What the Class of ’92 did next

Five local lads were in the so-called Class of 92, who played in one of the greatest eras of Manchester United’s history. So what did they do next? Quite a lot, it turns out…

First published in Vera magazine (Virgin Atlantic), December 2018.

On a Tuesday late afternoon outside Salford City’s stadium, awaiting the visit of Hartlepool United, the backdrop has changed more than the people. Tony Sheldon, an impish 79-year-old, is getting ready to sell his football shirts, scarves, pins and matchday programmes, even if the shirts are now red instead of the old tangerine. The no-nonsense Barbara Gaskill, in a black apron with ‘Babs’ inscribed on it, is still getting her burgers and hot dogs ready, just like she has for the past 28 years.

Standing outside her stall for a cigarette break, Babs waves to white-haired long-term president Dave Russell and chairman Karen Baird as they wander past. A few minutes later, the tracksuited Adam Rooney, Salford City’s new star striker, saunters in the other direction towards the changing rooms, making a gesture towards Babs’ cheeseburgers, like a French chef sniffing a Coq Au Vin. “You wish, love,” she says.

For all the cosiness, though, you only have to look around to see that things have changed at Salford City, the local football club in a quiet suburb west of Manchester’s city centre. The shiny new, 5,000-capacity stadium has been renamed as the Peninsula Stadium (it used to be just Moor Lane), and the back of the west stand is daubed with slogans, like “The Welfare of The People is the Highest Law.” Babs and Tony now work in trendy converted shipping containers in a ‘Fanzone’ where you can also buy Grandad’s gourmet hot dogs or Salford Seven Brothers craft beer.

This is a new era at Salford City, as re-imagined by five members of the Class of 92, that now-legendary group of young guns who appeared from the Manchester United academy at the dawn of professional football to form the backbone of the most successful period in the club’s history. The five Manchester-born former stars — Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt — took over ownership of Salford City in 2014 (the other main player, London-born David Beckham, is currently launching his own team, Inter Miami CF). Each has a ten per cent stake in the club, with the other half owned by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, a silent partner.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride since 2014, documented with fly-on-the-wall honesty in the Class of 92 miniseries, which has covered three football seasons from 2014 to 2017. The most recent, Class of 92: Full Time, shows the club transitioning from non-league amateurs to full-time professionals in the 2016/2017 season, all while building the new stadium and installing a youth academy, Academy 92.

As with previous seasons, there are plenty of dressing-room bust-ups, led by volatile joint managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley. The five chairmen somehow manage to come across as both fiercely driven, and like five old mates trying to learn from their mistakes as they go. It’s a good watch.

Yet what I see this Tuesday night seems altogether more professional than the rollercoaster early seasons shown on the Class of 92 documentaries. After three promotions in four years, the club are now the bookies’ favourites in the Vanarama National League, the highest division outside the English Football League. In the summer, Johnson and Morley were replaced by Graham Alexander, who played Premier League football for Burnley and previously managed Scunthorpe United. I watch his team of full-time pros dismantle rivals Hartlepool United 3-0, with goals from Rooney and Danny Lloyd, who were signed from Aberdeen and Peterborough United respectively.

At half-time I meet Rick Kedzior, a fan who has only missed two games, home or away, since 2007, and has seen attendances here grow from a hundred or so to 3,595 for a recent game against Chesterfield.

“I remember when we heard about the takeover, there were a lot of raised eyebrows,” he says. “But Gary Neville came down and explained it all to us in real detail, and listened to what we had to say. Some people didn’t like the colour change, and have drifted away, but I think most people saw they were in it for the right reasons. They have kept the committee that was there before, and have looked after all the people who were here before. For example, my season ticket still only costs 30 quid.”

I think most people saw they were at the club for the right reasons… they have looked after all the people who were here before the takeover.

If these chairmen aren’t running Salford City like the Glazers, the Manchester United owners that Scholes and Gary Neville have criticised recently, they have installed things that aren’t normally seen outside the Football League: recovery pools, strict nutrition programmes, a sports scientist, a state-of-the-art team bus. “I’ve been at clubs at higher levels that are way less professional,” says striker Rooney after the game, while his young son kicks balls into an empty net . On another side of the pitch, Alexander is giving the kind of quotidian matchday quotes to the club’s in-house TV station that I remember from my days reporting on Championship football.

