Raw grief and a brave tribute by Damilola Taylor's shattered family: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night's TV
Damilola: Our Loved Boy
Most nights see half a dozen murders on television, at least. Sometimes it is the full gory excess of a Scandi-noir, others the more genteel carnage of a Poirot, but it’s rare for an hour to go by without sudden demises on one channel or another.
Death on TV hardly bothers us, even barely raises our heartbeat. It is as unreal as a Halloween mask.
The murder of a cheeky, smiling 11-year-old named Damilola Taylor was treated differently. The true-life drama Damilola: Our Loved Boy (BBC1) attempted to depict the grief of a shattered family after their son — the youngest of three children — was stabbed on a South London housing estate and left to bleed to death in the stairwell of a block of flats, in 2000.
Gloria Taylor, played by Wunmi Mosaku, and Damilola Taylor, played by youngster Sammy Kamara
The killing did not occur on screen: we watched Dami, played by the blithely michievous Sammy Kamara, skipping out of his school’s computer club, and never saw him again, bar the briefest glimpse through a mortuary doorway.
We did not see the faces of the youths who attacked him with a broken bottle. There was barely a hint of the long police investigation, except for a couple of short court scenes, and the only indication of the ensuing political furore was a rant from a taxi driver.
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Everything in this 90-minute drama was shown from the point of view of his parents and siblings. They had not been present when he died, and so neither was the camera. They were aware only tangentially of the murder hunt, so it happened out of our sight, too.
All they knew was their grief, tearing them apart. That is what was shared with viewers.
It was a brave approach, done with the full support of Damilola’s father and brother, and I wish I could say it was completely successful. Unfortunately, it demonstrated why TV needs the detectives and the trail of clues. Unlike theatre or books, television is no good at philosophy and monologues: it demands action.
Damilola’s father Richard (Babou Ceesay) was consumed by anger, seething with himself for remaining in Nigeria while his wife and children travelled to Britain. Mother Gloria (Wunmi Mosaku) was left fatally broken-hearted: she died, a few years after the events of this film.
Such deep sadness hardly translates to the TV screen. Instead, it becomes endless shots of feet slowly trudging up stairs while a plangent piano plays, of single tears dribbling down faces and of mournful eyes staring through rain-spattered windows. On the box, real grief can look a lot like trite cliché.
This was a genuine attempt to pay tribute to a lovely boy and to the family that was so badly wounded by his loss. It’s a shame that it didn’t work better, though that’s a trivial regret when compared with all they have suffered. After all, this was only television.
If you think I’m callous to say most deaths on TV make little impact, count them up in Dark Angel (ITV). Mary Ann Cotton (Joanne Froggatt) was burying children as fast as she could spoon out the arsenic.
Within the first five minutes, she had bumped off two of her new husband’s kiddies, and accidentally disposed of the last survivor of her own brood after leaving a poisoned teacup on the bedside table.
Then she wiped out a bigamous hubbie, her best friend, a lover and a stepson — every one gone in the time it took to boil a kettle.
Even though this was based on a true story — a case from the police files almost 150 years ago — the sheer speed of her slaughter was almost comical. When the poisoner reached for her pewter teapot, we felt no chill of dread, just a feeling that there ought to be a stopwatch ticking away in the corner of the screen. Mary Ann had turned murder into an Olympic event.
The only character who survived long enough to matter was her soft old stepdad, played by Alun Armstrong. We might have worried for him, except that a pointless flashback at the start had already reassured us he would survive. Which left no reason to keep watching at all.
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