Nick Leather, creator of BBC3's new true crime drama Murdered for Being Different, explains why he wanted to tell the story of the 2007 murder of Sophie Lancaster in a park in Bacup, Lancashire, and how the families of Sophie and her boyfriend Robert Maltby helped create "something positive out of something so utterly negative"
“We need an ambulance at Bacup Park; this mosher's just been banged because he's a mosher…”
The frantic call made by a witness to the brutal attack on Robert Maltby and his girlfriend Sophie Lancaster remains as harrowing as ever. When the police arrived, they found the park deserted and two victims fighting for their lives, their identities a mystery.
It was half-one on the morning of the eleventh of August 2007. A few hours earlier Garry Newlove had been beaten unconscious on his own doorstep near Warrington after confronting a separate gang of youths; a few days later young Rhys Jones would be shot whilst cycling home from football practice in Liverpool.
Each incident entered the national consciousness, collectively seeming to hold a mirror up to the society of the time that few of us could bear to look into.
Abigail Lawrie Nico Mirallegro as Sophie Lancaster and boyfriend Robert Maltby
Last summer I entered the gates of Stubbylee Park in the Rossendale Valley, walked along the tree-lined path, and skirted round Fairy Dell towards the skate ramps. In the middle of the ramps are two benches, and in the middle of those benches Rob and Sophie once lay in a pool of blood, his hand reaching out towards her buckled and platformed boot; somehow still trying to protect her just as she had him.
Standing on that spot, I begun to try and work out how to build a drama round such a terrible incident; how to make sense of something so senseless.
Working with the BBC’s factual drama department, the first step was research – interviewing as many of the people involved as possible, reading all contemporary accounts, and working our way through the case files. Once we knew exactly what had happened, and something of the lives of those affected, a shape started to emerge.
When Rob regained consciousness three days later, with no memory of anything that had happened in the park whatsoever, he was told that he had been the victim of a Goth attack. This was a shock to him because he didn’t see himself as a Goth at all. He was just different. He looked different, talked differently, and liked different things.
In many ways, the differences between the other kids on the park that night were much less obvious. They looked the same, talked similarly, and liked the same things. But the unprovoked attack on Rob and Sophie was to be a challenge to that same-ness. Who would join in? Who would try to break it up? Who would tell the truth? With the police initially having so little to go on, if Rob Maltby was to ever have any chance of putting his life back together, it would require others to be different too.
The way these two elements spoke to each other leapt out at us. This was now more than an incident - it was a story.
A factual drama can never be entirely factual, but it should be entirely truthful. We were advised on what we could and couldn’t show, which people we could feature directly, and which would have to become composites, and in some cases fictionalised. Two pages became 20, 20 became 70, and a few months after sitting down with Rob, his mum Tracey and Sophie’s mum Sylvia and asking for their recollections, we handed them a script and waited for their reactions.
Their response was overwhelming. Rob said he felt like something positive had finally come out of something so utterly negative, and those words really struck me.
I think this is the reason why – whether it’s Rob or Sophie, Rhys Jones or Shannon Matthews – some of the most affecting dramas of our times are currently the dramas of our lifetimes.
We don’t want to see these stories out of voyeurism; instead we want to reclaim them – because when you dig deep, the good so often overpowers the bad. Tracy pushing her son down a corridor in a wheelchair to see Sophie one last time; Sylvia fixing the ribbons in her daughter’s hair the night before her life-support machine was switched off; the witness who found it within themselves to dial 999 and say the 16 words that started this piece and saved Rob’s life.
Now that we have finally found the courage to look at ourselves in the mirror, what we see staring back at us is not what we had feared at all. The hate may have rocked us then, but this time round it’s the love.
Murdered for Being Different will be released on BBC3 on Sunday 18 June