The Class of 92 mean business, literally — and it’s not just at Salford City. Over my few days in Manchester I stay at Hotel Football, next to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, which is just one of their many business ventures. Opened in 2015, it’s a little like its owners: slick, ambitious but with touches of personality and warmth.

In the Man United Supporters Club bar downstairs, there’s a little stage in the corner reserved for Mr Miyagi, the famously dapper United fan, known for his pre-match singing. On the top floor, there’s a five-a-side football pitch, with a hastily-installed net after their first kick-about, when Ryan Giggs hit three balls into the streets below. At the ground-floor Cafe Football, which also has branches in central Manchester and east London, you can get a ‘Nicky Butty’ club sandwich. In my room, 692, the walls are covered with quotes about Scholes and Giggs, while the minibar is filled with Seven Brothers beer, Space Raider crisps, Fizz Wizzes, Drumsticks and cans of Vimto.

Salford City and Hotel Football, which the team want to roll out near stadiums in other cities, are just the start of the Class of 92 empire, which is set to include a university course and a charitable foundation (see sidebar), all under the umbrella of a group called Project 92.  

On top of all that, GG Hospitality, run by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, is busily redeveloping parts of Manchester, including an opinion-dividing GBP200 million plan to build a honeycomb glass skyscraper in the centre of town, and a redevelopment of the old Manchester Stock Exchange, which will open as a 41-room boutique hotel with a high-end restaurant in the spring of 2019.  

The one who seems to be involved with it all is Gary Neville. During his playing days, his nickname was ‘Busy’, and he was quietly starting businesses and sitting on company boards by his mid-20s, trying to hide his business calls from Sir Alex Ferguson. He currently sits on more than 30 company boards, and his investments run from digital design agency E3 Creative (who run the slick Salford City website) to The Rabbit in the Moon, a flashy restaurant in the same building as Manchester’s National Football Museum. All the while, he’s become arguably Britain’s favourite football pundit for his work on Sky Sports. Still busy, then.   

The morning after the Salford game, he’s been in Ireland playing in a testimonial match, and I call him up in a rare break between meetings. “I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22, and have just gone for it ever since,” he says. “I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.”   

I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22. I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.

Neville admits that the range of his business interests can be exhausting. “About 18 months ago, I realised that something had to change,” he says. “I had taken on too much, and it was chaos. The key since then has been getting the best people to run the various businesses. With the university or the Stock Exchange project, we’ve got real industry leaders running things, and I’ve tried to step back.”

His biggest passion, though, is Salford City. “It’s the one business that’s not a business, in a way,” he says. “We are trying to put everything in place to make the club a success, but the beauty of football is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Like all the lads, I’m always thinking about ways we can do things better. And whilst we can’t get involved with decisions about the team, we kick every ball and feel the joy and frustration that any fan does.”

The docuseries was Neville’s idea. “It’s always been the plan that the club would be transparent,” he says. “It was important that the programme felt real, that it wasn’t just some piece of propaganda. I think that’s why people responded to it.”

Certainly, Neville and his Class of 92 cohorts aren’t shying away from the limelight. All of their projects will continue to play out under the full glare of public scrutiny, with a dose of scepticism guaranteed. But Neville is used to that. “The big thing we learned at Man United is accountability,” he says. “If you made a mistake, you put your hand up, and I think all the lads share that honesty. Ultimately, we’re doing all these things in the city we all love, and which gave us everything. Of course we’re responsible, and we should be.”

The curious history of the Coney Dog

From 19th-Century German immigrant Charles Feltman to Japanese hot dog champion Takeru Kobayashi, the iconic Coney Island hot dog has had a rollercoaster journey

First published in Vera magazine, August 2018. Photography by Myles Pritchard

At the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City plumber Chris Geiger has gone a little off-brief. He’s dressed not as Neptune, or a merman, but as a giant squeezy mustard bottle, while his ten-year-old son, Jordan, is dressed as a hot dog. For added authenticity, Chris has painstakingly painted the logo of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Jordan’s costume, a reference to Coney Island’s most famous hot dog vendor. “Having a hot dog is the number one thing to do in Coney Island,” Chris says. “It’s part of the history here, and it’s a symbol of the place. Besides, I can’t do rollercoasters.”

