I was 12 when Stephen Lawrence died. It felt like I spent my teenage years hearing about his racist murder. His killing defined the worst of London. There were several documentaries and films for BBC, ITV and Channel 4 over the years. Mostly they were about the murder and the police investigation. But looking back, I felt that I did not know much about Stephen beyond the iconic photo of him in a striped Mash jumper with his fist clenched, a kind smile and a promising future.
From the beginning, as a production team, we wanted people to feel like they knew who Stephen was and who he could have been. We wanted to place the audience in the heart of the family’s experience, not as outsiders looking in, but as participants who shared in the loss, grief and outrage at his murder. The film opens with his mother, Doreen Lawrence, drinking a cup of tea as she prepares for the interview, admitting her deep discomfort about being on camera. In spite of that, she says she feels the need to tell people who Stephen was and what happened to them as a family. For the series and for me personally, this was the beginning of a heart-breaking journey.
The filmmaking strategy was to let the participants tell their own story. Starting with Doreen arriving in London in the early 60s, meeting Neville and having Stephen, the series is told entirely from the perspective of people directly involved widening out only as the story itself widened, all the way up to the Prime Minister. There is no voice over and there are no outside commentators, which was a bold stylistic choice for 9pm BBC1. Contributors are introduced only as they intersect with Stephen and his family or the case. Key to this was getting people to talk in a way they had never talked before and persuading participants from all sides of the story to break their silence. These difficult, emotional interviews encompassed experiences shared by Doreen and Neville, Duwayne Brooks (Stephen’s friend) and Mat Bickley (Stephen’s cousin) but also interviews from Paul Dacre (the first ever TV interview from the editor of the Daily Mail), former Met police commissioner, Lord Paul Condon, and Theresa May.
We worked hard in the edit to bring in layers of cultural context through music, archive and the films that had been made about the Lawrence case, as well as the radio and news reports of the BBC and Daily Mail. In each episode, we linked in the historic events which may have shaped the trajectory towards Stephen’s murder: Windrush, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood, the Deptford fire and the Brixton Uprisings. Through creating this layered effect, we were able to show how the story evolved from national events into a nation-shaping event. Gradually for Doreen, it changed from a story that was happening to her to something she was playing a key role in defining.
Working on the series, I was struck by how many uncomfortable truths the case still raises about British society. The fatal stabbing of an innocent 18-year-old, the pressure-cooker of racial tensions in the community and the failings in the police and justice system resonate across the decades. What I learned from interviewing Doreen is that sometimes we hope that history is a straight line of progress when actually it may be a cycle. We cannot be complacent because the loss of Stephen will always be there.