When children kill a child. The Bulger case and an Oscar-nominated film

Jon Venables holding name card in police mug-shot, showing height 4'6

Jon Venables was 10 when he and Robert Thompson killed 2 year-old James Bulger (Merseyside Police)

The Bulger case is in the news again.

This time it is because of a short drama film called Detainment, written and directed by Vincent Lambe.

Using child actors, Detainment recreates police interviews with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the 10 year-old boys who were convicted of the murder in 1993 of 2 year-old James Bulger after abducting him from a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside.

Billed as a true story based upon interview transcripts and records, the film also reconstructs the boys’ 2 mile journey from the shopping centre to the railway line where James’s body was found.

In 1993 I was the Home Secretary’s professional adviser responsible for children who committed ‘grave crimes’. I had regular contact with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. I oversaw the first five years of their detention and rehabilitation. I’ve watched the film.

In sentencing Thompson and Venables to be detained During Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the judge, Mr Justice Morland said this was an “….act of unparalleled evil…”

. . .an act of unparalleled evil. . .

He was right. No one can nor should say otherwise. There can be no one, anywhere, who does not share the grief and sadness of James’s family for their loss.

The case has always prompted controversy and debate. Since Detainment’s Oscar nomination more than 200,000 people have signed a petition to have it withdrawn and stop the film being shown.

I make no comment about Detainment’s merit as a potentially award-winning film. But it is an accurate and unbiased portrayal of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables and what happened, from the evidence of transcripts, audio recordings and witnesses.

There is an uncanny sense of deja vu for me, as there may be for those who knew Robert and Jon or who heard that evidence and saw them every day during the 3 weeks of their trial at Preston Crown Court. And in my case, for several years after that.

Detainment is a hard film to watch, relating, as it does, to the appalling death of such a young child.

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Detainment – Trailer + 3 Scenes from Vincent Lambe on Vimeo.

We are all outraged that children (or anyone else for that matter) could have behaved in this way. We were all children once, and we’ve all known, perhaps taught or parented a 10 year-old child. The film tests our personal beliefs in the ability of children to be fully responsible for their actions.

The film-maker Vincent Lambe is right to seek answers as to how and why did this “unparalleled act” happen. The Channel 5 film “James Bulger: The New Revelations” did likewise and for similar reasons in November 2018.

The government, of course, should ask and answer questions, namely how did this happen and why? And could it have been prevented? To learn lessons that might prevent anything like it ever happening again. But the government failed to do this.

Vincent Lambe is to be commended for tackling this. So too, his cast. Especially the two leading young actors, Ely Solan and Leon Hughes.

Vincent Lambe recreates police photographs of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. (Actors shown).

The film achieves what I didn’t think would ever be possible, namely the accurate portrayal of two 10 year-old boys, their childishness and vulnerability, set against the violence and horror of what they did.

Lambe was wrong not to have consulted with James’s family beforehand, and he has apologised for that. This should not detract from the significance of the film and does not justify people resorting to hatred, vilification and threats of violence.

I agree with the writer David James Smith (@davidjamessmit5) in his Twitter thread on 9 January 2019:

“Troubling to see @vincentlambe1 being threatened and abused over his Bulger Case short film # Detainment. A difficult subject and uncomfortable to view but it’s an accurate film with an honest purpose made by a director, cast and crew with obvious care and considerable talent.”

David James Smith’s book, The Sleep of Reason, is the most coherent and rigorously researched account of the Bulger case. David has seen the whole film and like me takes the view that we cannot and should not avoid examining and understanding the reasons why people of all ages commit serious crimes.

He also makes the point:

“Not everyone damaged by early life experiences goes on to commit serious crimes, but troubled backgrounds are beyond the control of children and common to a high proportion of serious offenders, just as they may also lead to a variety of other difficulties, sooner or later.”

Troubled backgrounds are beyond the control of children and common to a high proportion of serious offenders.

These matters relate just the same to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. A great deal has been written about them during the last 26 years. Much, if not most, has been misinformed, inaccurate and either vitriolic or thoughtless.

Much of what is known to have happened came from information provided by the boys during the police interviews. This was limited and unhelpful to a deeper understanding of the case.

Detainment enables questions to be asked about the manner in which those interviews were conducted:

Was the austere environment of police custody the most suitable venue for obtaining sensitive information from young children?

Were police officers alone the most suitable professionals for interviewing young children?

Detainment’s reconstruction of a police interview with Robert Thompson, played by Leon Hughes. Was police custody the most suitable venue for obtaining sensitive information from young children? (Image: Vincent Lambe)

And was the criminal code the most appropriate legal governance or would the legislative framework for children have been better?

The film triggers other politically sensitive youth justice policy debates, which successive governments have striven to avoid, both before and since 1993, namely:

• The age of criminal responsibility, which at 10 years is currently one of the youngest in the world. Robert and Jon were 10½ , just over the age of criminal responsibility.

  • • The suitability of adult Crown Courts for cases involving children. Robert and Jon were present but uninvolved in their trial. But for special pedestals they would not have been able to see or be seen above the walls of the adult dock.
  • • The concept of detaining children “During Her Majesty’s Pleasure” which originates from children’s legislation (1908 and 1933) and does not take into account that there is now a government department for children (Department for Education) which is separate from the Home Office/Ministry of Justice.

    • The presumption of anonymity of child offenders. This was rigorously protected under Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933. Nevertheless, the trial judge in the Bulger case ruled that the names of the two 10 year-olds could be reported. One of the worst judicial decisions in history, this caused immeasurable difficulties for their rehabilitation.

    • The absence of government regulations or rules for the governance of “new identities” and falsification of antecedent records required for obtaining passports, driving licences and certain forms of employment.

    • The suitability of secure children’s homes for children in custody rather than HM Prison Service institutions.

The film stays close to interview transcripts and audio evidence. That Robert Thompson and Jon Venables are portrayed as such young children is neither bias nor distortion, but simply accurate.

Young children is exactly what they were.

That it has fallen to film-makers rather than government to illuminate such dark subjects is no reason to criticise them, let alone vilify them for trying.

You can see the Detainment trailer and three scenes here.

Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.