In their public appearances, often outside courthouses, the parents and siblings of Damilola Taylor, the ten-year-old boy stabbed to death on an inner London sink estate in 2000, always looked so dignified and united.
In truth they were riven by the pain of loss. As is often the case in tragedies involving the deaths of children, Damilola’s killing caused bitter ructions within the Taylor family – ructions that will be revealed for the first time in a new BBC1 drama.
Damilola’s father, Richard, who has since won an OBE for his work with inner-city youths, cooperated fully with the project, in the hope that it will help those youths to understand the damage that mindless violence can do to families.
“Richard always said he wanted us to show people what it was really like, the anger as much as the grief, the blame as much as the healing,” says Colin Barr, the executive producer of the drama.
Barr adds that, far from holding back to protect his reputation, “Richard said, ‘You need to go deep on this, to the rage and the hurt and the blame.’ He encouraged us to be less scared, less tentative… I was deeply impressed.”
The drama opens in Lagos, Nigeria, with Richard (Babou Ceesay) and his wife, Gloria (Wunmi Mosaku), deciding that she should take their two eldest children, Tunde and Gbemi, to London so Gbemi can be treated for chronic epilepsy.
The parents had studied and married in Britain, and Tunde and Gbemi were both born here. Richard, a senior official in the Nigerian Defence Ministry, stays behind because of his job. He wants Damilola to stay, too, but relents under pressure from his wife.
In real life, he tells Radio Times, he had arranged for Damilola to attend a Nigerian military boarding school.
The drama shows how, in London, the family moves in with a relative on the infamous North Peckham estate in south-east London, their request for a council house having been curtly rejected. Richard, a loving, authoritarian father, barks instructions down the phone from Lagos.
On one occasion he rebukes Tunde for arriving late to collect Damilola from school: “I don’t want to hear any excuses. You are responsible for your junior brother.”
The facts of the case are still chilling. At 4.51pm on 27 November 2000, three months after arriving in Britain, Damilola left a computer club at Peckham Library to walk home by himself. He was stabbed in the thigh with a broken bottle and bled to death in a concrete stairwell.
The killing of an innocent boy in such a brutal manner shocked the country. It triggered a national inquest on the state of Britain’s inner cities and their seemingly feral youth.
Richard arrived in London two days later, consumed by grief and anger. In the drama he meets Tunde on a staircase at the hospital. He offers no comfort, no sympathy. “Get up,” he snaps.
Wunmi Mosaku and Babou Ceesay portray Gloria and Richard Taylor, pictured beneath in 2006, the parents of Damilola
He roughly wipes the tears from his son’s face before walking past him. Nor does he embrace his wife. He simply walks into the morgue to see Damilola’s body. Later, at a police station, he and Gloria watch CCTV footage of Damilola leaving the library wearing a long silver puffa jacket she had bought him. Richard rounds on his wife: “Why did you buy such a jacket? That’s what the killers were probably trying to steal.”
Screenwriter Levi David Addai portrays how Damilola’s death creates a distance between Richard and his family. He holds his wife’s hand when they leave the court after the first trial ends in 2002 with the acquittal of four defendants – but it is seemingly for the sake of the cameras.
Increasingly, Richard channels his rage into what became the Damilola Taylor Trust – a charity set up with public donations to provide opportunities for disadvantaged youths.
Tunde decides to leave home. Five years elapse before the family is united in a touching scene.
On Tunde’s graduation day, father and son sit on a bench overlooking the Thames and Taylor tells Tunde how proud he is: “I missed so much and I am sorry.”
Tunde replies, “You lost Damilola. How can I expect you to think about me?” Richard says, “Because you are also my boy.” He puts his arm around Tunde, then his wife and daughter join them, and the family tearfully heals its divisions.
In 2006 two young brothers, Ricky and Danny Preddie, were convicted of Damilola’s manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in youth custody – they were paroled after four and five years respectively, though Ricky was soon re-imprisoned for other offences.
Richard Taylor says that he still cannot forgive them, and believes they should have been imprisoned for life. He also believes other youths were involved in Damilola’s death but never caught. Most of the estate, including the block where Damilola died, has been demolished.
Peckham itself – once a byword for crime and deprivation – has become positively cool, with pop-up restaurants, rooftop bars and artisan bakers and breweries serving its influx of yuppies.
As for the Taylors, Gloria died in 2008 of a heart attack that Richard attributes to the stress of Damilola’s death. Tunde, 36, is a successful banker. Taylor himself – when not working with the trust – cares for Gbemi, 38.
Asked if he has come to terms with Damilola’s death, Richard replies: “I have no alternative but to accept the cross I have to bear for the rest of my life.”
Watching the drama was painful, he says, but it very accurately conveys what his family went through. He has no complaints about its portrayal of him as an angry, wounded father who lashed out at his family. “No man will ever accept that his son, his child, his loved one, should be taken away under such circumstances,” he explains.
Since Damilola’s death, more than 200 other youths have died in knife attacks in London, and Richard believes that the situation is getting steadily worse. If nothing else, he hopes the drama will show the perpetrators the immense harm they do – not just to their victims, but to their victims’ families.
As Colin Barr says, “This is not a sanitised version of what happened.” Richard “was not afraid to go back to those uncomfortable moments. He was not thinking ‘how will this reflect on me?’ He was trying to be as honest as he could.”
Damilola, Our Loved Boy is on 8.30pm tonight, BBC1