The Geigers aren’t alone in having a hot dog when they come to Coney Island, on the southern edge of Brooklyn, which is known around the world for its theme parks, sideshows and general sense of bygone seaside revelry. The queues at the two branches of Nathan’s – including the huge original branch, which opened as a nickel stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in 1916 – are usually the biggest in town, with 20-deep lines of people waiting to wolf down simple beef dogs slathered in ketchup and mustard.

The hot dog was invented in Coney Island, and as I learn over two days here, the Coney dog has a rich, messy history that mirrors the rollercoaster history of Coney Island itself. I get the story from Michael Quinn, a local boy who three years ago resurrected Feltman’s, the original brand of Coney dogs, along with his brother Joe. I meet Quinn, resplendent in a mustard-splodged Feltman’s shirt, over a bright red table outside one of his two hot dog concessions inside Luna Park, the theme park that first opened across the road in 1903, burned down in 1944, and was reopened in 2013.

It was some time around 1867 that Charles Feltman, an immigrant German baker who ran a pushcart pie wagon near the beach, had a brainwave. He decided to bake a special, elongated milk roll that could house a Frankfurter from his native Germany. Designed especially for beach-goers, who wanted to walk and eat, he called it the Coney Island Red Hot. It was an instant smash, even if speculation about the contents of the sausages meant punters began calling these new creations “hot dogs”.

Feltman probably didn’t like that name. And, according to Quinn, he probably would have hated the fact that the hot dog became his most famous legacy. “I think he would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets,” he says.

I think Feltman would have much rather have been known as the guy behind America’s biggest and grandest restaurant, but that’s the part of the story everyone forgets.

In 1871, on the back of his stellar hot dog sales, Feltman leased land and began building a grand restaurant complex, originally called Feltman’s German Gardens, on the site where Feltman’s sits today. By the 1920s, when Coney Island had become a buzzing high-end amusement resort, Feltman’s stretched from Surf Avenue to the beach, serving more than five million diners a year. The complex boasted lavish beer gardens, ballrooms, a bathhouse, a rollercoaster, a movie theatre and America’s most famous carousel. At its peak, it employed 1,200 waitstaff, including America’s first singing waiters, and people would travel the country to pay $2.50 for a Shore Dinner, when Quinn says “the entire table would be covered in lobster, clams, turtle, Bluefish, you name it”.

Despite still having seven grills for its ever-popular hot dogs, by 1916 Feltman’s was more focused on seafood and entertainment for everyone from Al Capone to President William Taft. So it was barely noteworthy when a lowly Jewish bun slicer called Nathan Handwerker handed in his notice, and set up a rival stall just down the road, serving similar hot dogs to those at Feltman’s, but for five cents instead of ten. Because there were still concerns about the ingredients of hot dogs, he gave surgeon’s smocks to early customers to fake a health industry seal of approval, and claimed his dogs were both healthy and kosher. Like Feltman’s original idea, it was an instant hit.     

Things changed dramatically, of course, for Coney Island and its hot dogs. After the glory days of the early 20th Century, there was a precipitous decline following the Great Depression and then the War, when the rise of cars and air-conditioned suburban living made salty seaside fun seem passe. After Luna Park closed in 1944, Feltman’s restaurant became a ghost of its former glories, and closed in 1954 (that both are now back is a sure sign of Coney Island’s recent resurgence).   

The more blue-collar Nathan’s was better-placed to survive the years of depression. Nathan’s son Murray opened two more branches in the 1950s and 60s, and in the early 1970s started the now-legendary hot dog eating competition, which takes place every July. In 1987, a group of investors swooped, and Nathan’s has gone from being a family-run affair to a Chinese-owned, NASDAQ-listed behemoth, with hundreds of franchises across America and the world.

Michael Quinn, 42, has seen Coney Island fall and rise again first-hand. Growing up in the area, he remembers a place of “gangs, drugs and amusement parks burning down.” Still, he and his brother Jimmy would swim in the sea and ride the old Cyclone wooden rollercoaster. They vowed one day to start a Coney Island business of their own, a dream that was tragically denied them. Michael had become a schoolteacher in September, 2001, when his brother Jimmy died in the 9/11 attacks. Devastated, he took solace in doing historic walking tours around the Coney Island beachfront. “It was a kind of catharsis for me,” he says. “Being here, and talking about this place, made me feel closer to Jimmy.”

