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It’s 22-and-a-half years since ITV aired the two-hour drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, about the quest for justice for the south-London teenager. Lawrence was killed in a gang attack, aged 18, by racist thugs as he waited for a bus home on 22 April 1993. The film was an indictment of the original police investigation, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, and would go on to win the 2000 Bafta for Best Single Drama. Yet its inescapable coda, white text on a black background, read: “The five suspects continue to deny involvement in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. They remain free.”
The film’s three-part sequel, Stephen, picks up the story in 2006 with Stephen’s parents Doreen and Neville Lawrence – now separated – still fighting for justice for their son, after the double jeopardy law has been changed to allow persons accused of murder to stand trial again. The Met’s DCI Clive Driscoll volunteers to take over the investigation. “I’ve been through the files Ma’am,” he tells the then deputy assistant commissioner Cressida Dick. “It’s a straightforward crime that I think we should be able to solve with a bit of common-sense coppering.” She repeats the words back to him, marvelling perhaps at their apparent naivety.
The producers have taken a similar back-to-basics approach to the new drama. Out has gone Greengrass’s heavyweight arthouse style, with its emphasis on hand-held verité. In come all the things that have been straightforwardly key to successful television detective dramas over the intervening years: painstaking procedural crime solving, emotional connection with all the principals (especially Hugh Quarshie’s Neville and Sharlene Whyte’s Doreen Lawrence), and star casting – Steve Coogan rolls his Manc vowels into something that resembles a south London accent as Driscoll.
The result is less an attention-grabbing Bafta bid, more unputdownable telly. Coogan's down-to-earth everyman copper stands between the viewer and anything that sounds even vaguely like Jed Mercurio-style jargon. “Half of what you’re doing will be lost on me, but I want you to do it anyway,” Driscoll tells the privately contracted forensic scientists he hopes will crack the case back open for him.It’s risky in one sense, in that it potentially places Driscoll in the role of unlikely white cop hero (the drama is based on his book In Pursuit of the Truth). Yet Quarshie and Whyte embody the utter loss of faith in British policing, which saw the Force labelled “incompetent” and “institutionally racist” by the Macpherson report in 1999. Both are immune to reassurance and to any sense that the Met might have got its house in order. As Doreen Lawrence puts it: “My fear for a long time is that this has been an anti-investigation designed to cover up the truth.” Her uncompromising determination sets the tone. Joe Cottrell Boyce's script is carefully constructed, emotionally involving, and the choices pay off. ITV clearly wants as big an audience as possible for Stephen, and it deserves one.