“A VICAR cried, ‘It’s all your fault.’” Uprising, BBC1’s searing three-part documentary (Tuesday to Thursday of last week), was centred on the 1981 New Cross Fire, which killed 13 black teenagers, exploring its background of racial tensions and the resulting explosions of anger and violence.
The director, Steve McQueen, told the story by layers of testimony from some of the main people involved: not just relatives of the victims and survivors, but community activists and police officers. Forty years on, they recalled the events that changed their lives.
The flashpoint issue was: who started the fire? A witness saw someone outside the house with arm raised, apparently throwing something into the building; so this was murder. The police forensics officer who investigated insisted that the police took this account very seriously, and meticulously sought corroborating evidence, but found no shard of glass, no indication whatsoever of a missile thrown from outside. On the contrary, the fire started inside the room.
Surely, this is decisive, and should have been accepted: it was an appalling tragedy in a party that got out of hand. But understanding the context helped to justify why the Afro-Caribbean community insisted that there had been an external cause: that, as their action committee titled itself, this was a deliberate massacre.
We heard account after account of police racist brutality, and of tacit support for the National Front’s campaigns of hate. Why did the media show so little interest, preferring to focus instead on the forthcoming marriage of Charles and Diana? All fuelled an increasingly bitter sense that the victims’ voice would never be heard. Frustration boiled over into a summer of nationwide destructive riots: a war against the police, the perceived enemy of non-white communities, Asian as well as black.
It was at the height of the Brixton riots that the priest ran up and down the police lines shouting that they were to blame, and that their actions and attitudes had brought about the confrontation. Black voices thought that Scarman’s subsequent inquiry was the first time that they were officially listened to. But the evidence suggests that many of his recommendations still remain unadopted, and that suspicion and distrust still fester.
The lighting of another flame to symbolise the contrary virtues of racial equality and harmony lay at the heart of Olympics 2020: Opening ceremony highlights (BBC1, Friday). The flame sits atop a stylised model of the sacred Mount Fuji, its huge burning cauldron clasped in a sphere that broke open to disclose it — looking to me like a glorious image of Easter resurrection breaking through the tomb. I suspect that this was not the designer’s intention.
The constraints affecting the ceremony felt wearily familiar, as the tiny numbers allowed to be present did their best to whip up the adulation and excitement of the absent multitudes.