Content Warning: Hate crime, violence
Certain crimes reveal the stinking prejudice which is still hanging in the air we breathe. The story of 2017 so far, sadly, reflects this. People being killed for what they believe, ran down by vans or stabbed or simply shot. Then there are the brutal retaliations which can follow from such acts. It takes a foul murder to get enough people talking enough to generate real change. To be a beam of light and goodness inside what appears at first glance to be nothing but darkness and misery.
The murder of Sophie Lancaster was, and continues to be, one of those moments
When she was beaten to death, and her boyfriend Robert Maltby left in a coma, it was not a random or simple attack. It was a blood-curdling exercise in misconception and bigotry; a deliberate targeting of a young couple who lived as they wanted to live. Some people deemed that worthy of a death sentence.
Murdered for Being Different is part of a BBC Three identity season which touches on this very issue. It was made by the BAFTA-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend and Murdered by my Father. Centre stage for this dramatic re-telling is the affectionate relationship between Sophie (Abigail Lawrie) and Robert (Nico Mirallegro). It is played out, edited and framed ever so delicately and wonderfully. You’ll want to grasp your partner’s hand a little more tightly after watching them together.
Moments such as when white confetti sprays on them when they first kiss may sound over the top when simply described, but it is spellbinding to watch. It is almost a worthless effort to pick through the highlights of the relationship. The chemistry between Lawrie and Mirallegro feels so real, so meaningful, that it is simply a joy to see them together at any moment.
But the focus throughout the first half is not a case of ‘love is in the air’. Far from it. The softer touches and dialogue is a violent contrast to the moments where you see the build up to and the aftermath of the horrific crime. Throughout Murdered for Being Different’s hour-long running time, the audience flips between seeing Rob and Sophie together and the attack, meaning that anyone watching is always on edge and is never allowed to settle into the heavenly dream world induced by some scenes (Rob painting angel wings on Sophie’s back springs to mind; a romantic moment but also one which foreshadows her death).
Reality is delivered in all its stark and hideous truth. The same Rob you see kissing the girl he adores is seen coughing and spluttering up blood, lying on his back on the hard concrete. The most heart-shattering moment, however, is when Rob is forced to say goodbye to Sophie at her bedside. Staggering through to her hospital room, determined not to be seen in a wheelchair only to fall to his knees… the hope has been drained away. He sobs and weeps as the truth works its way into his fractured mind. I have never cried at anything on television, except this. This broke me.
It is at the end of the programme that Murdered for Being Different effectively takes you hostage, not letting you leave until you have seen the whole attack take place in its brutal totality. Feelings of sadness, anger, shock and horror take hold when you see Sophie cradle the bloodied head of her sweetheart in tears (one example of details taken straight from accounts of the real incident) before she herself is beaten relentlessly. You want to shut your eyes, except you can’t. You won’t.
The programme focuses on several other characters too, most notably Michael Gorman, the teenager who phoned the ambulance for Rob and Sophie before then being torn between guilt and loyalty. The flashbacks between before and after the attack serve a double function of emphasising the viciousness of the attack and illustrating Michael’s niggling dilemma. While it is never mentioned, a real sense of fear comes across from Michael, and a desperation to remain loyal to his friends while also being at ease with his own conscience.
Rob’s parents also deserve a special mention, as both express moments of grief and desperation in their own unique, heart-breaking ways. Michael’s mother too is desperate for answers from her frustratingly silent son. There is the impression that the events of August 11th 2007 almost occur in a separate realm, which adults may not access and where young people retreat into solitude and thought wherever it suits them. In Michael’s case, it is a fishing pond, and it is there where he finally recalls the events of the night, having allowed a determined police detective to hear the whole truth of that night.
While not the main focus, Murdered for Being Different also makes its own statements about identity and modern British culture. The attack takes place in the immediate shadow of a skate park – one of the most evocative images of the disenchanted youth and what the Daily Mail and others infrequently refer to as ‘Broken Britain’. The attackers and their peers are all dressed in tracksuits, speak in slang, smoke and drink in public. They are the image of a young generation left behind, with a group identity as visible as Sophie and Rob’s. Add in the strong regional accents, and a real sense of place is evoked. You couldn’t be anywhere else except 21st century Britain for this… which is quite depressing, when you think about it.
It is shows like this which make you mourn the decision to move BBC Three – for so long a champion of youth media culture and entertainment – to online only. For sure, programmes like this will still be viewed plenty of times, but programmes of this importance and depth deserve to be broadcast into every British home. Murdered for Being Different is a hard watch, but it stays with you long after the end montages and the credits have rolled. If anyone had forgotten the events of 10 years ago, they are in for a savage reawakening.
Nor should we forget. For if people like Sophie slip from our consciousness, the air will become polluted and thickened with hatred and division, causing us all to wonder what the hell happened before we choke on it.
Image: Dama @ Wikimedia Commons