Vanessa Engle (Jews, Lefties, The Cult Next Door) can’t have been the obvious choice to make a BBC film marking the 30th anniversary of the funeral murders in Northern Ireland (9pm, 19 March); at a preview screening I attended, she admitted as much, in a speech in which she also thanked the veteran journalist John Ware, who acted as a consultant on her documentary. But sometimes an outsider can go places an insider can’t.
Five minutes in, and she was chiding a former IRA man for using the word “volunteer” to describe paramilitaries (“But that sounds like you’re working in a charity shop,” she said, as his face cracked open in surprise). Ten minutes in, and she was asking some other republican high-up where, exactly, he used to hide his bullets (“That can’t have been very comfortable,” she remarked dryly, when he admitted that his wife kept them in her sofa cushions). Wide-eyed but ever beady, she disarmed those she met at every turn. I would be surprised if a single one of them didn’t tell her some small thing they had never said to anyone else before.
The funeral murders. What an unfathomably bloody chain of events. On 6 March 1988, you will recall, three members of the IRA, Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann and Sean Savage, were shot dead on Gibraltar by the SAS. Their bodies were brought home to Belfast to be buried, but as the second of the coffins was lowered into the ground at Milltown Cemetery on 16 March, the mourners were attacked by the loyalist Michael Stone. The crowd pursued Stone as he ran towards the nearby motorway, shooting and hurling grenades, and three men were killed: two Catholic civilians, Thomas McErlean and John Murray, and a member of the IRA, Kevin Brady. Three days later, Brady’s funeral was held. As the cortege was making its way to the same cemetery, a car drove towards it. Inside this vehicle were two seemingly lost British army corporals, David Howes and Derek Wood. They were stripped and beaten by the crowd, after which they were driven to a piece of nearby wasteland, and executed.
Engle’s first job was to tell this story as even-handedly as possible, something she did with grace. She is brilliant at deploying old footage (horrifyingly detailed images exist of both attacks); her interviews with RUC officers and republican high-ups alike were outwardly gentle, but inwardly exacting. Her real interest, though, was in the compacted pain that still lies all about the Andersonstown Road. Thomas McErlean’s widow, Anna, still has the sweatshirt he was wearing on the day he died: it smells of him even now, she told Engle. Kevin Brady’s sister, Ann, had wanted only to bury her brother, yet the day of his funeral has since been associated less with her loss than with the worst excesses of republican violence (“We were called depraved, despicable”). There is no forgetting, even for those who were not involved. A Catholic woman, Nuala, whose mother had witnessed the killing of the two corporals, gave her new baby son the middle names Derek and David in memoriam, though even as she sweetly revealed this, she still felt the need to obscure her face for the camera.
A remarkable film, then: resonant, moving, highly particular, important. David Davis should be forced to watch it by order. Less remarkable in every way is Come Home (9pm, 27 March), Danny Brocklehurst’s dreary new drama, in which Christopher Eccleston plays Greg, a Belfast father of three whose wife, Marie (Paula Malcomson), has left him – unaccountably, he thinks – after 19 years. If we’re supposed to be touched by Greg’s exasperatingly clumsy brand of male loneliness, I think this series could be in major trouble. For one thing, old megaphone Eccleston, however talented, is not exactly what you would call an adorable lead; even when he starred in Doctor Who, likeability was hardly his thing. For another, the writing is so… grim. When Greg takes Brenna the local bun lady (she sells sandwiches) to bed, and fails singularly to put in an even halfway decent shift, all I could think was: two decades a husband, and he still doesn’t even know how to do that.
The Funeral Murders (BBC Two)
Come Home (BBC One)
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special