Sharlene Whyte on new ITV drama Stephen: 'It could've been anyone's son'
The Small Axe star on playing Doreen Lawrence in ITV drama Stephen, inspired by the police investigation into Stephen Lawrence's murder.
Sharlene Whyte thinks she was at a bus stop with her friends when she learnt about Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993. Or at least, that’s the image that comes to mind when I ask her if she remembers where she was.
“I grew up in Nottingham, and I was at college at the time. And we'd heard about it - for some reason, I've got myself at a bus stop [in my memory]. A bus stop. I think because we were always at this bus stop, chatting after college, but I do remember that we were just all scared. You were scared for your friends who looked like Stephen. We were the same age, we listened to the same music.”
It was while waiting for a bus, across the country in South East London, that Black British teenager Stephen Lawrence was killed on the evening of 22nd April 1993, in a racially motivated attack. Whyte, who plays Stephen’s mother Doreen Lawrence in the upcoming drama Stephen, also lives in South East London.
Speaking over Zoom, she tells me that she lives not far away from Well Hall Road in Eltham, the site of the attack. However, she found the idea of visiting the road for research “too upsetting”.
“I've driven past it, and I had planned to go and visit,” she explains. “I just couldn't actually bring myself to do it, I couldn't... I just think I found the whole thing too upsetting.”
Stephen is the follow-up to ITV’s landmark drama series The Murder of Stephen Lawrence. The Lawrences' campaign for justice would bring about a public inquiry which branded the Metropolitan Police institutionally racist, resulting in lasting changes in the law.
The sequel is set in 2006, beginning with a turning point in the investigation into Stephen’s murder. We follow DCI Clive Driscoll, who volunteers to take on the case (widely regarded as a poisoned chalice by many of Clive’s colleagues in the Met). Clive – working closely with the Lawrences – puts together an investigation that finally secures the convictions of two of the perpetrators, more than 18 years after Stephen's murder.
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By the early Noughties, as Whyte puts it, “Doreen is very well-versed in dealing with the Met,” adding, “She's still filled with rage, but it's just a quieter burning.”
That quiet rage was a “tricky emotional space” for Whyte to inhabit. Almost 30 years have passed now since Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and within that time Whyte has transitioned from being a college student of a similar age to Stephen, to being a mother with a teenage son.
Becoming Doreen on-screen “was very taxing,” she says. “I've got a son who's a similar age to Stephen at the time of, you know, the time Doreen lost her son… It was quite an intense few weeks.”
Why does Whyte think that the Stephen Lawrence case resonates with so many? She considers her answer carefully. "If it's about what's so special about Stephen, this is just a young man who had aspirations and dreams, like any other child of any colour, [and] was just trying to get on with his life and wanted to be an architect. And the fact that he was taken down so brutally and unprepared. That's what makes it special.
"The other thing that makes it special is that it really highlighted the shortcomings of the Metropolitan Police at that time. It highlighted corruption, and it highlighted institutional racism. So it was a very important part of British history. Is Stephen Lawrence special? Yes, he is. Because he's just a normal guy, and I think that's why a lot of people could relate. It could be anybody's son that was slain in that way."
In episode one, Doreen meets DCI Clive Driscoll, played by Alan Partridge actor Steve Coogan. It’s a tense meeting. At this point in the story, Doreen has lost all faith in the police. Meanwhile Clive has been nervously watching televised interviews with Doreen ahead of their meeting.
In normal circumstances, Whyte tells me, she or Coogan would have lightened the mood in-between takes. “I think both Steve and I are naturally quite affable people. If it wasn't for this, we'd be joking about it, messing about, [but] because it's so serious, we felt a huge responsibility to tell this story. We were just immersed in the scenes.”
Coogan seems, on paper at least, an unusual choice for a show like this. I ask Whyte what she thought of his casting.
“He can lend the slightly quirky, humorous - I feel like he was trying to have a slightly humorous side to Clive… There's something about his persona that he gave to Clive that makes him accessible,” she says.
Many viewers will likewise know Whyte from a more comedic role in The Story of Tracy Beaker, in which she played Jenny, a strict care worker with a secret loathing for her colleague. However, her last two projects, Stephen and the BBC anthology series Small Axe, have been far more serious in tone. (She jokes that she’s hoping a comedy will come her way soon.)
In the Small Axe episode “Education”, she played Agnes Smith, a West Indian mother struggling to secure the education her son deserves against the backdrop of an unofficial segregation policy in the British education system. The episode was loosely inspired by creator Steve McQueen’s own school experiences. “For me to play, essentially, Steve's version of Steve's mum is a real blessing,” says Whyte.
On the similarities between Agnes and Doreen Lawrence, she says: “I did go straight from one woman who is fighting for justice for her son [in Small Axe], to another woman who is fighting for justice for her son, which shows that there is obviously some link,” she says. That link, she adds, is “the colour of… the women's skin and where they come from and their background.”
However, “someone like Agnes Smith is Doreen’s ancestor in a way. She would have come just before Doreen. So Doreen is standing on the shoulders of someone like Agnes, [giving her]... the confidence and drive to know that she can fight for justice for her kid the same way that Agnes did.”
The real Lawrences gave their full blessing to the TV series. However, although Coogan reached out to the real-life former DCI Clive Driscoll as part of his research for the role, Whyte tells me that she preferred not to speak to Doreen for the series. She wanted the creative license to create her own version of the character. What’s more, she “didn't want to bring up the trauma of her son's murder,” believing that Baroness Doreen Lawrence “speaks about it enough”.
Shows like Stephen and Small Axe are both period dramas, but the issues they raise are still timely, says Whyte, particularly in the context of Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd. She hopes that down the line, there’ll be an appetite not only for stories about injustices towards the Black community, but "lighter" stories about normal, everyday problems.
“I think there's an appetite for stories that reflect parts of the Black community, but at the same time, it's not always sad stories that need to be told of the Black community. It doesn't have to be some sort of struggle porn or misery porn," she says. "Hopefully there'll be a time where stories will get lighter.”
Stephen will start on Monday 30th August at 9pm on ITV. The series consists of three episodes and is a sequel to ITV's The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.
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