BBC Three’s third Murdered… film once again told the story of an astonishingly brutal hate crime. In Murdered By My Boyfriend, we saw how Ashley Jones (played by Georgina Campbell, who deservedly won a BAFTA for her performance) was murdered by, yes, her boyfriend for simply being a woman; and last year’s Murdered By My Father (again featuring two strong, heartbreaking performances by Kiran Sonia Sawar and Adeel Akhtar) brought to the screen a horrifying case of honour killing. Both were extremely hard watches, but also extremely necessary watches; shedding light on acts of violence that otherwise go either unnoticed, unreported or, crucially, misunderstood, and showing the motivations of both perpetrators and victims. I’m ashamed to say that Murdered For Being Different slipped under my radar, but thankfully BBC Three is showing it on the BBC’s iPlayer streaming site for the next five months. Which is a good thing because it’s another powerful piece of work.
This third Murdered… film dramatised a case that was close to my heart. I remember being extremely affected by the murder of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster a decade ago. She and her partner, Robert Maltby, were set upon by a gang of lads in their hometown of Bacup in Lancashire. Sophie and Robert were goths. They wore black make-up and black clothes and listened to emo and death metal. The photographs of Sophie, post-mortem, showed her blazing red and black braids framing a kind, friendly, beautiful young face; a face exploding with life. It was heartbreaking and I was distraught when reading about the case back then, and the idea that these two artistic, sensitive but life-loving young people – with their whole lives ahead of them – were brutally beaten in a mindless act of thuggery staggered and saddened me beyond words.
Simon Armitage told Sophie’s story in the 2011 radio play (and subsequent TV drama) Black Roses (which I listened to and watched), and now Nick Leather (together with director Paul Andrew Williams, who helmed Murdered By My Boyfriend) has told the tale from a slightly different angle: mostly centering in on the investigation and the battle to persuade a young teen, Michael Gorman, to tell the police what had really happened during that fateful night at the skate park; a skate park Sophie and Rob were in because of him.
What was stopping Michael Gorman telling the police what really happened? Peer pressure and that horrible place someone finds themselves in when they know something awful has happened (something awful they could have stopped) and a misguided sense of loyalty they feel towards their mates. We saw how peer, mate and gang pressure affected the investigation in the recent Little Boy Blue, and so too did it here.
To begin with, we saw Michael Gorman chatting to Sophie and Rob in a petrol station. He was fascinated by Sophie’s braids, wanted to touch them. She acquiesced because this was genuine curiosity, not the same prejudice and abuse she and Rob were used to (we saw examples of that later in the film). He invited the to the skate park for a drink and a smoke with his mates.
Noises. Screaming. Shouting.
We then met Sophie and Rob. Two young people dancing in a club. Their eyes met across the dancefloor; the attraction was instant and a bond was formed quickly. Their lives revolved around art and literature and soft candles and love. They were a lovely couple.
And then we went back to Michael Gorman’s story. Paul Andrew Williams’ direction was clever, switching between timelines, showing snatches of Rob and Sophie’s life pre-attack, juxtaposing them with Rob’s state post-attack in the hospital; his face swollen and bloodied, his memory unclear.
Memories. Williams’ direction gave us flickers of memories throughout – of love, of physical contact, of prejudice, of fear, and of Sophie’s indomitable spirit (she wasn’t ever going to let the name-callers (“freaks” they called them) win). That’s what we try to remember, desperately cling onto, when we lose someone. Moments. Thick memories that will soon turn into smoke.
“Sometimes even just memory of happiness is enough to make you happy,” Rob said to Sophie at one point, after giving her a present.
The choppy, time-switching structure gave this drama a dream-like quality, but up until that point we hadn’t seen Sophie post-attack – everything was centred on Rob in the hospital and Michael Gorman’s story. When Gorman finally caved into pressure from the police after it was revealed Sophie had died and this was now a murder investigation, his confession of events was accompanied by a visual re-telling the events we had yet to see.
And we saw it. We really did see it all.
Forty-two minutes in we saw Rob and Sophie in the skate park. Michael Gorman and his friends were smoking and drinking and genuinely friendly and curious about Rob and Sophie. They wanted to take pictures with them; they thought they were cool. They thought they were sound.
Five lads, also present, did not, and peeled away from the main group, pacing, pacing, pacing. Why did you bring those moshers, those freaks, here? If you don’t get rid of them I’m going to do something. Go on then, do something. You never do anything. Alright, I’ll do something.
One went over and punched and kicked Rob to the ground. Another joined in, and another. Sophie crouched down over her semi-conscious, bloodied boyfriend. Someone kicked her in the head. Someone kicked her again. Two people kicked her on each side of her head.
They stamped on her head.
It was extraordinarily brutal, brutal, brutal – easily the most violent scene I’ve seen on television this year (actually many years) – and left me with my head in my hands and my mouth agape. I was shocked. Did we need to see this level of violence? Would it be intepreted as unnecessary or even voyeuristic? Me? I thought it straddled the line. I didn’t need to see it, but I wonder if others did because assaulting goths might be seen as somehow less of a crime. Brutal violence is brutal violence, and if BBC Three’s demographic (the younger end of the viewing spectrum) don’t take this kind of thing seriously, for whatever reason, then they needed to see the full horror, and the full impact of violent acts.
There were other moments of heartbreak – when Rob, still in the early stages of recovery from his physical ordeal, visited Sophie in hospital when he had been told that she was brain dead and that her machine was due to be turned off, was heartbreaking. When a nurse began to cut Sophie’s braid away from her head after she had died, was also heartbreaking. These affectations, those trademark, proud accessories that set her apart from most people in her town, were now gone.
So Murdered For Being Different was another strong, powerful, heartbreaking film in a year seemingly filled with true-crime adaptations. Cleverly directed and well acted (Abigail Lawrie and Nico Mirallegro were perfectly cast as Sophie and Rob, Reiss Jarvis as the conflicted Michael Gorman was also excellent), Murdered For Being Different – like its predecessors – while adding valuable context to the whys and hows, made sure that the blame for the crime lay at one door and one door only – the perpetrators’.
Murdered For Being Different also encouraged tolerance and acceptance of people who may not look like the norm, but are brilliant, shining humans nonetheless.
In the end, we knew that it was Sophie who had saved Rob’s life, while giving up her own. That’s a fitting way to remember Sophie Lancaster.
For our Murdered By My Boyfriend review go here
For our Murdered By My Father review go here