Fifteen years later, Michael and his other brother Joe, who had served in the military, were watching a New York Mets baseball game with a hot dog when they had a Feltman-esque brainwave: they should bring back the Feltman’s brand, honouring Michael and Jimmy’s childhood plan. “It wasn’t just creating a hot dog brand,” says Michael. “It was bringing back an important historic place where my grandfather was a regular, and doing it as a family.”

Quinn admits seeing a certain irony in the fact that Feltman’s is now the plucky underdog, with its $4.25 hot dog ten cents cheaper than the one down the road. But, while the queues at Feltman’s are nothing like those at Nathan’s, the Feltman’s beef hot dogs – made with no artificial ingredients, and typically topped with sauerkraut, as Feltman served them – generally get better reviews. New York City website Gothamist declaring the Feltman’s dog “most likely the best hot dog you’ll ever eat in your life”, while hot dog connoisseur Jon Fox, the man behind the Hot Dog Nation Facebook group, declared it “as good a beef dog as I’ve had”.

Quinn mentions another person who prefers Feltman’s to Nathan’s: Takeru Kobayashi, the legendary Japanese eating champion who created his own slice of Coney Island hot dog history back in 2001. So, the next day, I find myself outside Kobayashi’s front door in the hip neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn (Mermaid Parade crowds make a trip to Coney Island tricky). When he meets me, he’s wearing a pair of Warhol-esque hot dog print socks and a hot dog tee that shows off thin, toned arms. He has a blue quiff, and seems far younger than his 40 years.

Kobayashi’s story – which he tells me over iced coffee in halted English, and in translation via his publicist Maggie James – is remarkable. Back in 2001, he was a skinny 22-year-old from Japan who turned up jet-lagged at the Coney Island hot dog contest, only to be teased by his burly, macho competitors. “One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs,” Kobayashi recalls. “Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.”

One guy joked that his arm was bigger than both my legs. Another told me that teenagers weren’t allowed to compete.

Kobayashi had discovered his ability to eat ridiculous amounts of food in a curry rice fast food chain in Nagano, when friends had challenged him. He’d gone on to win a series of eating competitions in Japan, while studying the science of competitive eating, including expanding his stomach with water. Despite not having ever eaten American-style hot dogs, and having practised with fish sticks, he had figured out the most effective way to eat a hot dog very quickly: by splitting it in two and dunking each half in water to break down the starches in the bread.  

None of the burly guys knew this, until a few minutes into the 2001 contest at Nathan’s. Gradually, the other competitors stopped eating to watch, as the cameras all trained themselves on the kid from Japan. As Kobayashi remembers: “I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.”

I felt this weird change. Suddenly, it was like the world had stopped and everyone was looking at me.

The previous record was 25, and as Kobayashi passed 30, the organisers had run out of signs, and had to frantically write new numbers. When he finally stopped, he’d eaten 50 hot dogs, doubling the previous record. The new record was so outlandish that some people claimed aliens had abducted Kobayashi and replaced his stomach.

Either way, it changed competitive eating for good: as the sport exploded in popularity, everyone started dipping their dogs in water, including Joey Chestnut, the American current Nathan’s champion, and the only real rival to Kobayashi’s crown as the greatest eater ever. Kobayashi’s approach – of “training to eat like you would for baseball or soccer” – has become the new normal, even if his many world records are hard to touch: from hamburgers (93 in eight minutes) to tacos (159 in ten) and pork buns (100 in 12 minutes). After his 2001 win, Kobayashi would win six consecutive Nathan’s hot dog competitions.

But the story of Kobayashi and Nathan’s would go very sour. In 2010, he didn’t compete at the annual hot dog eating competition, having refused to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating (MLE), competitive eating’s governing body. Nonetheless, he turned up at the event and took to the stage to congratulate other eaters, only to be arrested and spend a night in a tough Brooklyn prison (when he came out, he famously said: “I’m hungry”). He hasn’t competed at Nathan’s since, and tells me that he still feels “disgusted” by what happened.

So, it’s perhaps little surprise that Kobayashi – a “health freak” away from training – favours Feltman’s hot dogs over the Nathan’s dogs. “Nathan’s hot dogs are so salty, and pumped full of chemicals,” he says. “But Feltman’s hot dogs are almost like steaks, with real ingredients. I couldn’t eat as many, though, as they have a real snap, and aren’t as greasy.”  

