WHAT was it really like? Channel 4’s excellent Damilola: The boy next door (Wednesday of last week) was as much an exploration of how memory works, and what we should hold as truth, as a return after 20 years to the murder of a ten-year-old boy, just four months after he moved from Nigeria to Peckham.
The presenter Yinka Bokinni’s story could not be more personal: Damilola was a close family friend, had had a childhood crush on her, and her sister was the last person to see him alive. She finally wanted to put the record straight, to counteract the prejudices and negative reporting about the North Peckham Estate.
She insisted that it had been a happy community to live in, a place where a child could feel safe. Having buried her connection — even denying having known Damilola — for years, now was the time to face her reality, and to go in search of her friends and neighbours.
They had a surprisingly similar story to tell: of spending years until now refusing to talk about the way in which the murder had affected them. The making of the programme, therefore, was cathartic, reuniting old friends. Much of the reuniting was physical, as the huge estate was largely demolished and regenerated, and the community was dispersed immediately after the murder (although not, as the programme implied, as a consequence of it).
But Ms Bokinni began to discover another truth. Her sister reminded her how she had witnessed an earlier murder, and that this really had been a place of squalor, violence, and fear. She consulted contemporary press cuttings, which reported nothing but boarded-up up shops, gang culture, and endemic crime — all the worse because the huge estate had been conceived with the noblest intentions: replacing slums with a bright, community-centred environment, and encouraging neighbourly contact and support.
So, was it the popular media’s hellhole, or the supportive embrace for a happy childhood? Which story is true? Perhaps — a painful conclusion for all who demand a clear right or wrong — they both are.
Might the best place to find political truth about Britain today be in that secular alternative to choral matins, The Andrew Marr Show (BBC1, Sundays)? Surely it offers decent chunks of analysis and sharp interrogation of the key players, far greater depth than the desiccated snippets permitted in news bulletins. Would Michael Gove, writhing under Marr’s forensic spotlight, reveal more than intended about the new lockdown? Not really. It was certainly not worth missing church for, especially seeing how much the rest of the day’s bulletins are merely replays of Marr’s best bits.
Would Autumnwatch 2020 (BBC2, Tuesday to Friday of last week) offer real truth, the natural world? I found it deeply irritating. Woods do not turn gloriously golden for our benefit: they are experiencing cyclic death. Over-enthusiastic presenters, gushing anthropomorphic sentimentality, constant reiteration that nature assures our mental well-being — it all made me long for the concrete walkways of Peckham.