THE upcoming episode of BBC's Small Axe drama tells the unbelievable story of Alex Wheatle MBE, AKA the Brixton Bard.
The series – created by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen – follows four real life tales and one fictional from London's Caribbean community between the late 1960s and early 1980s.
Sunday's episode will follow the remarkable life of Wheatle – from being abandoned by his parents, to suffering horrific abuse while in care, and then going on to become an award winning author.
Wheatle is a writer on the acclaimed BBC series – which has aired three of its five films already – and when he shared his life's journey in the writer's room five years ago, McQueen knew they had to make it into a film.
“Everyone was astounded,” Wheatle told The Telegraph.
McQueen wanted Wheatle to write the screenplay for his episode simply titled – Alex Wheatle – but the author declined.
“Initially, Steve asked me if I would write the script,” Wheatle recalls, “but I felt [that] would be too overwhelming.”
"I’m laying bare to the world the most fragile, vulnerable moments of my life,” he admitted.
“It’s quite something to commit to.”
His episode shows the horrible daily abuse he suffered at a care home, including one horrifying scene where after wetting the bed as a 13-year-old, one of the matron's stuffs the wet bedsheets in his mouth as punishment.
It also depicts the abuse he suffered at the Surreys' Shirley Oaks children’s home, which in real life has been the centre of a sexual abuse inquiry.
The ongoing injustice of marginalised groups made Wheatle aware“there was no way that I could make a contribution to society".
“When you’re that low a class, when you’re underneath the lowest rung of the ladder… it’s like you’re the scum of the earth, it’s very, very difficult to try and build up this reservoir of potential inside of you, to push on and be who you want to be,” he explained.
Fast forward to a 20-year-old Wheatle in the throes of the Brixton Riots where “all hell broke loose” and he was arrested for assaulting a police officer, criminal damage and resisting arrest during the riots.
Sheyi Cole gives a sensitive performance as Wheatle in the series, which shows that the first time the writer felt accepted was when his cellmate, Simeon, took him under his wing.
“He saw a talent in me. And he saw that I wasn’t someone to be left on the scrap heap… no one had ever recognised that in me before,” Wheatle said.
Simeon introduced Wheatle to books, which he began consuming with fervour, especially Homer's epic piece of work, the Illiad.
“I remember Simeon telling me, ‘Alex – you like blood and guts, right? Well, The Iliad is full of blood and guts.’ I gobbled every page,” Wheatle explained, as he also began to explore music that brought him back to his identity.
“It was like I was reclaiming my culture, reclaiming my identity,” even though he “wasn’t even sure what my national heritage was” after being put into care as a baby.
Writing helped Wheatle overcome his shame and trauma after years of abuse.
And he said that by letting his story be told on Small Axe, the young actors become “like vessels for my generation”.
“I remember Simeon telling me, ‘Alex, never think these stories are just for us.’”
“I have lots of hope for the future.”
Wheatle has written classics such as Brixton Rock, East Acre Lane and this year's Pringles.
He was awarded the MBE in 2008 and remembers the Queen thanking him for his writing, which surprised him.
“Which was very nice, I don’t think she had any notes, so she obviously remembered what I did,” Wheatle said.
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