The week in TV: Stephen – The Murder That Changed a Nation; The Alienist; Lifeline; Ordeal By Innocence; Paradise Hunters

An exemplary three-part documentary on the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was nothing less than the story of Britain over the past quarter century

Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Alienist (Netflix) |
Lifeline (C4) | All4
Ordeal By Innocence (BBC One) | iPlayer
Paradise Hunters (C4) | All4

For once, the title wasn’t overegged. The murder of Stephen Lawrence, 25 years ago tonight, really could be said to have Changed a Nation, and this was explored over a quite invaluable three nights of measured, unassailable truths.

Eltham, south-east London, had been through a rocky decade by the time 1993 rolled around. Just a decade earlier black people had said they felt they were being accepted, welcomed even, but a certain prime minister changed all that in the early 80s: when the economy goes down, racism goes up. The vicious bleary hangover that is the BNP was sleeping it off in Eltham, and Stephen died.

The Lawrence parents campaigned for a conviction against inordinate barriers. Of which the most ephemeral proved, down the decades, the most savagely robust: a generalised middle-Britain distaste for people “making noise and causing trouble”, coupled with an utterly compromised Metropolitan police, yet compromised in ways that could seldom be proved concretely anti-black.

The Lawrences could be said to have caught some breaks, if such a thing can ever be said. Early in the campaign Nelson Mandela met them, hoisting the story on to the front pages (although his involvement led indirectly to woefully unedifying scrums of special-interest squabbling). And, bizarrely enough, father Neville Lawrence had once done some plastering for Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. Dacre, in a rare interview, admitted that this, and some privileged police information, persuaded him to splash the five white suspects’ pictures across the front page on Valentine’s Day 1997 under the famously J’accuse headline “MURDERERS”. The next year, under then home secretary Jack Straw, the Macpherson inquiry began at the Elephant and Castle, and my old pal photographer Paul Hackett snapped a famous picture of the suspects that hollered 1,000 words: of spit-speckled fury, of lousy hate, of inadequacy.

Yet what I took from these three nights, scrupulously researched and produced by Oscar winners Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, was, obliquely, the opposite of justice. Even the Lawrences – chiefly of course mother Doreen; Neville, hideously grieving, has been licking his wounds for the past quarter-century, conspicuously failing to mend a broken heart – had taken essentially two decades to secure a conviction. With the backing of the most heroic global figure of the age, and the (still) most influential editor in British journalism, and the charmingly steely drive of an utterly old-school copper, DCI Clive Driscoll, as incorruptible as Dock Green’s George Dixon, they still took 19 years – count them: 19 – to get something approaching justice. If even the Lawrences, with all that backing, were still battering (two decades on) against the passive-aggressive bastions of organised, corporate, monolithic arse-covering, what chance might the average schmoe ever stand? The average Grenfell resident? The average black human?

Former detective chief inspector Clive Driscoll.
Former detective chief inspector Clive Driscoll. Photograph: BBC/On The Corner/Jessica Winteringham

Still, we are a generally transformed nation – the change in attitudes of “police liaison” from its laughable predecessor at the time of Stephen’s death (when the police, after failing to record the many, many calls naming the real killers, all but accuse Stephen, in death, of burglary) is a small but wholly vital one. The Met would later go undercover to try to undermine the Lawrences’ popularity, an act of singularly toxic stupidity. This and much more was shown in what’s been without doubt the finest long-form documentary to be seen on terrestrial TV this year, and arguably nothing less than the tale of Britain’s past quarter-century.

Hats off to the eloquent testimonies of Stephen’s cousin, Mat Bickley, and to the courage of BBC reporter Mark Daly. There was great poignancy, too, in old footage of Stephen, known to most as Stevie: good at school, great at sports, keen to train as an architect, looking at 18 impossibly dapper, Miles Davis-dapper; yet I felt heart-sorry for his old mucker Duwayne Brooks, still haunted, shunned, suffering, and ultimately brave for appearing.

I also found myself (almost) impressed by some of Theresa May’s performances back when she was home secretary: thoughtful, decisive, borderline caring and wise. What, then, to take from the Windrush revelations and her very own culpability for the mindset of callous bureaucracy that has governed the Home Office since her residence there, other than the conclusion that she is a charlatan, led by the ways the winds are blowing, who has only been set on this Earth to hang grimly and self-seekingly on to power by any nefarious means possible?

Another murder, another lazily prejudiced police investigation, but we’re a little way from Eltham. It’s New York, 1896, the gothically grim Bowery area, the burgeoning Williamsburg Bridge, and there are several mutilated young bodies. The Alienist, from Caleb Carr’s 1994 bestselling novel, is in parts splendid, not least in terms of language. Dakota Fanning’s spirited Sara, secretary to the new commissioner trying to clean the grot from the stables of the NYPD, has a fine rant against “every panderer, mawk, lush and billy-noodle in the city… not to mention the mutton-shunters that I work with”, which gives me a few new adjectives to work with myself. Also eye-watering is, photographically, the viscera: horses’ eyeballs, much ichor and other grungy discharges, and in a later episode we will be treated to the sound of a cat in a bag having its brains dashed out against bricks. The unceasingly high production values mean at least the sound guys had fun, even if we and (I’m assuming) the cat didn’t.

Despite the grand guignol strivings, this is remarkably unaffecting and unscary. Police corruption, grisly rancid deaths, a couple of lead actors who are vouchsafed such lines as “I must follow this wherever it goes. Even if it leads me to the very darkest pit of hell.” I’m suddenly back in real life, always more affecting: heart-sorry, still, for Duwayne Brooks.

The Alienist – trailer.

Better by far, I suspect, is going to be Lifeline, in which a ludicrous plot – heart-transplant recipient gets the soul of the donor – is at least helped by grand acting and plotting: yet another gripping Spanish rollercoaster ride to follow the insanely good Money Heist.

A little fuss was made of Sarah Phelps changing the ending to Ordeal by Innocence from Agatha Christie’s original denouement. To which I say: have a word with yourselves, people. Is there any Christie to which you can say you’ve approached the last chapter with anything other than the following thoughts: 1) not bad, this one. Quite liked it so far; 2) vaguely wondering who did it. Could be bloody anyone. Vicar in chapter two with a long-lost sister: oily oik who runs the garage with his mad mother: posh floppy-haired skank. Don’t, actually, care; 3) wish Marple and Poirot wouldn’t wheedle and pomp so. Always spoils it a bit, them being such caricatures; 4) not bad, this one. Quite liked it so far. Oh, that’s the end. Can’t quite remember who did it. Still, the journey’s the thing.

This week’s “millennial-snowflake bashing” slot came courtesy of Channel 4’s Paradise Hunters, in which two niceish, spoilt kids left their easy jobs and went on a “journey” (fish farm, Mexican ranch) to find their better selves, as advised by a “top career-change guru” (as if that’s even a thing), and generally teared up and complained and got instantly, unaccountably, bored. This is exploitational, prejudiced and fabulously moreish. Loving it.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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