ITV’s three-part sequel to Paul Greengrass acclaimed fact-based film is unputdownable telly, and offers a scathing critique of the institutional failings of the British police
C'était 22 years since ITV aired the two-hour drama The Murder of Etienne Laurent, about the quest for justice for the south London teenager. Lawrence was killed in a gang attack, vieilli 18, by racist thugs as he waited for a bus home on 22 avril 1993. Le film, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, was an indictment of the original botched police investigation and went on to win the 2000 Bafta for Best Single Drama. Encore, as the last scene closed, a final message appeared: “The five suspects continue to deny involvement in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. They remain free.”
And the film’s three-part sequel, Stéphane, kicked off on Monday. It picks up the story in 2006. The double jeopardy law has been changed to allow people accused of murder to stand trial again, and Stephen’s now-separated parents Doreen and Neville Lawrence are still fighting for justice for their son. The Met’s deputy chief investigator 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.”
In this new series, out has gone Greengrass’s heavyweight arthouse style, with its emphasis on hand-held verite and in come all the things that have been key to successful detective dramas over the intervening years: painstaking procedural crime-solving, emotional connection with the characters (especially Hugh Quarshie’s Neville and Sharlene Whyte’s Doreen Lawrence), and star casting – as Driscoll, Steve Coogan rolls his Mancunian vowels into a believable south London accent.
The result is unputdownable telly more than it is an attention-grabbing Bafta bid. Coogan’s 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 forensic scientists he hopes will crack the case back open for him.
It’s risky in a way – it potentially lauds Driscoll as the white cop hero (and 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, and reignites memories of the force being called “incompetent” and “institutionally racist” by the Macpherson report in 1999. Both parents are immune 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 a big audience for Stéphane, and it deserves one.