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All those involved in ITV’s Stephen should be thanked for producing some exceptional television. It’s rare to find something that combines the suspense of a gripping detective drama, the careful detailing of a docudrama and the message of a polemic, but with such nuance and power. There have been many fine documentaries and dramatisations of the Stephen Lawrence case, but this stands out. It is brilliantly done, with the high standards of the first episode maintained as the story takes the re-investigation forwards into revisiting forensics and reluctant witnesses.
As in real life, the driving force of the Stephen Lawrence case in this semi-dramatisation is the victim’s mum, Doreen Lawrence, played with that stoical quality by Sharlene Whyte. To an outsider at least, Whyte captures the character of the (now) Baroness Lawrence, a public figure who never wished for such a role: “Don’t feel sorry. I just don’t have a choice.”
It’s not just the well-known campaign for justice, but the smaller, incidental things in her life that we see here as the constant racist headwinds that face so many people of colour all the time: the way she has to turn her home into a CCTV-protected fortress, for example, or the constant vandalism of the Stephen Lawrence centre. When we see the disrespectful way she is treated by the coppers when she reports a carjacking, you get that faint whiff of what we’ve now (mostly) come to accept as the institutional racism of the police force. We saw that casual, persistent racism, too, in this instalment, in a random conversation between a black member of the re-investigation team and a fellow officer, who teases him about working for “Doreen Lawrence’s private police force”, whilst “we all know” it was Stephen’s own knife that killed him, and that he was involved in drugs. Of course if it ever was the case that the Lawrences had a large squad of officers years later looking yet again into the murder of their son, it was actually because the police had failed in the first place. The very special treatment they received when their boy was murdered waiting for a bus was to be ignored. It would never have happened if he was white.
But the nuances and balances in the story as told here are just as important as the reinforcement of now-familiar and still-uncomfortable truths. The remarkable role of Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll in securing the conviction of at least two of the murderers is also proof that, to adapt current phrases, not all cops are b*******, and not all of them think black lives don’t matter. Steve Coogan as Driscoll does the “old-fashioned coppering” that Driscoll promised his superiors and the Lawrences he would deliver. He never flinches, even when he has to supervise a re-enactment of the actual process of the murder to establish the basis for the forensic examination – an especially painful sequence to watch. If Coogan portrays Driscoll as almost saintly, then that’s entirely understandable, given everything, although his London accent does lapse into caricature.
To call Stephen entertaining doesn’t sound right, but this is an impressive cast (including Hugh Quarshie as Neville Lawrence and Richie Campbell as Duwayne Brooks), who give their best to the writers (Frank and Joe Cottrell-Boyce) and their storytelling – and Stephen’s is still an important, illuminating story. Unlike some other recent developments in the British broadcasting scene, Stephen should do some good.