Fighting for justice
Sharlene Whyte and Hugh Quarshie reflect on their starring roles in Stephen, a three-part ITV drama that follows the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence 13 years after he was killed in a racist attack.
Stephen Lawrence was just 18 years old when, on the night of April 22, 1993, he was killed in a racist attack while waiting for a bus in south London. When the Metropolitan Police failed to convict those responsible for the black teenager’s death, a campaign for justice headed by his parents, Doreen and Neville, led to a public inquiry that branded the Met “institutionally racist” and led to widespread changes in the law and police practices.
Thirteen years after his death, in 2006, no progress had been made into Stephen’s case as Doreen and Neville continued their struggle for justice – until DCI Clive Driscoll put together a fresh investigation that used new forensic techniques to finally secure murder convictions against two members of the gang who attacked Stephen.
The events surrounding the attack and its aftermath were dramatically reconstructed by director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips) in his Bafta-winning 1999 film The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. Now Stephen, a new three-part miniseries, picks up the Lawrences’ battle and follows DCI Driscoll as he cracks the case with some “common sense coppering.”
Sharlene Whyte (Small Axe) stars as Doreen Lawrence, while Hugh Quarshie (Holby City) reprises his role as Neville from the 1999 film. Steve Coogan (Stan & Ollie) plays Driscoll. The first episode, which debuts on ITV on Monday, sees the police officer uncover Stephen’s cold-case files and, shocked by historical failures and omissions, takes on the case and tasks a team of forensic scientists to conduct a fresh examination of the evidence. When he gets a breakthrough, he informs Doreen and Neville of his progress.
Quarshie had been at a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death – also attended by guests including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the prime minister at the time Theresa May, who announced April 22 would become Stephen Lawrence Day – when he was first approached by the film’s producer, Mark Redhead, about a follow-up series.
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary & Jackie) and Joe Cottrell Boyce (Treasure), Stephen is produced by HTM Television in association with Baby Cow Productions and with the support of Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Dr Neville Lawrence.
“I was really pleasantly surprised,” the actor admits. “There was still that feeling there was unfinished business, that justice had only partially been done, so when Mark asked if I would be interested in playing in Stephen, I said, ‘Definitely.’”
DCI Driscoll, he says, restored the reputation of the Met, “albeit for 15 minutes,” by picking up Stephen’s case in the wake of the Macpherson inquiry which criticised the force’s handling of racist incidents, levels of satisfaction with the police among ethnic minorities, stop-and-search procedures and complaints of racism, among other issues raised.
“The Met itself was still predominantly white, had very few black officers and the working assumption, as is apparent from our film, is that there were quite a few coppers who just assumed [Stephen’s] murder was a gang-related or drug-related event,” Quarshie says.
“The irony is that Clive Driscoll’s attitude was of old-fashioned coppering. The term ‘diamond geezer’ might well have been coined for him. I hope he gets the recognition he’s due. It just seems to me the operational assumptions of the Met have meant, at times, that justice has been incomplete or was being delayed, or just been abandoned altogether. Now, thanks to the example of the Lawrences, there is a generation that is not willing to stand for that. We won’t stand for Windrush mass deportation of people who’ve lived here for decades. It just seems to me that denied justice can fuel outrage and activism, and rightly so,” he says, referencing the 2018 scandal in which hundreds of Caribbean immigrants in the UK were wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement.
While Doreen has been a vocal critic of the Met and established the Stephen Lawrence Centre, “it may have appeared to some that Neville retreated,” Quarshie says of the years between the teenager’s death and the opening scenes of Stephen, during which the couple divorced, in 1999.
“But actually, what the script makes pretty clear is that Neville hasn’t given up. With the help of a solicitor, they were going to demand a judicial review of the handling of his case by the Metropolitan Police. To the Met, that would have been a major embarrassment, so to avert the judicial review, they promised a review of the case. It was Neville who triggered that. I hope that is recognised and I hope it’s understood that he hasn’t given up.”
Although Quarshie spoke to the real Neville ahead of filming The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, they didn’t meet again this time. That is partly due to the fact the film was a dramatic reconstruction of events as they had happened, while Stephen is a true crime drama.
“It’s more of a conventional drama and it didn’t entirely feel right to ask a father whose son has been murdered, ‘So how did you feel about the murder of your son and how does it feel waking up every day?’” he explains. “That just seems to me truly intrusive, on top of which I have a son who’s the same age as Stephen was when he was murdered, so I can draw on my own experiences of the feelings I have for my son and the anxieties I had for him every day when he went to school. This one was much more about interpreting a dramatic script than it was about imitating a historical character.
