You wouldn’t want to meet Stephen Manderson in a dark alley: a looming 6ft 2in of stubble, covered in tattoos that stamp his knuckles and climb his neck.
On one side of his face runs an angry, jagged red scar, the relic of a knife attack. His accent, like his image, was hardened on the streets of east London in an area of Clapton known as “murder mile”, where his teenage parents left him to be raised by his grandmother: six of them in a three-bedroom council flat. It’s an upbringing that gave him the street swagger to forge a rap career where, as Professor Green, he has become one of the most successful voices in British pop, drawing inevitable comparisons with America’s most famous white rapper, Eminem.
Green erupted onto the scene in 2010 with a catchy INXS-sampling single, then a duet with Lily Allen and a profusion of awards. Three albums later, he’s built a hardcore base of fans (and some 2m Twitter followers) through his music, and more recently his BBC documentaries exploring society and subjects including his father’s death, dangerous dogs and the legalisation of cannabis. If some are surprised by this pivot from rapper to documentary maker, he shrugs — “It’s all social commentary.”
His tough image belies a fragile, sentimental soul — one of those tattoos displays the name of his great-grandmother, Edie. On Instagram, he posts about scented candles between pictures of him cuddling his girlfriend, the model Fae Williams. “I’m not nasty, I’m not rude or abrasive, I like to be quite gentle,” he grins, when I tell him I’d be scared to meet him at night. “Humans have a really bad habit of just joining the dots.”
Green’s aura was softened, too, when he made a profound documentary discussing his father’s suicide, when he was 43 and Green just 24. “I didn’t know if I wanted people to see me that vulnerable. Everyone said, ‘That must have been so cathartic.’ It f****** wasn’t. It was just painful.” His other BBC programmes revealed his skill for drawing out other people’s vulnerabilities. Now he’s back, exploring the prejudice and lack of social mobility facing working-class white men, this time for Channel 4. “When you talk about what you know, that’s when you have a voice of authority, innit,” he says. That “innit” is important: the way Green speaks, like the way he looks, are all relevant to the classism we’ve met to discuss.
This was the year people from backgrounds like his were supposed to be given a voice; now Green’s voice seems to be one of the few cutting through. Theresa May had promised, in her maiden speech as prime minister, to “help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”. Those ambitions lie in tatters, following Alan Milburn’s resignation earlier this month as chairman of the Social Mobility Commission. Milburn quit because he said the government lacked “the necessary bandwidth” to ensure their “rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”. This rift seemed, in part, to fuel the Brexit vote: 70% of people who live in council houses and 78% of those with no formal qualifications voted to leave Europe, according to a study by the social research institute NatCen.
Green is perfectly positioned to comment on class and social mobility, finding himself in that rare territory usually inhabited by footballers. He has earned enough to mingle with the rich kids — he was married to the Made in Chelsea star and Quality Street heiress Millie Mackintosh — but remains an outsider among the Establishment. When I suggest he’s now middle-class, he baulks: “I can’t be!” He still has the “same anxieties and insecurities” as all working-class boys. He can reel off examples of the classism he’s faced, such as the dinner party when someone went around shaking hands, then got to him and threw him a “Safe” and a fist-bump. “I said, ‘Would you bark at a dog?’ ” He’s had the Pretty Woman treatment in upmarket shops, where “people do look at you as if you’re going to steal something when you walk in wearing a tracksuit”.
In the documentary, Green follows six boys. Among them are a Del Boy entrepreneurial type, an ex-convict dad, a builder turned model and a maths genius — the son of a manicurist — dreaming of Cambridge. Green knows the struggles they face. Classism, he says, “is still acceptable. You couldn’t use a racist or homophobic slur on the front page of any newspaper in this county, but you will see ‘chav’.”
He’s equally critical of the fetishisation of working-class people. “You walk through Shoreditch and it’s, like, how much money can we spend to look poor? It’s crazy. It does my nut in.” He’s angry about the widening class gap in the area where he grew up — Clapton is now full of hipster coffee shops — and he feels it all the more because of his own new-found wealth, which is estimated at £3m. “It’s just exclusion,” he says. “I go to the shop every morning and pay £3.50 for a flat white, but there’s a lot of people in the area who can’t afford to do that.” He knows what it’s like to grow up on a council estate staring at an unreachable City lifestyle. “It’s like having your face pushed up against a window — it’s a dangling carrot, it’s the life you’re never going to have.”
He observes that when such areas improve, it’s often at the expense of locals, who “seem to get moved on and moved out. Things get privatised and you don’t have guaranteed rent . Then it becomes social cleansing.”
His view of the class divide is perhaps more acute having been married to Mackintosh for almost three years. While Green was becoming a weed dealer in east London, she grew up in a £1.4m Bath townhouse and attended Millfield, a £12,000-a-term boarding school. Their relationship gave him a searing insight into class, “in the same way it would if you married someone from a different county, because you learn about their culture, their ways, their history”.
Is it that extreme?
“Yes, because things that are normal to them are completely foreign,” he says. “I’ve been in places and felt a bit like a novelty. Meeting certain people’s family members and almost having to prove myself.”
When he lived with Mackintosh in Chelsea, Green says he had “nothing in common with anyone apart from the old eccentrics, who I loved — you know, passing me their spliff outside the pub. And parents who’d actually worked for their lot.”
Image: ALEX LAKE FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE. SPECIAL THANKS TO AJ GODDARD, DEPTFORD