Still, whatever people say, and whatever is really in this sausages, it’s unlikely the queues for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs will die down any time soon. At both Nathan’s and now Feltman’s, they’re queueing for more than a sausage in a bun. They’re in line for a messy bite of pop culture history, which began right here in Coney Island.  

 

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John Boyega be good

There are two John Boyegas. One is a goofy kid from Peckham who’s still learning the basics of housework; the other is an obsessive actor, who is carefully crafting a Hollywood career that’s almost too good to be true

First published in Vera magazine, April 2018. With photography by Kurt Iswarienko 

John Boyega sometimes forgets he’s famous. “I’ll look around the house and realise there’s no food, and the Internet’s not working,” he says. “And then I’m like: Come on, there’s an action figure of you. You can afford to sort this out. But, you know, I went 23 years when no one knew who I was. Two years doesn’t change all that muscle memory.”

Boyega is most definitely famous now. While he collected Star Wars toys as a kid, now there are brooding action figures of him as Finn, the rebel Stormtrooper in the The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the first two parts in the latest trilogy. His face has appeared on bottles of Volvic mineral water and the web is awash with John Boyega merchandise, from iPhone cases to throw pillows decorated with his grinning face.  

And the career is going well. After a hard-hitting lead role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, he’s now starring in the robot action sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, on which he was a co-producer. Online forums have taken to comparing him to a young Denzel Washington (the intensity, but also the megawatt smile). The film means there will be yet another action figure in the works.

But, to Boyega, that’s his career, not his life. “It happens in these waves,” he tells me over the phone, during a quiet period in February, before publicity for Pacific Rim: Uprising kicks into gear. “But the main event in my life is coming home to London, and being with my friends and family. That’s the real me, and it’s what I hold on to.”

In real life, he’s John, a 25-year-old from Peckham, Southeast London, who is still learning to cook: “It’s mainly rice and stew, I’m no Gordon Ramsay,” he says. His mum worries about his safety during action sequences, while his dad – a Pentecostal minister – wishes he could be just a bit more like Bruce Willis. He still makes the questionable interior decor choices that first surfaced on The Graham Norton Show: the saxophone lamp, the spartan warrior loo-roll holder… and more recently a giant chess set. “Cos everyone needs one of them, right?”

But when it comes to acting, or even talking about acting, the self-effacing banter tends to switch off, and Boyega gets serious. It’s been that way ever since he played a leopard in a primary school production, and – as he once told Interview magazine – “gave the leopard a character breakdown, and researched its motivations.”

He was born John Adedayo B Adegboyega (he later created the simpler version as a stage name), and grew up on Peckham’s Sceaux Gardens estate. From an early age, his mother, Abigail and father, Samson, took John and his sisters on regular visits to their native Nigeria. “We were Nigerian first, English second,” says Boyega.

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, the Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a piece about Boyega’s childhood, playing up Peckham’s youth gang culture and claiming that a lot of boys from Boyega’s time at school were “now in prison or dead”. In response, the actor wrote on Twitter: “Innacurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story.” (He’s not been afraid of speaking his mind, for example calling out Game Of Thrones for not having enough black actors).

There were also stories about Boyega rebelling against his religious upbringing, which don’t quite ring true when he tells me his dad has become his biggest fan, coming to every show he did growing up, and more recently poring over every storyline and character arc. “I don’t know how, but my parents have always been cool with the acting,” he says.

It’s not a stretch to surmise that his parents might have been cool with their son’s acting because it made him happy. “For me, drama has always been this space where you get to be free,” he says. “From the start, I just felt good doing it, and it made me popular for an hour.”

When Boyega was eight, the Theatre Peckham youth theatre group did an after-school workshop at the Oliver Goldsmith Primary School. The company’s founder and artistic director, Teresa Early, immediately noticed something about one of the boys in the class. “There was just something there,” Early says of noticing Boyega. “I remember just looking at him and thinking: Who are you then?”

Boyega ended up joining the Theatre Peckham acting programme until the age of 14, with his first role as one of four children in the story of an unpleasant fairy living in the broom cupboard. He was, in Early’s words, “like a duck to water… he was so instinctive and committed to every role, and you could just see that it made him happy, even if he wasn’t in the lead role. He was in the building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.”

John was in the theatre building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.

