that and with [Ellen and Kayla], all their affection is through play fighting and beating each other up with a pillow and that to me is much more recognisable. Those friendships are really strong and it’s a love story, really, with Kayla and Ellen. The difference between them is ultimately they’re both lonely girls but Kayla has somebody who, when she starts to veer off the rails, steps in.” 

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But Ellen is as much a story of friendship as it is one young girl’s desperate struggle to stay afloat – a tussle brought to life by a visceral and searing portrayal by actress Jessica Barden. Through her Ellen is angry and exasperated at the cruel hand life has dealt her but at the same time playful and coquettish. “She’s just got that perfect mixture of absolute strength and vulnerability,” muses Quintrell. “She captures the humour of Ellen so brilliantly, it’s a stunning performance.”

There’s no doubt Barden’s is a name we’ll hear more of in coming years, but this drama is unique in its celebration of emerging talent behind the camera. An established actress, Quintrell is a first-time writer here and won the commission through Channel 4’s Coming Up scheme which finds and develops industry newcomers.

Joining her behind-the-scenes is breakthrough director Mahalia Belo who brings with her a crew of female-first timers working across photography, editing, production design and casting. “We were all women with kids,” says Quintrell who gave birth to her second child during the writing process. Belo also had a baby during production and Winstone had a five-week-old when she came on set. “I don’t think any of us found it easy but it’s possible and we did it and we’ve had brilliant support.”

Did it make a difference, having an all-female crew? “It did make a big difference, especially what we were asking the girls to give and to show and how open they needed to be. For this story it was really important to have females – a lot of women – on it.”

I won’t give away the ending of Ellen – that would be unfair to the story and the efforts of the galvanised team to spark the sort of uncomfortable conversation that really good telly forces you to have. But I hope it has the impact Quintrell intends:

“There’s a bit of me that wants other people to see it on [these young girls’] behalf and to remember that these are human beings – they’re people who are up against it – and just to take a minute to think about how we treat people and at what point do we write somebody off.

“There’s a massive section of our society who have been badly let down and I want to say to them, ‘I’m really sorry for what you’ve been through,’ and I want them to watch Ellen and know that they aren’t on their own.”

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Ellen airs tonight at 10pm on Channel 4