Rakie Ayola: “Is it possible for what happened to Anthony Walker to happen next week? Yes.”

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Hannah Keegan
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A new BBC film Anthony depicts the racist killing of Anthony Walker in Liverpool in 2005. Here, Rakie Ayola explains why it’s more important than ever to revisit the story 

On 29 July, 2005, Anthony Walker, just 18 years old, was waiting at a bus stop in Huyton, Merseyside with his girlfriend, Louise Thompson, when two men (Michael Barton and Paul Taylor) began hurling racist abuse at the pair, unprovoked. As they attempted to diffuse the situation by walking away, Barton and Taylor began pursuing them in a car, eventually ambushing them in a park. While Thompson managed to escape, Walker was fatally injured with an ice axe and died in hospital hours later.

Now, fifteen years on, a new BBC film will tell the story of what could have been if Anthony had lived, guided by his mother Gee (played by Rakie Ayola). Out 27 July on BBC One, the idea was born from a series of conversations between Gee and her long-time friend Jimmy McGovern, (the BAFTA-winning screenwriter behind The Street and Hillsborough). “We had to find a new way of telling the story, and that’s why I hit on this… to show the life that had been snatched away,” McGovern told The Guardian, “[I felt I had] a God-given duty to do it.”

The finished result is an incredibly emotional, captivating portrait of the life Anthony could have lived had he not died. “I started to think: how might he have turned out? And that’s how it came about – I could actually see how my son turned out,” Gee Walker had said. Walker graduates, becomes a lawyer, marries, has a child and, ultimately, lives the full, rich life he deserved, which makes the fatal attack, which arrives towards the end of the film, all the more devastating. We spoke to Ayola about the power of revisiting this story now. 

Do you remember when this happened in 2005?

I do. I was just thinking about this the other day actually, I remember not being able to comprehend what had happened, and not understanding how a child grows up to be a person who kills someone like this. After receiving the script, that feeling of the senselessness of it came back. The first thing I asked was, is Gee involved? That was really important to me. I didn’t want to put a mother through imagining ‘what could have been’, if she’s not 100% behind it. And she was, so I was happy.

I first met her at the read through. Before that, I’d watched interviews with her online and been struck by her capacity for forgiveness, which is so extraordinary: she forgave the killers straight away and wholeheartedly, because she didn’t want to carry the weight of that. She had too much to bear as it was. I was so nervous knowing she was there that day. We went through the piece and as we got nearer and nearer to the attack, I got quieter and quieter with nerves. In the end, I could barely get words out, there was no performance at all on my part, it didn’t feel right to play that in front of her. I couldn’t get beyond that.

What did she say to you?

Well, afterwards, I went across the room to talk to her. She took my hand and said, ‘I think you’re going to do fine here. I’m very happy with what Jimmy has done.’ Before I knew it was she was praying - it was a seamless transition. At first I thought she was talking to me, but she was actually talking about me to God. She was asking that I would have the strength to do a good job and tell the story well. It was a really beautiful, spiritual moment. Then, she told me I’d be fine, which was wonderful to hear. Every week she would email a prayer to the cast and crew, too, which was just blessing our week and wishing us well.

It’s also a really unique way of telling the story, what do you think is so powerful about it?

It makes you look at what has been lost. Who had his family lost? Who had his friends lost? What had the world lost? So rather than starting after the death, we’re saying this is what could have happened, but it didn’t. This is who he could have been, but he didn’t have the chance. These are things he could have done, but he couldn’t do them. This is what was lost. And because you know from the beginning that Anthony died, and none of those things happened, you put yourself in that position of imagining, which is the position Gee has been in for 15 years: wondering how many exams he would have got, what grades he would have got, if he would have gone to university. Your head is full of that, all the time. Then, when you get to the end of the film, and you have to look at why it was lost. It was lost because of the most senseless, needless thing a human being can do.

Do you think we’ve come as far as we think we have in addressing racism and hate crime in the last 15 years?

Well, some things change. Some things really don’t. Is it possible for what happened to Anthony Walker to have happened last week? To happen next week? Yes. Somewhere in the last 1970s, I think, we decided we had dealt with racism. We decided that we were all on top of it and that we all knew what needed to happen for peace and harmony to reign. But we didn’t finish the course. As a result, we’ve slipped backwards because we stopped talking about it. No one wanted to say it out loud, until now. George Floyd’s death has reignited that conversation and made it obvious to everyone that we do not have this covered yet.

Even when a workplace is culturally diverse on paper, for instance, it’s about where the power lies. If the security guard isn’t used to seeing a black man or an asian woman going into your building and taking the lift to the top floor, he’s going to tap you on the shoulder and ask you why you’re going to the top floor. If you haven’t made sure diversity is in the fabric of your institution, things don’t work, progress isn’t made.

What conversations are you having about racism, lately?

In my line of work, something that is indicative of so much more is when I walk into a hair and make up room and there is no one who knows how to deal with the texture of my hair or the colour of my skin. I’m so used to nobody knowing by now that I’m actually surprised when somebody knows. Lately, though, we’re finally talking about it: agents are asking, has this happened to you? And you say almost every time. It seems trivial, but when it’s 7.00am and you’re about to do some really full on scenes and someone is looking in the mirror at you as if you’ve given them a ball of wool and some knitting needles and asked them to knit some trousers, it’s hard. Then, you look to your left, and someone with long, blonde hair is getting their hair curled. It can be really hard to shake off that feeling of othering. You become ‘them’.

There’s an interesting point about allyship within the film, too. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s lovely that you picked that out. Speaking up and protecting others is really important. The more we do that, the more harmony there will ultimately be. People often flex their muscles when they think they’re not going to be challenged, that everyone agrees with them, but if enough people have the courage to say, actually, we don’t feel that way, they usually back down.

Do you think it’s important for white people in particular to watch this film?

The simple answer is yes, but anyone will watch this and feel something. It left me thinking: what is the point of racism. What do you gain? If anybody comes away feeling that too, we’ve done our job. And I think Gee would say we’d told it well then, too. 

Image credit: Razia Naqvi-Jukes