Boyega continued to study acting after secondary school, at the South Thames College and then the Identity School of Acting in Hackney. “I would pore over tapes of actors like [English theatre actor] Adrian Lester, and try to work out how they did it,” he says. “I was always trying to learn about the process. I knew this was what I needed to do.”

His first notable role was as Moses, the leader of a gang of teenage hoodlums in 2011’s Attack The Block, a sci-fi comedy by writer-director Joe Cornish. Despite a modest box office showing, the critics liked it, and – fatefully – so did the American director and producer JJ Abrams, who took a particular interest in the kid playing Moses.  

Boyega’s career trajectory back then would have been enough for most aspiring young British actors. He had roles in shows like Law and Order and Becoming Human, a BBC vampire drama. “But a lot of the time, the roles I’d get offered would be, like, ‘Hoodie number one,’” he says. “I knew I had to go to America to get the kind of roles I wanted.”

So he started taking trips to the US, couch surfing and getting stopped at customs with irritating regularity. “I’d basically spend all my money from whatever TV show I’d been in, and just stay in Los Angeles for as long as I could afford,” he says. “It felt like a gamble every time, but there was always a goal in mind.”

The goal was to make a big-time career as an actor, though not specifically ‘Join the biggest movie franchise of all time’. But one day he was at the Bad Robot production company for a meeting, and saw a guy he didn’t recognise walking out of a production room with Tom Cruise. It was Abrams, who’d been working on one of the Mission: Impossible movies, and he made a beeline for Boyega. “We had a quick meeting, and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something,’” recalls Boyega. “I didn’t think much of it at the time.”

I had a quick meeting [with JJ Abrams] and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time.

‘Something’, it turned out, was Star Wars, and the process of getting the role wasn’t at all what Boyega had expected. “I’d imagined getting a call while cruising down the Sunset Boulevard, then flying home in glory,” he says. “But it was eight, maybe ten auditions, mostly in little rooms in London, over seven months. I went from nervous and excited to ‘great, I hope I get this’ to ‘they’d better give me this damn role now.’”   

He did get the role as Finn, who provided much of the humanity and levity in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even when he was in full Stormtrooper gear. When I asked if he was overawed at walking onto the Star Wars set for the first time, he seems nonplussed. “You feel that responsibility, but as an actor the process is not that different to Attack The Block in terms of figuring out a character, and then bringing him alive.”

The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were, of course, massive hits, taking $2.06 billion and $1.32 billion at the box office, respectively, while mostly satisfying the Star Wars faithful. But what was notable about Boyega, doing the publicity rounds for the movies, was how comfortable he seemed. He mucked around with light sabres on talk shows, snuck into screenings of the movie, and did the beat-boxing for an impromptu Star Wars rap by Daisy Ridley, his co-star, another London actor who seemed to have come from nowhere. When the premiere for The Force Awakens came to London, he invited all his London mates onto the red carpet, and he decided to impress Harrison Ford by taking him to 805, a Nigerian restaurant in Peckham.    

“You don’t have a choice when you’re in a Star Wars film,” he says. “So, I just decided to really embrace that side of things, and let the silliness and fun shine through.”

It probably helped that Boyega is a self-confessed nerd, who tells me the most A-list he’s ever done was getting his agent to force the Los Angeles branch of the Forbidden Planet bookstore to stay open so that he could buy the latest Spider-Man comic. One of his first actions on the Star Wars set was to get Harrison Ford to sign his Han Solo toy figure, though he admits that his early addiction to the movies left him confused. “I watched the prequels first as a kid,” he says, of the films released between 1999 and 2005. “Then I watched the main films and I was like: ‘Man, did they lose their budget or something?’”

Still, Boyega has always been careful that he’s not defined by Finn the Stormtrooper. “I knew that it didn’t guarantee I’d suddenly get good roles,” he says. “So I tried to use it as an opportunity to craft the kind of career I wanted.”

After Star Wars, he again did the rounds at the big studios, landing the juicy role as security guard Melvin Dismukes in Detroit, a pivotal role in the story of police brutality during the Detroit riots on 1967, for which he earned good reviews, even if the major awards nominations some had predicted never quite materialised.

Now, he’s most excited about his starring role Pacific Rim: Uprising , which is also the first gig for his newly-formed production company, Upperroom Productions, which he formed because he didn’t want to “always sit and wait for the phone to ring. That element of setting up projects has always excited me, and on this I’ve been involved with things like pre-visuals, stunts and casting. It’s really different from just acting, and it’s been a real eye-opener.”

