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‘It's important that tragic Damilola Taylor story told'

The killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor 16 years ago begged endless questions about knife crime, safety and justice. But a new BBC one-off drama aims to focus squarely on the heart of the details - the people who loved and lost their boy. Susan Griffin finds out more

It's almost 16 years since the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, who was stabbed on the North Peckham estate in south London, where he lived with his parents and two older siblings.

It was a crime that shocked the nation. And now, a feature-length drama, told primarily from the point of view of Damilola's father, Richard, reveals the personal story behind the headlines, following his journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to London, and the family's quest for justice.

It was the now instantly recognisable picture of Damilola smiling at the camera, looking like he might burst with laughter at any point, which was etched onto executive producer Colin Barr's mind.

"I had such a vivid memory and an image of him, and I felt like lots of other people would have that as well. It felt like it really stood for something," he says.

"Quite often with these stories, we're all guilty of having lazy assumptions about what a story is, from what we read in the newspapers or what we see on television, and I thought it would be interesting to see behind all of that."

Barr, whose credits also include Our World War, My Murder, Glasgow Girls and Maxwell, went to visit Damilola's dad, Richard (his mother, Gloria, passed away in 2008). "We talked about the experience from his point of view and the family's point of view, and I came away inspired - feeling like it was a story that really hadn't been told, and a story that was universal," he recalls. "It had themes in it that everybody could relate to, and it was extraordinarily powerful."

Writer Levi David Addai admits his initial reaction to the project was "hesitance".

"I had done My Murder already [about the 2008 killing of Shakilus Townsend] and that took a toll," he says. He was also concerned about the "mainstream depiction of another young, dead black boy".

"But then I started prodding at the idea, as I usually do if I don't like something. I started asking, 'Why do you want to do this? Who is this for? What about the family? Who's the family?'

"I had a vague memory there were other siblings," he adds, "so I looked into that. He had an older brother in Tunde, played excellently by Juwon [Adedokun], and I was like, 'Wow, what did he go through?' I was interested in exploring that, and what it took for the family to have that strength to stand up there in front of the world and be dignified."

Richard Taylor, who was awarded an OBE in 2011 for campaigning against violence, saw the opportunity to depict their story on screen as a positive one.

"First of all, we talked about the situation still prevailing in this society and the community in which Dami was stabbed to death, and in general what's happening with so many deaths of young people," he says. "I was of the opinion that this story should continue to be told, so as to enable us to get a positive message into the community, so that young people will learn lessons."

He applauds actor Babou Ceesay who was chosen to depict him. "Babou has displayed a great experience in playing my role, he showed some form of my personality and being angry about the death of my son, he is very good."

Although the family has moved on, he says "the pain can never go away".

"The question of forgiveness is still something I am searching my heart for. because it's such a tragedy. What it has done to my life has been so painful."

Cessay, who recently appeared in Channel 4's National Treasure, didn't meet Richard before the shoot, at director Euros Lyn's suggestion.

"I've got to be honest and say I resisted it at first and said, 'That's impossible, I have to', and Euros said, 'Actually, in reality, what we're doing will never amount to what Richard actually went through. At the end of the day, it's a story written by Levi based on something that happened, but we have to treat it with the respect of a drama and we have to approach it from that angle'. And when he said that to me, it just clicked," adds Cessay.

He admits it did ease the pressure, and allowed him "a little more freedom to trust my own instincts".

"As a fellow West African, coming from a family that is very similar and having a little brother and being a father myself, I thought I would see where that would take me," he says, noting that "it was overwhelming and wonderful" when he did finally meet Richard.

An open casting call was organised to find a boy who could play Damilola.

"We were very keen to pursue a connection with the local community as much as possible, so it was important to us that we looked in the community of south London, and for a child with a West African background," notes producer Susan Horth. "But most importantly, to find someone who could convey the effervescent joy that Damilola brought to everybody's lives, and that great personality and charisma he had."

The team visited local schools and found Sammy Kamara. "This is Sammy's first [time on] TV, and I am constantly amazed how talented he is," says Horth.

Barr insists that no one went into the project with the aim of making a film that was "overtly political, or even overtly critical or overly judgemental". Instead, they wanted the family to be at the forefront of the story.

  • Damilola, Our Loved Boy airs on BBC One on Monday, 8.30pm

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