Friends Reunited: Noel Clarke And Ashley Walters On Why Male Friendships Are As Important As Any

Published in ShortList Magazine (cover story) on 24 May 2018

Matt Blake takes Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters back to their old stomping grounds to discover their old friendships

Noel Clarke is sitting at a picnic table with his best childhood friends – Dave Badillo, Jon Dover, Manfred Ruiz and Dapo Akinkugbe – wondering if he can name all of their children. After a few seconds, he gives up.

“No, I can’t at all,” he concedes.

“I could name Dapo’s. I’m their godfather. But the others’? No.” Then, with a cheeky grin, he adds: “I could rename them.”

The group erupts with heartfelt laughter. It’s no surprise, really; this is the first time they’ve all been together for a decade. While they’ve tried to get together many times over the years, life has always found a way to dump on their plans: a child’s birthday, an overseas work commitment, a back injury. They are, after all, in their forties now.

And yet, ask Noel who his best friends are, and the actor/director doesn’t blink. “I never realised how important these guys were to me until I got much older,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of acting mates because they’re often so pretentious. I’ll pick these guys over any actors, regardless of how often I see them. Because I know that I can call any one of them with a problem and they would come running. And I’d do the same for each of them.”

It’s a lovely spring day in April when we meet in Kensington Memorial Park, near Ladbroke Grove in west London, where the five grew up. Noel’s just returned from filming Sky One’s new buddy-cop drama Bulletproof. Co-starring So Solid Crew star-turned-actor Ashley Walters, it follows the adventures of two young organised-crime detectives in London who, as the synopsis opines, “share a deep, fraternal relationship and are always there for each other”.

This is something Noel and his friends know a thing or two about. They grew up on the council estates that speckle Ladbroke Grove. Noel and Dapo first met aged five because their mums were friends, and this park is where they’d “play out”. It’s where they played football, got into scraps and had their formative encounters with girls.

Noel got to know Jon, Manfred and Dave as wide-eyed teenagers, at nearby Kensington Sports Centre where they all worked as lifeguards into their twenties. “Do you remember when Manfred and Big Jon saved the dead guy’s life in the pool?” asks Noel.

“He coughed up blood after Manfred did mouth to mouth,” chuckles Jon.

“Oh, what was the name of that Portuguese girl who used to come to the pool in a thong, do one lap and lie poolside for ages?” asks Manfred.

“She was there for us, bruv,” offers Noel. “Let’s just say, a lot of girls came for more than just swimming lessons.”

For most of their stories, you definitely had to be there. But memories like these aren’t for outsiders. These memories – the ones every man with old friends has – are the glue that holds friendships together. “Literally every day we would laugh at something,” says Noel. “For me, not having a male living in the house every day, showing me how to do things, these were the guys who formulated my years.”

But as they grew, so did their ambitions, and life intervened. Dave is now a firefighter and Jon’s a fitness instructor, Dapo is a market trader and Manfred makes the fuzz and felt for tennis balls and snooker tables.

“Oh yeah, a tennis ball fuzz maker is what we all dreamed of becoming when we were young,” digs Dave sarcastically when I suggest Manfred’s current job sounds interesting. “It’s every child’s dream to make snooker felt. Oh yeah, because it’s soooo interesting.”

The others laugh heartily and Manfred rolls his eyes. “Yeah?” he snipes back. “How many cats did you rescue from trees last year, Dave? Not all of us are born heroes, bruv.”

Those of a more sensitive nature might construe this as bickering, if not straight-up teasing. After all, it is often said that men hide behind ‘banter’ to avoid getting too close to one another. It’s also said that men’s relationships aren’t as nourishing as women’s and that men are held back by notions of manhood that emphasise toughness and rugged individualism at the expense of personal relationships and their own mental health.

“Men rarely sit around in groups, the way women do, sharing their deepest feelings,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. “I come home from my friend’s house to watch a football game and my wife says, ‘Did you know Mike and Mary are having problems?’ I say, ‘No, it never came up.’ Am I supposed to take from her amazed look that somehow my friendship isn’t a good friendship?”

No. One of the glories of male friendship is that it is relatively low maintenance: no Christmas cards, no birthday cards – no apologies, no explanations.

Greif says that to suggest male friendships aren’t as fulfilling as female ones is to misunderstand the rituals and rhythms of male bonding. “If we use women’s paradigm for friendship, we’re making a mistake,” he adds.

“Men might not be as physically or emotionally expressive. But we derive great support from our friendships.”

***

Something unexpected is happening in the park: Dave and Manfred are crying.

This story was originally published in ShortList Magazine. To Continue reading, click here.