Boyega has already ticked off a lot of the milestones in a good acting career – from the massive franchise to the starring role in the challenging drama and the move into production – and he’s done it by the time he’s 25. He’s appeared in the odd flop, like The Circle, a critically-panned tech company drama, but mostly the career plan seems to be going swimmingly.

I ask Teresa Early, Boyega’s first acting mentor, for her take on what’s happened to that eight-year-old. “He really is a genuine and nice young man,” she says, “who hasn’t lost touch with who he is and where he’s from. But I think what people sometimes miss is that he’s very mature, and very astute. I think he’s always known who he is and what he’s here to do. He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.”

He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.

Speaking to Boyega, that all rings very true. You sense that the person least impressed by the action figures and the fame is Boyega himself. He’ll be thinking about his next career move, and what he’ll bring to his next role, while probably still forgetting to set up his home broadband. Part of him will always be that kid in a primary school classroom in Peckham, wondering what the leopard’s motivation really was.  

How to be a getaway driver

After the release of Baby Driver, getaway driving’s never looked so cool. We hear from the people behind those car chases, and meets a group of petrolheads staging fake getaway drives outside Birmingham

(First published in Vera magazine, November 2017)

At the Curborough Sprint Course outside Lichfield, north of Birmingham, I’m watching a robbery – or at least the closest thing that softcore journalists like me get invited to. Leo Sidiropoulos, a local car nut who has worked for Jaguar and Land Rover, is sprinting from his battered VW Polo to grab a briefcase as police sirens begin to blare from a boombox. He gets into the car, which has a giant monkey plush toy called Joe in the passenger seat, fumbles with his seatbelt, and then – amid a screech of tires – takes off round the track, in a hurry.

This is Race Wars, an annual event which was started in 2015 by Shane Lloyd, a colourful former drag racer and nightclub owner from Walsall, who wanted to set up a safe space for local car fanatics who wanted to drive really, really fast – and pretend to be getaway drivers. “I came up with the idea to add a bit of spice and naughtiness to it all,” says Lloyd, who once applied to host Top Gear. He brought in a static US highway patrol car for atmosphere and added a bikini carwash because… well, why not?

“It’s meant to be a bit of fun,” he says. “A lot of these guys are inspired by the movies – the adrenaline, the intensity, the excitement of escaping from something. We give them a place where they can blast the hell out of these cars, but not get in any trouble. After all, everyone secretly wants to be a getaway driver – they just don’t want to go to jail for it.”

Certainly, the mostly young men queueing up for their fictional bank robbery – driving everything from Fiat Puntos to Lotus Exiges and Mitsubishi Evos – have had plenty of inspiration from the movies of late. While Lloyd says he could quote all of the Fast and the Furious movies, it’s ice-cool getaway drivers who have been in vogue in Hollywood over the last few years – and the latest getaway pinup is Ansel Elgort’s Baby in Baby Driver, who drowns out his tinnitus with revved-up 70s rock as he drives.

Edgar Wright’s action-comedy-romance has been a critical and commercial smash, with Empire magazine describing it as a “car-chase opera… a high-octane, tightly choreographed eye-orgy of violence, action, drama and, yes, love”. But never mind Kevin Spacey’s menacingly waspish performance, or the sweet love story between Elgort and Lily James – does the movie pass muster with the petrolheads at Curborough?

“Yes, definitely, though I’d have liked even more driving,” says Simon Ory, an HGV driver in nearby Sutton who is celebrating his 40th birthday – which includes taking me for a spin round the track (literally) in his terrifyingly powerful BMW M4, turning the traction control to zero for maximal drifting, spinning and general showing off, whilst barely getting above second gear.

“The big thing for me is that they use the right car in Baby Driver,” says Ory. “Whether I’m watching a film or reading a report of a real bank robbery, my question is usually the same: what’s the car? A lot of Hollywood movies use these American muscle cars, but in Baby Driver he drives a Subaru Impreza, which is exactly the kind of car a real getaway driver would use.”

Ory is also a discerning consumer when it comes to car stunts. “I don’t like it when car films don’t reflect reality – there’s that scene in Gone in 60 Seconds where the car hits the ramp and jumps a line of cars. I was like: nah, that’s complete nonsense.”

