The BBC drama tells the private story behind a public tragedy. Jen Offord took a look.
What I remember most vividly from the day our headteacher talked to us about the death of Damilola Taylor was how visibly shaken the middle-aged man in front of me seemed by it. In fact, he looked close to tears as he told us how the 10-year-old’s femoral artery was severed during an attack on his way home from the library on 27 November 2000.
By that point, I’d already seen it on the news – the beaming face of the dead boy, indelible in the consciousness of all who saw it.
BBC One drama Damilola, Our Loved Boy tells the story of the Taylor family and their fight for justice. It begins in Lagos, Nigeria, where Damilola’s father, Richard, worked as a civil servant. After daughter, Gbemi, has an epileptic seizure, Richard and his wife Gloria, decide to send her to London, where she was born, to receive medical treatment unavailable in Nigeria. After a battle between Richard (Babou Ceesay) and Gloria (Wunmi Mosaku), it is decided Damilola (Sammy Kamara) and his brother Tunde will accompany the two women to the UK.
The tensions play out. Contrary to many media depictions at the time, the Taylors are a middle-class family and the grotty estate they wind up on is clearly a far cry from the life they had in Lagos. Tunde (Juwon Adedokun), who had been studying at university, takes a job as a sales assistant in a shoe shop in Peckham. There are familial tensions, too: the pressure on Tunde, for example, to “be a man” and look after the family in Richard’s absence; and for Gloria to make her situation work, caring for her family in less than ideal circumstances cramped in an aunt’s tiny flat.
“Although the insidious institutional racism endured by the Taylors and the community at large is alluded to, more could – and should – have been made of this.”
I wondered if the timing of this drama is a little unfortunate given the row unfolding over immigration and the endless hysteria about NHS resources. Perhaps it is too much to expect a big chunk of the British populace to get their heads around the concept of entitlement to medical treatment by someone who doesn’t actually live in the UK. At this point in time, the treatment of the Taylor family when they arrive in the local council office looking for accommodation is unlikely to be viewed with much sympathy by a large proportion of the population.
It’s not long before tragedy strikes and perhaps one of the most torturous scenes of the 90-minute drama is the family’s visit to the stairwell in which Damilola spent his last moments, having, as was ultimately accepted in court, fallen on a bottle after the confrontation. The individual performances here, particularly by Ceesay as Richard, are heart-breaking.
In fact, it is the individual performances that make the drama, as well as the insight into the family behind the united front presented on the steps of the Old Bailey. The relationships between Gloria, Tunde and Richard are particularly well-observed. It is an exploration of a family turning inwards as it copes with grief and the impact of guilt and blame on those relationships. And while it does this very well, I did reflect at the end that I knew absolutely nothing of Gbemi (Juma Sharkah), who had been the main reason the Taylors came to London in the first place, or her feelings around that.
“204 teenagers have died in London as a result of knife crime since Damilola’s death. This year alone, 10 young people aged 19 or younger have been fatally stabbed in London.”
It’s also an exploration of masculinity and fatherhood and how those roles are challenged in the face of tragedy: a father who believes he has failed in his duty to protect his family, and a son who cannot compete with the shadow of Damilola’s ever-present tragedy.
In Richard’s struggle to cope, he begins to work with his local community, noting the disaffected youth he sees in Peckham and out of this he draws some comfort. This work led to the establishment of the Damilola Taylor Trust, which seeks to offer opportunities for disadvantaged and under-privileged youths to aspire to something more. This thread is picked up more towards the drama’s finale as, after two failed murder trials, two teenagers are ultimately convicted of Damilola’s manslaughter.
Something about the timing irked a little; there was too much introduction and context and the ending felt rather rushed. The legal process was not really explored and, although the insidious institutional racism endured by the Taylors and the community at large is alluded to, more could – and should – have been made of this.
In fact, there were a lot of relevant threads that could have been picked at here, and perhaps none more so the work Richard Taylor has gone on to do and his reasons for doing so, at which it felt we were only ever scratching the surface. Institutions deserve criticism for the circumstances that led to Damilola’s killing and, given the shocking nature of the crime and the amazing platform presented, this just felt a bit too safe.
In the closing credits we’re reminded that young people continue to be involved in and affected by violent crime – 204 teenagers have died in London as a result of knife crime since Damilola’s death. This year alone, 10 young people aged 19 or younger have been fatally stabbed in London. The growing deprivation among and disaffection of young people in British society, and the manifestation of that in incidents such as the death of Damilola Taylor, easily warrants a whole other episode – one that we would do well to see.
For more information about the Damilola Taylor Trust and how to make a donation, visit the Trust’s website.4493 Views
Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen