LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
For the purposes of the film, we've had to reconstruct this and other killings," warned Kevin Toolis, presenter of Getting Away with Murder? (C4). Had to? As I understand it, there's no legal requirement to re-enact incidents which, by definition, have only one surviving witness. So, unless the Channel 4 commissioning editor was twisting their arm for a bit of drama, it would have been more candid to say "we wanted to". And the reason they wanted to was to bring home the savagery of some of the deaths in question - killings which the programme argued should be treated as murder, but which juries had decided were something a little less. It worked, too; having just seen a man systematically stamping on another's face, you were distinctly less inclined to accept the real killer's account of a moment of drunken rage.

I imagine Toolis would argue that this manifestly prejudicial material was there to balance a much larger prejudice - the cultural homophobia which he arraigned for allowing some awful crimes to go, if not quite unpunished, then certainly underpunished. His angry film offered this core of truth: that when gay men are killed, juries are more likely to accept a plea of provocation (or "homosexual panic") on behalf of their killers. Because juries act this way, the prosecution services are more likely to accept a diminished plea of manslaughter. And because the prosecution acts that way, the prejudices of juries can only be reinforced - a vicious circle of unexamined assumptions.

But this central fact was occasionally clouded rather than clarified by Toolis's approach. Sometimes he let his indignation get the better of his judgement: "I wonder how many psychiatrists would testify on my behalf if I was a woman and murdered a man through `heterosexual panic'?", he asked sarcastically at one point. Quite a few, I would have thought, and not simply because it's possible to get an expert witness to testify to just about anything. A traumatic history of sexual abuse or a recent experience of rape would surely offer respectable mitigations for some types of crime. It's true, of course, that a jury might be less inclined to accept the argument, but that it had been put forward would not be evidence of generalised misogyny - just that the defence lawyer was doing his job. What's more, the evidence of institutionalised homophobia wasn't really there at all - one judge had clearly directed a jury towards a murder conviction in his summing up, the policemen involved appeared to share Toolis's disappointment about the results of some cases (to the extent of giving him access to scene-of-crime photographs) and the one example which was unequivocally a hate crime - a dreadful case in which three drugged-up youths had sought out victims in a Plymouth park - resulted in life sentences for the guilty men. It was a pity that anxieties about some of these generalisations got in the way of the sharp specific at the heart of the film - that an unwanted homosexual advance can never be the excuse for anything but the word "no".

Watching QED's programme (BBC1) about mothers who found it difficult to love their babies, you couldn't help wondering about the early life of the killers you had just seen (a speculation which inevitably leads into that other great swamp of legal exculpation - the unhappy childhood). This was a striking film, not just because it concerned an undiscussed problem, but because it actually showed you a solution working on screen. It seems that video, as well as being a godsend to television directors, also has a therapeutic power, allowing troubled mothers to see from the outside how they behave with their babies. And if love doesn't seem like an emotion that is open to tuition, the film made it clear that you can learn how best to express it. One expert used the analogy of parent and child making music together, a suggestion supported with touching film of a premature baby engaging in chant and response with its father. The concluding scenes, in which the mothers learned to "duet" with their children, rather than just perform a desperate karaoke of maternal affection, were very heartening.

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