It’s always a draw and a potential risk to cast a comedy actor in something so severe. It can be hard to separate their personas. Steve Coogan – best-known for his spoof chat-show character Alan Partridge – plays the central detective in ITV’s new three-part drama, which elaborates on the Stephen Lawrence murder 13 years on.
In Stephen, DCI Clive Driscoll (Coogan) reopens the case. He wanders into a disused Deptford police station and incidentally discovers piles of boxes pertaining to Lawrence's racially motivated murder. By this point, in 2006, there have been three investigations and one public inquiry, the latter of which concluded the police were institutionally racist.
Steve Coogan stars as DCI Clive Driscoll. Photo: ITV
Along with the hardened, exhausted, yet powerful performances from Hugh Quashire and Sharlene Whyte, playing Lawrence’s parents, Coogan has to carry a harrowing true story that – even in 2021 – has yet to find a fully dignified ending.
It's hard to escape his funny side. It occasionally pops up in Stephen, especially in one jarring scene where Driscoll plays the piano in a retirement home. Coogan puts on a more nasal voice, which is dangerously close to his Michael Caine impression in The Trip – coming out in Driscoll's angrier moments. This can be hard to take seriously. However, Coogan succeeds best in Driscoll’s quieter scenes, when he’s repressing his rage and confusion.
That repression tends to make ITV true-crime dramas the best in the business. It’s that muted approach, like in the Jeff Pope series A Confession, where Stephen finds its edge. It runs in subtler contrast to its predecessor, the pulsing and upsetting Paul Greengrass drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. The 1999 ITV film was an early example of Greengrass’s documentary style, capturing the murder in awful detail.
The father-and-son screenwriters Frank and Joe Cottrell-Boyce avoid the violence entirely. The closest they come is during a scene where Driscoll arranges a filmed reconstruction of the murder. Despite being a cold performance-within-a-performance, the punch of it chills and haunts you. You imagine the truth, which deals a greater impact.
Sharlene Whyte stars as Stephen Lawrence's mother, Doreen. Photo: ITV
Driscoll’s investigation is split with the lives of Neville and Doreen Lawrence. It’s common in these procedurals to depict the parents as completely broken, barely able to speak, weeping to the floor. Stephen shows their strength after 13 years.
Neville (Quashie, reprising his role 22 years after the Greengrass film) spends a lot of time in Jamaica, but returns to England briefly. He's quietly forlorn, hating the country to which he's returned. After a bitter meeting with then Deputy Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick (Sian Brooke), it's like he’s given up on any kind of justice.
Doreen (Whyte) still fights with unwavering resistance to find the resolution that she and her son deserve. With a lawyer, she also meets with Dick and scoffs at the latter’s lack of progress. The real-life Dick is now the Chief Commissioner of the Met and said last year that the police is not institutionally racist, making these scenes feel like conscious jabs. Boris Johnson also gets a scornful mention.
Despite the thick webs of cover-ups – hidden evidence, racist apathy – that weave through the background of Stephen, the first episode makes you grateful that good people are willing to tear them down. Driscoll may be a white man among a team of more white men, but they are determined to catch the already-identified killers instead of burying them under a dusty carpet.
But those institutional spiders, as you’ll see when the series continues, are still lurking and don’t want Driscoll to succeed.
Stephen airs on Monday 30 August at 9pm on ITV
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30 Aug 21 – 30 Aug 22, ON ITV
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