Last Night's Television: Stockwell, ITV 1

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The Independent Culture

Let's read the fine print first. Stockwell, ITV1's "fact-based drama" about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, began with a familiar kind of disclaimer. "This is a true story," it read, "based on the testimony of police officers and eyewitnesses. Some events have been simplified and some characters and dialogue created for the purposes of dramatisation." Given the controversy that surrounded that incident, and that still persists despite official inquiries and inquests, it's worth examining some of those phrases more closely. Let's take "based on the testimony" first of all, a standard claim to research, which appears, at first glance, to have been admirably exhaustive. Police officers and eyewitnesses, you say? How thorough. The only problem being that the eyewitness statements in many cases directly contradicted those of police officers, so which do you privilege at the critical moment? Having both doesn't double the clarity, since they cancel each other out.

More to the point, perhaps, what exactly is "dramatisation"? Does it mean making something more dramatic than it actually was, in which case we might have reason to be wary of Stockwell's ability to throw light on a shadowy episode. Perhaps the light it throws is going to be artfully tinted with a coloured gel, in standard theatrical style? Or could "dramatisation" possibly also mean making a confused story less incriminating than it actually was? A cynic might note that one of the problems with understanding what actually happened at Stockwell centres on the widespread public belief that a large-scale collaborative dramatisation has already taken place, with policemen trying to rewrite a terrible cock-up as a moment of consummate professionalism that just happened to go tragically wrong. And, before we move on, there's another big problem with dramatisation, too. It creates eyewitnesses who never previously existed: all of us, looking at reconstructions that can't have the ambiguity of various contradictory recollections and that, drawn in by a tidied-up narrative, we're prone to treat as hard fact.

ITV1 was never likely to commission a south London Rashomon, though, running different visions of what happened and letting us understand that a single truth is probably out of reach. And failing that, there are still things that programmes such as Stockwell can do. They can make a complicated string of events graspable, and, more significantly, they can convey something of the "flavour" of an incident, the kind of human qualities that get boiled out when formal statements are taken and control-room logbooks are transcribed. As conclusive finding, I'd have all kinds of doubts about Stockwell, but as a plausible theory about why things went wrong, it made a lot of sense.

Rush-hour travel turned out to be a bigger element than you might have expected. The firearm team that was supposed to move in and stop the suspected bomber was first called out just after five in the morning, but didn't actually reach the address under surveillance until over four and half hours later, an extraordinary delay that was down to two separate briefings, the assembly of various members, and the treacle speed of traffic through London. By the time they arrived, the surveillance team were frustrated and anxious, uncertain as to whether they might have to detain the suspect themselves. The firearm team, meanwhile, will presumably have been only too aware that they were horribly late for work, and already feeling that events were getting away from them. Small failures then added their mass to the large one that was beginning to snowball: the only surveillance officer with a clear line of sight of the front door was trying to urinate into a bottle when De Menezes emerged, so failed to get video footage that would have helped clarify his identity, and a colleague sent out to check him more closely was distracted by a malfunctioning radio as he passed.

Back in the control room, the senior commander was asking for percentage certainties on the identification from officers who couldn't even begin to do the calculation, but the pressure from above had the effect of compressing hesitant uncertainty into a firmer probability, packing the snowball tighter still. And then transport intervened again, with De Menezes getting off the bus on which he'd been travelling, finding Brixton Tube station closed for a security alert, and getting back on the bus. "He's looking nervous," one of his pursuers said. He was looking pissed off and frustrated, any London commuter could have told him, but this man was now looking for evidence of guilt, not ordinariness. And then, with the firearm team still stuck in traffic and trailing, with surveillance officers warning that they were about to lose their man, with contradictory orders coming from above, everything accelerated to the wrong conclusion. What Stockwell proposed was that the officers who shot De Menezes weren't really chasing a suspected terrorist by this stage. They were chasing a sense of their own competence, and they were fatally determined to ensure that it didn't get away entirely.