‘Overdoses, drugs and debt’ - From bad lad to TV star, meet Leith’s Shaun Bhatti

Shaun Bhatti star of The Grey Area
Shaun Bhatti star of The Grey Area
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STANDING in the shadow of Leith’s Banana Flats, you could say Shaun Bhatti has come home.

As a kid, the 26-year-old rapper turned actor lived in the concrete block made famous by Trainspotting.

Shaun Bhatti as Mikey in The Grey Area

Shaun Bhatti as Mikey in The Grey Area

Its Brutalist design is also at the heart of The Grey Area, the new hard-hitting BBC Scotland drama in which Shaun makes his screen debut when it airs next Tuesday.

The Grey Area tells the stories of young rapper Mikey, played by Shaun, a burnt-out addict and a teenage misfit as they struggle to overcome the consequences of gang violence and drugs in present day Leith.

With the added pressure of an old drug debt looming, Mikey finds emotional release through hip-hop MCing... but can he truly achieve redemption?

Catching up with Shaun in Malmaison on The Shore, he reveals he has more in common with his character than viewers might realise.

Shaun Bhatti

Shaun Bhatti

Born and raised in Leith, where for much of his childhood he led a nomadic life, his love of the area is evident.

“I’ve always loved Leith. It’s an interesting place...” he says, cryptically.

Quietly spoken and self-effacing, Shaun, also known on the rap scene as Zesh, reveals he can relate to The Grey Area on many levels.

“In terms of the whole rap music thing, that’s new, but the overdoses, the drug addiction, being in debt to the drug dealers... I’d seen all that before I was 16. For many, that is all still very real.”

Shaun Bhatti

Shaun Bhatti

The son of an Irish Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, life was difficult for the young Shaun who was educated at St Mary’s Primary and St Thomas of Aquins Secondary... when he bothered to turn up.

“I always did well at school, was in all the top groups, but only had 23 per cent attendance because of the situation at home.

“No one really forced me to go. I’d sit up all night playing my PlayStation then sleep all day. If you’re allowed to do that at that age, you will, and my mum didn’t have the energy to make me go.”

Skiving school left Shaun at a loose end.

Cast of The Grey Area

Cast of The Grey Area

“I’d roam the streets looking for something to do, which usually took me somewhere negative. I was too cool for doing organised things but would pop into the Citadel Youth Centre every now and then to get condoms I was never going to use,” he laughs.

“Eventually though, I’d end up doing silly things, as you do.”

He thinks for a moment, before adding, “Looking back, I had a lot of anxiety without knowing it from the age of 12 to 15.

“Even though I was popular I always kept my feelings and emotions to myself. I played a character, always the joker and a bit aggressive. That came from not being sure how to be myself.”

By 15, Shaun found himself on a downward spiral.

“I started stealing cars and running away - I was in and out of temporary foster care because my dad was in and out of jail and mum was going through drug addiction.

“I developed a ‘I don’t care’ attitude and that led to me getting into more serious crime - violence and drugs.”

Although not into drugs himself, he confesses to trying ecstasy and weed.”

Typically understated, he admits life “wasn’t plain sailing”.

It was around that time he was caught with a bag of what he believed were ecstasy tablets.

“I was on North Junction Street when an unmarked police car pulled up and I got lifted.

“However, when they tested them, there was no MDMA in them. There was nothing they could do.”

It should have been a warning, but wasn’t. A year later Shaun was locked up in Polmont Young Offenders for the first time.

However, it was while there a second time, serving three years, that he determined to turn his life around.

“In jail I had a lot of time to think and while I was there this Gospel rapper called Mpfree came in to do workshops. He’d give us some beats to write raps to for his next visit.

“Now, music has always been massive in my life. You could say I used it to escape the reality of it but sometimes it would also let me get more into my feelings.

“I’d write things down when I was younger, poetry, but then hide them in case anyone found them.”

His encounters with Mpfree proved the catalyst that brought his writing and love of music together in hip-hop.

“I started expressing myself to the music but it wasn’t until somebody recorded me on their phone and loads of people reacted to it that I realised I was connecting with people.”

It was his skill as a rapper that first brought him to the attention of Garry Fraser, co-writer/director of the The Grey Area.

“I’d been reluctant to put something on one of the mainstream hip-hop channels, but eventually I did and Garry contacted me after seeing one of my raps. “He asked me come for an audition, threw me in the deep end, and it all went from there.”

That was two years ago and as the transmission date approaches Shaun says, “It’s been a long process but the reason I have so much faith in this project is because it is powerful.

“I know it’s going to mean something to people.

“The Young Team kicking about Edinburgh hasn’t really had anything on TV where they can hear people speaking like them.

“They don’t get that from Trainspotting, that was set in Hollywood, with The Grey Area they’ll hear characters talking the way they do.”

As for the future, Shaun says, “I try not to plan too far ahead. I have a vision but don’t put time scales on it.

“Keep making music, that’s what I want to do, but walking away from my old life has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

“Being skint while seeing people make thousands of pounds is difficult, but then it’s never going to be about the money for me, always about the passion.”

The Grey Area, BBC Scotland, Tuesday 26 February, 11pm