It’s easy to have a pop at BBC Three – ostensibly a channel aimed at teenagers – but look beyond the vacuous Don’t Tell The Brides and Snog, Marry, Avoids and you’ll find some really interesting documentaries and dramas. It doesn’t matter that they’re aimed at The Youth – their subject matter often makes them relevant to all ages. Some of the documentaries can be as hard-hitting as anything around, and this much-trumpeted drama quite obviously aims to educate as well as entertain at the same time. Of course, when I say entertain I mean put through the mill and spat back out again feeling thankful for your life, thankful for your family and thankful everything ok and mundane and normal around you.
The first thing to make clear is that this is not your normal crime drama. There are no cops, no procedural journeys to follow and no neat, tidy and happy ever after endings. Murdered By My Boyfriend chronicles a three-year relationship between two young people who have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations many other young people have. So far, so normal. But the relationship soon descends into a fragile, suspicious one, and then, tragically, into a violent one. It’s these effects of violent crime this drama deals with and depicts unflinchingly, and the types of violent crime that (unbelievably) is still not only perpetrated but also not reported on an all too frequent basis.
And it’s based on a true story. Not in a Fargo, jokey way. This is real. A real young woman was murdered because her partner was a violent, paranoid and dangerous individual. That much we know straight off the bat thanks to a first scene that shows this young woman (Ashley) flitting on the edges of consciousness as she’s about to slip away. Ashley is about to tell he story, powerfully and posthumously.
The writer, Regina Moriarty, and the director, Paul Andrew Williams, chose to tell her story chronologically in a 24, Day One style. It was a brave decision to open the drama with the main character telling us about her demise right at the start. It meant we knew the ending, and any drama that takes this route has to make sure it can keep our attention as the narrative unfolds. But by employing the specific, chronological run-down of events it not only locked us into a solid structure that provided its own momentum, it created suspense – even though we knew what was going to happen we didn’t know HOW it was going to happen.
And so we followed Ashley in a sweet first 15 minutes, where she met Reece at a house party, flirted a little, went out on dates and got swept away on the magic carpet of excitement a new relationship can bring. It was happy, innocent and like any other new, blossoming coupling.
Except Reece revealed himself to be different. A few weeks down the line he jokingly started to ask who was texting Ashley, not taking no for an answer until she told him who it was. He was reluctant for her to move in with him, even though she revealed she was going to have his baby. He started to shout at her. He started to turn. Suddenly the relationship was beyond any honeymoon period and had entered a dangerous phase.
Then the violence started. He was becoming more and more paranoid, checking up on her Facebook page while she was out with her friends, texting her to see where she was and becoming more and more suspicious. He hit her, but she forgave him.
murdered-by-boyfriendBut the verbal and physical abuse continued and Ashley was beginning to live in a frightened shell and exhibit what I’ve read are the tell-tale signs of being in an abusive relationship – blaming herself for everything that was going on; being sucked of all self-esteem; internalising everything. I can imagine that at this point, many viewers were shouting at the screen: “WHY DON’T YOU JUST LEAVE HIM?!” As this drama showed, it’s never as easy as that. The perpetrator of domestic violence seems to always finds a way to tighten the screw, to turn the situation back onto their victim. But as this drama showed, victims of domestic violence are tougher than many people think. Paralysed by fear, yes, but able to go inside themselves and create an alternate reality where things aren’t as scary, and accessing that inner sanctum that no one can touch. There was a moment that illustrated this brilliantly, where Reece was trying desperately to get back into his home after finally being kicked out. He was banging the windows and shouting “Ashley, I love you babe, I’ve changed!” through the letterbox. Inside, Ashley accessed her calm place and danced to a tune she only knew. It was heartbreaking, powerful stuff.
Another superb line, at the moment we were all shouting at the screen, was this: “I couldn’t leave him, not because of a single moment. I went back because of everything good that came before this day, and in the hope that the years to come would be the same.” That single line answered a lot of questions, and gave people who aren’t familiar with domestic violence or the effects of violence of domestic violence an idea of how one thinks when under this kind of stress and threat.
The endgame of Ashley’s life was very difficult to watch. I knew it was coming and up to that moment, when Reece flipped for the last time, aside from a few full-on instances the onscreen violence had been kept to a minimum – its impact intensified thanks to clever editing. So when a ripped pillow started to fill the bedroom with fluttering feathers snow globe-style as Reece did his very worst – even when we saw him pick up an ironing board to use as a weapon – there just something very poignant about the whole scene.
Murdered By Your Boyfriend was as intense a drama as you’re likely to see. From an educational point of view it was hugely necessary viewing because if the facts and figures about violence against women show anything it’s that we all have to up our game. In terms of compassion and empathy, in terms of education and in terms of vigilance.
But let’s look at this from a hyper-objective point of view for a second. Purely as a drama Murdered By My Boyfriend also worked because of some award-standard acting from Georgina Campbell and Royce Pierreson, some innovative and clever direction from Paul Andrew Williams and some emotionally-wrought but lean writing by Regina Moriarty. There was never too much sentiment, no trivialising of anything and a dedicated focus in telling the story as evenly as possible. Even though Royce was a monster in many ways, he was still shown to be a loving father to his daughter. There was an acknowledgement that life is not black and white, and that perpetrators of domestic abuse are not pantomime nasties to be booed at from the sidelines. Whether we like it or not they’re real human beings – just hugely flawed human beings that exploit and manipulate the power dynamics in a relationship to horrifying and tragic levels.
I found myself emotionally involved and willing for a happier ending for Ashley and her daughter.
Tragically, it never came.