What new is there to say about the murder of James Bulger? The horrific nature of the death of the toddler; his name; the names of the killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both 10; the anguish of James’s parents, Denise and Ralph... all this is still remembered with a shudder 28 years on. A quick google and you can even find out what happened to Thompson and Venables after they were released from prison, if you’re curious. There is no shortage of disturbing detail out there.
So it would be easy to dismiss Channel 5’s latest documentary on the case as another exercise in gratuitous exploitation – but also unfair. The two-part documentary, which is airing over two consecutive nights, was in fact made with care and professionalism by ITN, making liberal use of the archive footage gathered at the time, intermingled with moving interviews with those involved – police officers, the killers’ solicitors, journalists and, most of all, members of the Bulger family. To this reviewer, at any rate, if James’s mother Denise Fergus feels well enough and justified enough to contribute, then the film is good enough to watch. As ever, she speaks with dignity and calm, and a sort of grim determination to do right by her little boy. She spoke about how the early press conferences, when all still thought her son might be alive, were ordeals, but were easier to get through because nothing else mattered – not the cameras, the press, the police, her crying – except to get her child back.
We also hear for the first time from James’s brothers – Michael, born nine months after James perished, and his half brothers Thomas, 22, and Leon, 21. They were all born after James’s death, so they couldn’t be described as witnesses, but they certainly experienced the unending misery that Venables and Thompson sentenced the family to – their own life sentences, if you’ll pardon the cliche. It comes as no surprise that they set an empty chair around the table every Christmas Day and they love their lively, characterful little bro.
The filmmakers also capture well the sheer incomprehension that the police experienced as they tried to find James. He’d slipped away from his mum in the Bootle Strand shopping centre when she let go of his hand for a moment to get her purse. He was abducted and out of the mall in about 90 seconds, and tortured and dead within hours, his body left two miles away on a railway line where it was severed in two. When the police realised from the famous blurry CCTV images that he’d been taken by two older boys they were actually relieved that it was not some adult paedophile involved, and that he’d not simply wandered away and fallen into the nearby canal. When more shots emerged, with the boys walking next to a wall, it told the detectives that the abductors were shorter and thus even younger than they’d first assumed.
Again, they were reassured that James would come to no permanent harm. Everyone thought they were “too young to hurt him”. Denise too was relieved, and she had “every hope” she’d soon get her son back. Instead, she too has been and will be tortured by Venables and Thompson for the rest of her life.
Murders of children are rare, murders of children by other children are rarer still, and murderers bunking off primary school taking the life of a two-year-old so strange as to be inexplicable. Precisely why Venables and Thompson killed James Bulger on Friday 12 February 1993 will never be understood, in any sense of the term. Back then, no one knew why a couple of 10-year-olds could cause so much suffering. We still don’t.
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