Sophie Lancaster was walking home through a skate park after midnight in August 2007 when she was brutally attacked by a gang of kids she didn’t know. Her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, who was with her, was beaten unconscious and left for dead but lived to tell the tale. 20-year-old Sophie, who had tried to defend the man she loved, never made it home.
The unprovoked murder shook the nation. It was covered exhaustively by the media, which focussed on the fact that the pair were goths. Chances are you remember seeing their photos on the news. Their long, coloured dreadlocks and facial piercings made them outsiders in Bacup, their small Lancashire town.
The killing was one of a string of unconnected and unprovoked crimes committed by groups of young men in the mid-to-late 2000s. The young men were often known to police but not their victims, and the right-wing press and Conservative party seized on their crimes to paint a picture of widespread social decay in Britain. The Sun launched its notorious “Broken Britain” campaign in January 2008 and David Cameron swiftly began recycling this idea that our society was somehow “broken”.
It’s been 10 years since Sophie’s death and BBC3 has created Murdered For Being Different, a factual drama about the young couple’s bond, the horrific crime and subsequent police investigation. The hour-long dramatisation, produced by the team behind the Bafta-winning real-life film, Murdered By My Boyfriend, stars Abigail Lawrie (The Casual Vacancy) as Sophie and Nico Mirallegro (My Mad Fat Diary, Hollyoaks) as Rob. Rob, now 31, and Sophie’s family worked closely with the filmmakers to accurately portray the couple’s love story and the events that led to her death, including a graphic reconstruction of the attack.
Murdered For Being Different will stick with you long after the end credits have rolled. There's a harrowing disconnect between the delicate moments leading up to that fateful night and the attack itself. The tape rewinds to two years before and shows the pair sharing their first kiss, reading Harry Potter together, and Rob painting wings on his girlfriend’s back, telling her: “You’re an angel. You need wings.” The displays of tenderness between the couple make the scenes of Sophie being kicked and stamped to death even more difficult to watch.
Why did the filmmakers decide to dramatise the events in the first place? “True stories are always extremely interesting to me,” Paul Andrew Williams, the show’s director (who also directed Murdered By My Boyfriend), told Refinery29. “To explore what makes people do what they do, why they fall in love and ultimately why they make decisions that will affect them and others forever. Sophie and Rob's story is tragic and hopeful on so many levels. I was lucky to be entrusted with telling it.” He believes the pair were attacked because "they were the unknown," atypical, and therefore considered threatening.
Rob, who spent years recovering after the incident, recently criticised the media’s portrayal of it as a hate crime against goths, implying that it was effectively victim blaming. “I have never seen it as a hate crime,” he told The Guardian. “It was always like: ‘Sophie Lancaster was killed because she was a goth.’ No she wasn’t: she was killed because some arseholes killed her. Why can’t we ask what it is about them that made them want to murder someone? Not what it is about someone that made them be murdered.” Murdered For Being Different explores the alienation that may lead a teenager to commit murder.
The media's focus on the "goth" angle may have been excessive but hate crime against subcultures, and gang crime more generally, was and remains very real. Following her daughter's death, Sophie’s mum Sylvia created The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, a charity that campaigns for greater respect for and understanding of subcultures. In 2013, after much work on Lancaster's part, Greater Manchester Police became the first UK police force to extend the definition of a “hate crime” from racist and homophobic assaults, to subcultures, including goths and emos. Last year's EU referendum and the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London have led to a spike in hate crimes in the UK in recent months. Murdered For Being Different is sadly as pertinent in 2017 as it would have been a decade ago.
Watch 'Murdered for Being Different' on BBC3’s iPlayer channel from Sunday 18th June.