This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 November 2016.
Damilola, Our Loved Boy: Monday, BBC One
Close to the Enemy: Thursday, BBC Two
Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor was 10-years-old when he was fatally attacked on a Peckham estate in November 2000. The image of this innocent, smiling child seared itself on the nation’s consciousness, an unwitting emblem of growing fears over inner city knife crime.
Following a prolonged, controversial trial, two teenagers were eventually charged with manslaughter.
The shock of this senseless crime still reverberates, hence Damilola, Our Loved Boy, a deeply moving drama made with support from the Taylors.
Primarily framed through the eyes of Damilola’s father, Richard, it went behind the headlines to explore the anguish of a family struggling with unimaginable tragedy.
The establishing scenes of the Taylors living a happy life in Nigeria – Richard was a successful businessman with government connections – were weighted with a sense of impending horror.
The Taylors moved to England so that Richard’s British-born daughter could receive urgent NHS treatment for her epilepsy. Writer Levi David Addai didn’t need to stress the terrible irony of parents losing a child while seeking to save the life of another.
Damilola’s excitement about moving to this land of hope and glory was heart-breaking. Breadwinner Richard stayed behind as the family moved into a cramped Peckham flat. Seven months later, Damilola was dead.
Certain scenes lingered long after the credits had rolled. The mounting panic of Damilola’s mother when he didn’t return from school; his guilt-stricken older brother phoning Richard to break the awful news; Richard visiting the scene of Damilola’s murder, then eventually breaking down away from the gaze of the family for whom he tried to remain strong.
With admirable honesty, it depicted Richard as an often myopically proud and moral man who, via sincerely noble deeds in the local community, neglected the needs of his family while trying to make sense of Damilola’s death. But that was his way of dealing with guilt and grief.
Sensitively handled by all concerned – Babou Ceesay was particularly outstanding as Richard – this necessarily upsetting film succeeded by stating its nuanced, complex case without a trace of tabloid hysteria.
One thing we can all agree on about divisive auteur Stephen Poliakoff is that no one makes television quite like him. He’s an eccentric genre unto himself. For some, his work is agonisingly mannered and opaque. For others, myself included broadly speaking, those affectations are often quite appealing.
So what to make of Close to the Enemy, in which he rakes over his trademark obsessions with hot jazz, war criminals and the haunted glamour of barely populated luxury hotels? It’s tempting to assume that he’s trolling his critics with a Bingo-card summation of every Poliakoff drama ever made.
Set in the bomb-damaged London of 1946, just as the Cold War began, it pivots on a strange performance from Jim Sturgess as a maverick military intelligence agent tasked with securing the services of a reluctant German scientist.
With his shop-damaged chocolatey diction and eyebrows a-cocked a la Roger Moore, he appears to be sending the whole thing up. I don’t quite know what the hell he’s doing, but it’s certainly entertaining.
Like Poliakoff’s last tribute to his own oeuvre, Dancing on the Edge, it’ll probably squander its vague promise by drifting languidly up its own fundament. In which case, the BBC may finally decide to stop throwing money at this self-indulgent oddball.
But I must admit, it’s perversely pleasing that he’s managed to reign unfettered for so long. There’s something to be said for public disservice broadcasting.