Perhaps the nearest equivalent in Baby Driver comes in the high-octane opening sequence, when Baby – faced with two trucks – does a ‘180 in and 180 out’, a fluid-motion stunt of two 180-degree spins, in different directions, that’s never been seen in a car movie before. I ask Ory about it. “That’s CGI, mate – gotta be,” he says.

Ory may know a lot about cars – from traction control to RPMs and the best tyres for drifting – but, on this particular point, he’s entirely wrong.

I know this because I call up Baby Driver stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott, who might be the hottest car chase expert in Hollywood right now. An all-round stuntman since the mid-90s, he’d been best known for his fight scenes, from Fight Club to The Matrix Reloaded, in which he was the Agent Smith fight double.

But when he got a break as the stunt coordinator and stunt driver on The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, over time he began to be known – in his words – as “the car guy”. He’s since done celebrated car chase scenes in everything from Drive to John Wick, whilst being one of the busiest stunt coordinators in Hollywood.

His style is very much about keeping things real. “With the driving scenes, I love to do as much as possible in-camera [without effects],” says Prescott, who was inspired growing up by Hooper, the 1978 movie starring Burt Reynolds as The Greatest Stuntman Alive . “I don’t like quick-cutting, either, where you’re stitching parts of the gag [stunt scene] together. I like it to play out in one go; I want the real thing.”

The ‘180 in and 180 out’ is a classic example. “I’d seen it in a car show 25 years ago,” says Prescott, “and I’d always wanted to do it in a movie. When I got the concept for Baby Driver, I didn’t just fall in love the idea of setting it all to music – I thought, this is the time for this gag. What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.”

What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.

Luckily, Prescott has his own real-life Baby – stunt driver Jeremy Fry, who’s worked with Prescott on many of his driving films since the Bourne days, including as Ryan Gosling’s driving double in Drive (in which Gosling’s character moonlights as a stunt driver). The pair have been friends since they learned to drift together at the stunt driving school that Fry worked at. Both say the other is the best in the business.

For the 180 gag – which is merely one of a handful of “big-boy stunts” in Baby Driver, like a reverse 270 drift – Fry had to drive at 70mph to get enough speed. “Of course there are nerves when you do a scene like that,” Fry tells me over the phone from California. “We’d rehearsed a lot with cones, but it’s different when you’re there with real trucks, crew and concrete walls. What you see in the movie is exactly what we did.”

Like all Prescott and Fry’s films together, authenticity is important – hence, as he always does in driving movies, Fry took the star to the track for training. “Ansel was a quick learner, like a lot of these guys are,” says Fry. “He may not always be driving, but it’s important that he looks the part. He has to know, for example, that if you’re going to whip a car round, it’s not a huge turn on the steering wheel – it’s gentle.”

Elgort learned the notoriously delicate skill of drifting, and was such a quick learner that he does actually drive in a lot of the movie (for much of the time, actors sit in a contraption known as a Biscuit Rig). “He drives for real in quite a few challenging scenes,” says Fry. “Like the one where he steals an old lady’s Chevy Capri and sees that she’s left her purse, so he powers the car round to give it back.”

Both Fry and Prescott say that filming Baby Driver in Atlanta was up there with their best experiences in the movie industry. “It’s not just that it was so much fun,” says Prescott. “I think it could really stand the test of time and be known as an iconic car chase movie. It’s probably the film I’m most proud of.”

Back at the Curborough Sprint Course, though, things are a little different. One guy’s jeans almost fall down as he sprints to get his briefcase; another wastes almost ten seconds because he’s yanking his seatbelt too hard and it won’t budge (here, helmets and seatbelts are mandatory). Still, the driving is so ferocious and skilful that I’m too intimidated to have a go in Shane’s beaten-up Mazda MX-3 (as a would-be getaway driver, I haven’t even made it to the bank).  

As for Sidiropoulos, he clocks in at 97.03, which is a brilliant time given that he’s driving an un-modified Polo that he bought from a farmer after financial difficulties forced him to sell a sportier Honda Civic. But, alas, he’s up against the likes of a modified Subaru Imprezas and Ory’s beastly BMW M3 – and his time means that he doesn’t get to the fictitious safe house in time.

In Race Wars, that means he’s arrested, though the monkey will get off scot-free. “It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending, is it?” he says, deadpan. Getaway driving, alas, may not be a viable career option – something even Baby Driver might know.