The silent conversation between writer and actor often goes unmentioned. Our favourite performances are usually delivered with gusto; by actors whose methods are exotic, their rage palpable on screen, their humour heartening. Yet when the performance is poor it is usually discussed through tell-tale signs: the accent, the look, the age. What about when an actor is unconvincing despite the physical appropriateness? When an actor burns up the screen or deadens the crowd, whose words are they using?
I found myself debating this question whilst watching the fourth and penultimate episode of Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe. Ostensibly an anthology of stories amongst the West Indian milieu of the latter years of the 20th Century in London, it has often been about music, power, the thing you do or don’t dedicate your life to. However, with the latest episode, Alex Wheatle, I couldn’t really figure out what it was about. And whose fault that was.
Based on the real childhood of the novelist Alex Wheatle, it opens with a series of flashbacks and forwards that introduce us to him. A Black British boy who has been abandoned at an abusive care home and left to fend for himself. Picked on by racists in care and at school, it isn’t long before he grows up and is carted off to a halfway house in Brixton. The flash forwards meanwhile, show a grown Alex. Now with a thick West Indian accent (replacing his soft English one) and battling with the older Rastafarian who occupies his prison cell. Slowly the episode shows us the early days of Alex’s time in Brixton, the sound system culture that was flourishing, and how racist policing and far right attacks led to the 1981 Brixton uprising. As well, we see how Alex’s part in it led him to prison.
A cold and distant opening, the first half of the story gives very little room for Sheyi Cole playing the eponymous character to bring us into his world. During the early days in Brixton this strong West Indian community leaves him so alienated from the Englishness that was beaten into him as a child. He is a foreigner in this neighbourhood. All evocative stuff, but there is something about McQueen and Alastair Siddons script that offers no chance for us to fall for Wheatle. Instead, he is detached. On the street, in his bedroom, at Christmas dinner that he has been invited to. Cole’s performance is so emotionless (probably as was directed) we’re left without much to grasp onto. This improves in the flash forwards, where the muted boy has become an angry young man cut off from the world. Here his conflicts with cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) are better. Gee is a great foil, his largesse and gastrointestinal disease from a hunger strike offering some comedic relief, but also more heart and soul than an angry young Wheatle can.
Structurally and visually, it is also the most plain of the series thus far. This feels a more conventional biopic than Red, White and Blue, which eschewed genre tropes to focus on one period, without a ‘satisfying’ denouement. This jumps all over the place, never settling in, and concludes with a sermon that supposedly shows us the path Wheatle will go down to become the writer he did. All a bit Hollywood. There are few of the quiet, mesmerising cinematic moments that McQueen has achieved already. Instead, it is all rather more televisual. Though the four-minute montage of photographs of the New Cross fire sound tracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s New Crass Massahkah is up there with the best of the series. So simple yet it left this viewer breathless.
Is the fourth episode of Small Axe about the formative trauma that it takes to become an artist down the line? About the horrors of British racism that were oft visited upon children? Or merely that subjugated communities, pushed to extremes, will find a way to rise up? It seems to be about all of these and more, yet none are decisively settled upon and the script gives little to Sheyi Cole to drag us on regardless. A small blip amongst the ridiculously high-quality series that sadly will end next week.
Alex Wheatle is available to watch here.