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James Bulger: A Mother’s Story review – the pain continues 25 years later

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/02/2018 Sam Wollaston
© Optomen TV

This is the second documentary this week about the case that destroyed one family, traumatised a nation and asked so many questions 25 years ago. There’s some crossover with the first on Channel 4, The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done? Some of the same contributors appear in both, and the same archive footage is used. Audio recordings, too: those tapes of the police interviews with Jon Venables and Robert Thompson that leave you numb with shock at how young they sound. Because they were so young, but their voices highlight it, and strip even more years from the mugshots and the blurry CCTV footage. And it’s the same sad story, of course.

The Channel 4 film delved further into questions that arose for and about the criminal justice system: the age of criminal responsibility here and in other countries; about when children fully understand the concepts of right and wrong and should take responsibility for their actions; whether it is even possible for justice to be done in a case like this. It also looked more at the role the press played, and how it became a political story as well as a human tragedy.

© PA

James Bulger: A Mother’s Story with Trevor McDonald (ITV) has a more personal angle, the most personal angle: an interview with James’s mother, Denise Fergus. “He always gets talked about every single day,” she tells Trevor McDonald, in the house where the memory of her little boy is everywhere. “I always say the day I stop speaking about James is the day I’m going to join him.”

Sir Trevor – emphatic and dignified – visited just before Christmas. James, who would be 27 now, gets a place at the Christmas table, as he always does.

The reliving of the day is unbearable: the trip to the shopping centre, without a buggy for the first time; letting his hand go for a moment at the butcher’s, and the panic – the panic that every parent knows but which, for the rest of us on the whole, is shortlived. Then the search, the grainy CCTV, the increasing desperation, the gruesome discovery on the railway track two-and-a-half miles away, a mother’s scream at the police station, and the questions, still. Questions about children and parents and society, and questions about who we are.

© Optomen TV

I find the journey – the long walk from the New Strand shopping centre in Bootle to the railway at Walton – most difficult to hear about again.

Two 10-year-olds leading, carrying, dragging a not-yet-three-year-old for miles across town, in order to kill him. And all the witnesses who saw them along the way. One encounter in particular, outside a flower shop, can’t fail to bring a tear: a woman confronted them and asked if James was all right; at one point, her own little girl held James’s hand. But Venables told her it was all right, they were taking him to the police station, and she failed to intervene to save his life.

© Optomen TV

That witness does not take part. One witness does speak to Sir Trevor, bravely – a woman who saw them, later realised what she’d seen, and has lived with the burden of guilt and regret ever since. The fact is, as one journalist says, no one in their wildest imaginations could ever have thought that two 10-year-olds were planning anything as terrible as they were.

Denise does not blame the witnesses; she only blames two people for what happened to her son. She doesn’t see that justice was done, in the sentences Thompson and Venables were given, nor in their release and the new identities and protection they received. She says the fact that Venables has reoffended (he was jailed for having indecent images of children for the second time, this week) is because he wasn’t punished properly for the murder of her son. This belief, even if you don’t think that’s the case, is totally understandable.

The questions have not all been answered. Maybe there are no answers. The soul-searching and the pain continues a quarter of a century on. Is there anything at all positive to come out of it, a glimmer to cling to? There is the charity Denise has set up in her son’s name to help children who have been bullied, and families who have been victims of crime. And the memories, plus pictures and videos, she has of James. Not a murder victim, but a little boy with a cheeky grin, bouncing up and down on a trampoline.

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