The Murder of Stephen Lawrence
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
With drama-documentary an all but banned form at the BBC - producers needing the blessing of all the main participants - ITV has taken over the public service duty to deliver cases of social injustice to a mass audience. In The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV, Thursday, 9pm), even more effectively than in Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough two years ago, Granada used the highest production values to compel us to stay with an evening that promised to fill us with, at best, anger and, at worst, the deepest gloom.
Having painfully taken us to the pavement where Stephen was attacked and the hospital room in which he died, Paul Greengrass's rewarding two-hour drama followed the initially sluggish but increasingly frenetic pace of the various inquiries into his murder. Initially, off camera, as knives were wiped clean and witnesses silenced, nothing seemed to happen. Stephen's mother, Doreen, scolded her daughter that eyewitnesses do not materialise overnight - although overnight was exactly when they should have been sought. But the further from 22 April 1993 we moved, the more furious the action and our reaction became. Finally, mercifully, Greengrass allowed us the false catharsis of the inquest that determined Stephen was killed "in an unprovoked racist attack by five white youths". Mrs Lawrence sat silently, presumably hearing in the jury's verdict nothing more dramatic than a statement of the obvious.
This was a heroically unhistrionic production: no incidental music, dialogue so naturalistic it seemed improvised; camerawork that thought it was cinema verite if it was anything, never once drew attention to itself. Even Jamaica, where Stephen was buried, looked as lachrymose and autumnal as Wimbledon Common. The result was that Stephen and his friend, Duwayne Brooks, emerged as boisterous but likeable teenagers, not models in a liberal pieta. The performances of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) as Doreen and Hugh Quarshie (heart-throb from A Respectable Trade) as her husband Neville quickly reached a level beyond mere praise. When Mr Lawrence discovered he could find no peace by staying in Jamaica either, we saw his sheepish return to his family's temporary home in London. His surviving children delight in his arrival, yet his pride in his daughter's school grades and his fumbled attempt to kiss his own wife were almost too much to bear.
Little sympathy Was wasted on the police. At the early stages of their botched inquiry they smugly told the Lawrences they had "a lot of experience with these situations": "We've been doing this for many years now and you can trust us. …