Stephen Lawrence drama 'celebrates common decency'

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Steve Coogan as DCI Clive Driscoll in StephenImage source, ITV
Image caption,
Steve Coogan as DCI Clive Driscoll in Stephen

A new drama about the Stephen Lawrence case highlights the efforts of the police officer who led the investigation that resulted in two people being convicted of the teenager's murder.

According to its star Steve Coogan, the three-part drama - simply called Stephen - tells of someone with "ordinary decency" who proved that "doing the right thing sometimes makes sense".

Stephen Lawrence was a black teenager who lived in Eltham in south London. On 22 April 1993, at the age of 18, he was killed by a gang of white men in a racist attack.

Some suspects were charged but the charges were dropped before a trial could begin. An inquiry into the killing and the police investigation later found the Metropolitan Police had been "institutionally racist".

That part of the story was told in The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, a 1999 TV drama directed by Paul Greengrass that won a Bafta for best single drama the following year.

Stephen picks up the narrative in 2006, when DCI Clive Driscoll decided to take a fresh look at the case in the hope of bringing some resolution to Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen.

The drama sees Driscoll, played by Coogan, win over an initially suspicious Doreen and her now ex-husband Neville while encountering resistance from within his own ranks.

It ends with two of the original suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris, being found guilty of Stephen's murder following the discovery of new forensic evidence.

Image source, Family Handout
Image caption,
Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack

Coogan, who is best known for his comic character Alan Partridge, said it had been "an honour" to play Driscoll in the drama, which will air on ITV later this month.

"I don't often play nice people, so it was a nice change to play someone with a simple, unannounced integrity," said the star, whose Baby Cow company co-produced the series.

"There are so many stories about cops who do a good job by breaking the rules. This was about one who did a good job by sticking to the rules in a quiet, disciplined and dogged way.

"It's a story we don't often hear, about decent people trying to do the right thing in the face of hatred and cynicism. If you do the honourable thing, that's always the best choice."

Stephen is based on In Pursuit of the Truth, the memoir Driscoll wrote after his 2014 retirement. Yet Coogan is keen to make clear its true focus is on Lawrence and his parents.

"The story is Neville and Doreen Lawrence's," he told reporters earlier this month. "Hugh and Sharlene really did the heavy lifting; all I had to do was react to what they were doing."

Image source, ITV
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Whyte and Quarshie play Stephen's parents while Jorden Myrie (centre) plays his brother Stuart

Coogan is referring to Hugh Quarshie, returning to reprise his Murder of Stephen Lawrence role as Neville Lawrence, and Sharlene Whyte, newly cast as Doreen in its 2021 follow-up.

Holby City star Quarshie told reporters he had spoken to Neville "at length" while working on the 1999 original but felt it would be "intrusive" to do so again.

"This time I felt I had the impersonation in the bank as it were," he explained, describing Stephen as "more a conventional drama than a reconstruction".

Whyte, for her part, has yet to meet Doreen, now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon. "I wanted to give an honest portrayal while keeping a respectful space," she revealed.

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and his son Joe, Stephen faithfully recounts the details of DCI Driscoll's investigation while taking certain dramatic liberties.

A carjacking incident that cost Doreen her BMW in 2010 is moved to an earlier point in the story, for example, where it becomes a bonding moment for Whyte and Coogan's characters.

Comic capital is also made of Driscoll's fervent support for Fulham Football Club, as well as his penchant for performing music hall songs to pensioners on the piano.

Image source, BBC London
Image caption,
DCI Clive Driscoll was the detective who led the murder investigation

Throughout, however, both Cottrell Boyces were keenly aware of the duty they had both to the Lawrence family and to Stephen's memory and legacy.

"It was a huge responsibility," said Joe Cottrell Boyce. "We were writing about a black family who have experienced extreme trauma from a position of white privilege.

"It's vital to know what you don't know, to research and listen and faithfully convey the insights that have been generously conveyed."

"Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen," said his father Frank. "Doreen made her loss meaningful in a way that is absolutely titanic.

"If this drama gives an atom of clout to what she is doing to make the country better, that's great. It's another atom of consolation for the terrible thing that happened to her."

Stephen will air on ITV later this month.

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