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Secrets from the Set: Steve Coogan, Hugh Quarshie and Sharlene Whyte on ITV’s Stephen – ‘I don’t often play nice people, so it was a nice change!’
As a three-part drama revisits Stephen Lawrence's parents’ quest for justice, the lead actors reveal how they prepared for their roles and what they hope the series will achieve.
ITV drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence may be more than 20 years old, but the film’s portrayal of the brutal injustice faced by the Lawrence family is still shocking.
At the end of the two-hour dramatisation, we saw the five murder suspects walk free following Stephen’s death. A new series – simply called Stephen – focuses on the Lawrences’ friendship with lead detective Clive Driscoll as they sought to achieve justice.
Steve Coogan, who plays Driscoll, Sharlene Whyte, who plays Doreen Lawrence, and Hugh Quarshie, who reprises his role from the 1999 film as Neville Lawrence, spoke to BT.com and other press about making the series.
‘This is less of a reconstruction and more of a dramatic interpretation’
Hugh Quarshie played Neville Lawrence in the 1999 Paul Greengrass film, but said when he reprised the role he took a different approach.
He explained: “I spoke to him [Neville] the first time around. I was very aware of the fact that I don’t sound anything like him, I don’t look anything like him, so it was important to grab his essence or some aspect of it. The first time around he even etched his hairstyle into my hairline.
“This time around, I felt I had his impersonation in the bank. But I had a feeling it was going to be intrusive to ask a man whose son had been murdered, ‘How did you feel about the second investigation?’
“It was very clear that this was less of a reconstruction and more of a dramatic interpretation of events. It was less about trying to imitate or impersonate – less about Neville and more about trying to interpret the script.
“None of us really look like the people we’re impersonating. The first time around I went to some lengths to sound like Neville and to pick up his mannerisms and his speech and behaviour.
“[This time] it was more about being faithful to the script. The script, after all, was very faithful to the story. I feel like this was more of a conventional drama whereas the original was more of a reconstruction.”
‘Playing a real person is easier’
Steve Coogan revealed that he spoke to DCI Clive Driscoll in preparation for his role – and said it was refreshing to play someone with such integrity.
“It was an honour to play Clive, really, because as an actor I don’t often play nice people so it was a nice change for me to play someone who had integrity!” he laughed.
“I spoke to him on Zoom. We had a long conversation. I watched all of the material that was available to get a sense of who he was.
“In some ways, playing a real person is easier than playing someone you have to invent because a real person has lived a real life for you and they’ve done all the research – all you have to do is honour who they are in the way you play them.”
DCI Driscoll ‘did the right thing in the face of hatred’
Coogan added that it was rare to celebrate an officer who’d done a remarkable job by simply sticking to the rules and doing what was right.
“He was a very attractive person to play. He has a sense of humour. He doesn’t go round with a sort of shield and sword of truth – he just quietly does his job. Ironically it was nice to celebrate someone who wouldn’t celebrate themselves, in this story.
“I said: ‘You’re a working-class copper – how come you didn’t end up becoming one of those coppers that took backhanders?’
“And he said: 'Well my mother was a single parent and she was honest, decent. I thought I’d be letting her down if I did anything other than be honest’.
“There are so many cliches about a cop who does a good job by breaking the rules, and this was a policeman who did a good job by sticking to the rules and laboriously going through them point by point in a very quiet, disciplined, dogged way. Which is a story we don’t often hear and it’s important.
“In light of all the awful things that happened, it’s important to remind people in any drama that there are decent people in the world. The world isn’t full of cynics. There are decent people trying to do the right thing in the face of hatred and cynicism.
“It’s important we don’t lose track of what the story’s about, which is an imperfect justice that was arrived at for Neville and Doreen, and it’s their story.
"Clive Driscoll decided to help two people he didn’t know just on the basis that it was the right thing to do.”
Has much changed since 1993?
Sharlene Whyte, who plays Doreen Lawrence, and Hugh said being a part of the series highlighted the challenges that black parents and children still face today.
“I’ve got an 18-year-old black teenager who’s outside and having all the dealings with police so it’s quite tricky out there at the minute,” Sharlene said.
“The idea that [Stephen] wouldn’t come back home after going to see his friends just terrifies me. It’s just made me realise that I’m not sure sadly how much things have moved on today.
“I remember this happening when I was a bit younger than Stephen. So it was all part of the community. I grew up in Nottingham so news travelled all around the country. Did it change me? It just highlighted that I’m so precious about my son at this age.”
Hugh agreed: “It’s a question that I’m sure all fathers, and particularly fathers of colour, have to decide: what do you teach your son in particular? Do you tell him constantly to be on guard? Do you tell them that the world is a dangerous place?
“I feel to some extent Neville is asking himself, what could he have done better? What should he have done differently? What could he have said to Stephen?”
Why this story matters
Hugh revealed that he has often come close to quitting his acting career, but it’s these roles like this that have kept him in the industry.
“It reminded me why this job is worth doing. I’ve come close to giving up at least three times in the course of my career. Some of the work I’ve done has paid the bills and the mortgage and so on, but it hasn’t always been terribly important or significant.
“This one mattered, as did the first one. It felt right to do, it felt important to do. The hope is in the multi-channel universe that this will get the audience that it needs, that it deserves.”
Stephen begins at 9pm on Monday, August 30, on ITV. After the first episode has aired, all three parts will be available to watch on BritBox.
The Murder of Stephen Lawrence is available to watch on BritBox.