You’ve seen the righteous, passionate, devastating drama. Now see the righteous, passionate, devastating documentary. Hillsborough (BBC Two), a two-hour account directed and produced by Dan Gordon, whose CV is dominated by films about sport, is a film about truth. A co-production made two years ago by ESPN and the BBC, and shown in America but not here due to the ongoing inquest, it was rapidly updated after the verdict, premiered here on Sunday and remains on iPlayer until the start of June. It still beggars belief that 27 years had to pass between the Hillsborough disaster and exoneration and redemption for the 96 victims, their families and friends, and every other Liverpool fan at that away match on 15 April, 1989. That’s a third of a lifetime, if you’re lucky. And they weren’t lucky. They were unlucky: to be at that FA Cup semifinal, to be Liverpool fans, to be football fans, to be in the away stands, and not be in any way responsible for their own fates.
I don’t need to go again into the events that happened on that fateful Saturday, and in some ways I didn’t need to see it all again. But the documentary contained footage from the crush that I’d never seen before, as well as CCTV from the unstewarded chaos outside of the turnstiles at Leppings Lane that was still almost too horrific to watch, knowing what was happening in the stands, and what fate befell some of the fans were looking at in their last hour of life. It was worse than any horror film I’ve seen just lately, and I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk.
Jimmy McGovern’s drama was made in the teeth of frustration, when the families were, it transpired, still two decades away from clearing Liverpool’s name. This drama was made in 2014 and completed after the eventual “YES” from the jury at the fresh inquest in Warrington. This “YES” is the answer to the question to the jury: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?” This exchange was dramatically restaged in Gordon’s careful and sober account. He left a pause between that question – spelled out simply in a white caption against ghostly footage of an empty inquest room – and the affirmative answer. The pause hung in the air like the one before a result on Masterchef, but the two preceding hours had earned him a moment of heightened melodrama.
I was concerned to begin with. In what is now standard documentary grammar, Hillsborough opened with a dramatic reconstruction, not of the inhuman crush itself (thank God), but a seemingly unrelated vignette involving a young police officer being attacked in a dark alley by two men in balaclavas. I immediately recoiled. What was this? Why would a documentary about such a grimly compelling true story need this Crimewatch-style pre-credits “cold open” to grab our attention? I wanted the truth, and I wanted the truth told clearly and without melodrama.
I needn’t have worried. The dramatic reconstruction was sparing from thereon – close-ups of actors playing Duckenfield and Popper and Stuart-Smith to fill in some of the blanks – and this incident, which happened “eight years earlier” (another drama trick), really did light the fire, as the assault on the young PC was a cruel prank by fellow officers, the blowback from which, after an investigation and sackings, meant that Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, an officer with experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who understood football and football supporters, was transferred, 19 days before the fateful match, and replaced by David Duckenfield, an officer with no experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who neither understood football nor football supporters. We heard that he called Nottingham Forest “Nottinghamshire” at his first press conference. Portent.
The inquest pointed the finger at management, not individual officers on the ground, a handful of whom provided moving testimony against this film’s sober black background. They went to work on a Saturday and they stared death in the face. One of them, PC Martin McLouglin, courageously told of his own nervous breakdown in the weeks after the disaster, finding himself on patrol near Sheffield in a squad car and both crying and wetting himself at a level crossing. It was not just the families and the survivors of the crush who were damaged. And it was the management, the ironically-named authorities, who shamefully doctored the statements of officers on the ground who dared to question the way the disaster was handled (having been told not to write anything in their pocketbooks, something dramatised by McGovern). Stalin would have been proud of South Yorkshire Police.
Carefully interwoven with contemporary establishing footage of fans visiting the ground, and lingering shots inside Leppings Lane from the time when it was a crime scene, Hillsborough built a slow, steady picture of what happened, with on-the-spot testimony from survivors, family members, police officers and reliable journalists: Les Jones, Stephanie Jones and Doreen Jones (who lost Richard Jones and girlfriend Tracey Cox); Margaret Aspinall (who lost son Mark); Brian Anderson (who lost his father, John); Tony Searle; Tony Evans; Dan Davies; PC Martin McLoughlin; Special Constable John Taylor; DC Stephen Titterton; the Sheffield Star‘s Bob Westerdale; professor Phil Scraton, who wrote the book and sat in the Independent Panel. Their faces were etched with every one of the years that had passed without closure since 1989. Because two years have passed since the testimony was shot, those who returned to “top up” the story, post-justice, looked older still at the end, certainly more than two years older. It was powerful, vital television indeed to stare into their lined faces, even when they were silent, perhaps even more so. Lines of tears on cheeks felt as permanent as glistening tattoos and knew no gender.
I sat with my hands across my mouth throughout, ashamed of the injustice, and reminded again why Kelvin Mackenzie’s pathetic apology, based on the lie that he was only printing what the agencies were telling him, guv, is worth nothing. What you forget is how long the blackening of the fans’ good character went on, with lies being slapped on top of lies in the Sun and other papers. “The Truth”? Has ever a headline been so blackly ironic? Hillsborough told the story of the immediate aftermath and Chinese-whispering campaign against the fans very well, intercutting the boorish parroting of police spokespeople to show this farce for what it was. Left unchallenged by a media hell-bent on the most lurid revelation, the lie solidified into fact. As one bereaved survivor had it: ask yourself why a fan at a football ground would urinate on anyone, in any circumstance, amid all that chaos, panic and hurt? (No-one did.) While police officers were ordered (and they were only following orders) to form a barrier across the pitch to stop Forest fans from fighting Liverpool fans, it was ordinary supporters who helped police a desperate situation, stretchering the injured without stretchers and administering help without training.
I can’t be the only person whose thoughts turned to other atrocities from history in which hundreds of people were callously herded into pens to their death. I am satisfied, so that I am sure, that this is a story that can only now be told. And Dan Gordon has told it with honour, respect and dignity, and without flinching from things nobody should ever have to see.