“My interpretation is Neville’s in a place where he’s still smarting and still wondering what he should have done differently or done better to have prepared Stephen for the world of racists. He might have forgiven the killers. I’m not sure that he’s ever forgiven himself. I suspect, to some extent, he still beats himself up, even though there was nothing he could have done.”
Key to playing Neville was finding his voice, with Quarshie – who has a West African background – keen to avoid enrolling in the “Van Dyke School of Accents” in an attempt to replicate his West Indian accent.
“It was important to get the accent right, get the inflections right and mannerisms and I had a lot of help from colleagues in that,” he says. “Interestingly and poignantly, the one word me and my accent coach kept coming back to the pronunciation of the word ‘murder’ because there is a particular way that Jamaicans have of saying it. I hope I got it right. But it was so poignant and significant that that was the one I couldn’t get.”
Similarly, Whyte didn’t meet Doreen ahead of portraying her in the series, to keep some distance between her performance and the real person. Instead, she watched and listened to numerous videos and interviews with her and also read her book, And Still I Rise, which offered the actor an insight into her childhood in Jamaica.
It is the first time Whyte has played a real-life, living person on screen, although her recent role in Education, the fifth film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, saw her play a character comprising different elements of real people.
“I didn’t want Doreen to relive this tragic, horrendous moment just so I could imagine what it was like,” Whyte says. “I’m an actor, this is what I do, I use my imagination. I read things and I listen and I watch and I’m able to absorb and disseminate. I felt it would be egotistical of me, a little indulgent [to speak to her]. There’d be no point, not so far down the line. If it was me in 1999, then absolutely. It would be imperative to meet her because we don’t know anything about her at that point. We’d just been introduced to her. Twenty years later, we’ve all got a sense of who Doreen Lawrence is.”
The challenge “was not to impersonate or mimic her,” Whyte continues. “Fortunately she’s very unique vocally. There’s a journey in her voice as well; it changes when you see her speaking when she’s younger. The voice changes in reaction to all the stress and trauma of dealing with police and people in authority and standing her ground. Just charting that journey to get to that vocal was really important for me. The challenge was respecting her because I’m aware this is a legacy piece, part of British culture and history.”
The actor describes filming the series as “extremely emotional,” as she faced playing scenes in which Doreen is told advancements in forensic science could potentially mean securing convictions against her son’s killers.
“It was momentous and I felt it somehow, it was relatable,” she explains. “That relentless journey you’ve just been on could potentially be coming to an end, late but potentially ending. It was a very overwhelming experience to go through that and to reenact it – it was a very emotional experience.”
In particular, she describes director Alrick Riley (Bridgerton) as “a genius” who she praises for bringing the cast together and getting the performances he wanted from them, even if they didn’t quite realise it at the time.
“I think we were just all on the same page. We all knew we were doing something important,” Whyte says. “Working with Steve was great because he’s just a proper actor. He’s fantastic to work with, and similarly with Hugh. I felt like I was with some impeccable British talent and I was in the arms of royalty. It felt quite safe, actually, to be there, rather than overwhelming. It was a very safe environment to be open and raw and to channel and explore those kinds of emotions.”
On set, Quarshie admits he went “partially Daniel Day-Lewis,” in reference to the Oscar-winning actor’s famous method acting techniques, where he would stay in character at all times.
“I tended to keep my distance from Sharlene, and under Covid restrictions we were meant to keep our distance, so we didn’t engage in banter or conversation until towards the end, when she realised I wasn’t being hostile, I was just being Neville,” he reveals. “Since then, there’s a warmth to the relationship and great mutual respect. Sharlene’s done a really wonderful job on this and though she didn’t actually meet Doreen, she’s got her voice down. It’s a really fantastic achievement.”
As a companion piece to The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Quarshie says Stephen is shot much more conventionally than the film, which often saw the actors improvise and used fast camera movements to track who was speaking.
“I hope the key thing that links these two things, certainly in the Paul Greengrass film, is that I don’t think any of us looked as if we were acting,” he says. “I hope that none of us look as if we’re emoting or are doing any acting that looks like acting.”
Whyte will next be seen on screen in Ear for Eye, an exploration of race and youth written and directed by Debbie Tucker Green, in which she plays an American mother to a teenage son who is trying to navigate feeling safe in the world.
She believes revisiting the case of Stephen Lawrence will mean a lot of people who have grown up knowing his name but who are unfamiliar with his story will learn what happened to him and why there continue to be calls for justice to be done.
“It is an important story because it did change lots of policing practices and there’s been some changes [in The Met], but there’s still a long way to go,” says Whyte. “What I hope people will take away from it is that maybe we should reintroduce some of this more ‘common sense coppering’ from people with a strong moral compass who want to do their job and do it well, which is what Clive Driscoll represents in this.”