Nail Bomber: Manhunt – new Netflix true crime documentary looks at the 1999 London nail bombings
Thirteen days is the length of time far-right terrorist David Copeland held London to ransom using a series of bombs in the spring of 1999. Placing the first device inside a blue sports bag, the 22-year-old detonated the homemade nail bomb on the afternoon of Saturday, April 17, leaving it outside an Iceland supermarket on the corner of Brixton Market.
Injuring 48 people but miraculously killing no one, for many, the resounding memory of the incident came in the form of an X-ray, showing a four-inch nail embedded in the skull of a one-year-old child. It was an attack that struck at the heart of south London’s black community, the first of three bombings targeting the city’s Black, Asian and gay communities.
Now, two decades on, the bombings are once again the focus of public attention as part of new Netflix Original Documentary, Nail Bomber: Manhunt. “I had very vivid memories of it,” recalls the film’s Bafta winning creator, Colin Barr. A project spawned out of conversations recounting the incident, Barr says he was “amazed” that 20 years had passed since the bombings took place.
“It wasn’t long after the Jo Cox murder that we’d been discussing it, and so as we looked deeper and deeper into the story, it just revealed all this material that felt even more prescient now,” says Barr. “The same factors that were at play then are still at play now. That gave it a very, very clear purpose in lots of ways. And because this was the first of those far-right terror attacks in the UK, it felt like an important story to go back and look at again, and look at the factors that came into play that would radicalise someone like Copeland.”
Directed by Miraculous Tales and Inside The KKK’s Daniel Vernon, the documentary also features the hallmarks of Accused: Guilty or Innocent? producer Robin Ockleford. The project depicts how years of racial profiling led to a lack of co-operation between the Brixton community and the police following the bombing, a factor that left investigators struggling for leads. The resounding sense of distrust was reflected across all three communities, bolstered by the unwillingness of the police to put up wanted posters following the second Brick Lane attack for fear of suspect mis-identification.
“That’s what was really interesting,” says Barr, “that each of those communities in their own way, felt the same thing – underprotected, over-policed. “And it wasn’t just a race thing, it also became a sexuality thing.
“Those communities, whilst they were strong within themselves, still felt really vulnerable because the truth is, the police didn’t really understand. The police know far more now and they’ve made far greater efforts to try and understand those communities – albeit there are still some big problems – but then it felt like there was just a basic lack of understanding or sensitivity. And so the communities felt exposed.”
Best known for his work on factual dramas, including recent BBC Two film Danny Boy and Damilola, Our Lost Boy, Barr is no stranger to tackling historically significant subject matter. The executive producer and showrunner, however, is quick to note the wider purpose of such a project. “You now have a generation growing up — a Netflix generation — who didn’t even know it happened, who knew nothing about it.”
Recalling the way his teenage son got “really angry” watching the doc for the first time, Barr notes the film has a cross-generational draw. “There’s going to be a young audience that engages with this in a different way to somebody of my generation, which I think is a really good thing,” says Barr. “And even the older audience tend to remember Soho, but don’t tend to remember Brixton or Brick Lane. So it felt like it was one of those really significant moments that warranted reinvestigation.”
A linear recollection of the 1999 bombings, Nail Bomber: Manhunt combines first-hand accounts with re-enacted footage based on the original police transcripts. Featuring interviews with witnesses, survivors and investigating officers, it also features never-before divulged information from ‘Arthur’ — the far-right informant whose intelligence ultimately led to Copeland’s arrest following the fatal third Soho bombing. Following years of leaking information, the identity of ‘Arthur’ remains a secret to this day, even though he withdrew from Neo-Nazi circles many years ago.
Despite the pain and loss inflicted by Copeland’s actions, Barr notes the positives that came out of such a horrific set of circumstances. “In the end, Copeland didn’t achieve what he wanted to achieve – he didn’t start a race war; he didn’t tear apart those communities,” says Barr. “In actual fact, he had the opposite effect. People were injured and people were killed – it was horrific, but it had the effect of galvanising people. And I think that’s the biggest message in the film.”
Barr says it was a poignant quote from Mike Franklin, a member of the Brixton community who was at the scene on the day of the first bombing, that really brought home the power of the collective human experience.
“’There are too many good people in the world for hate to win’,” paraphrases Barr. “Imagine being filled with hate; all those things that you can’t enjoy. In the end, if there’s a message, it’s that hate won’t win. It just won’t win, because there are too many good people to let it.”
Nail Bomber: Manhunt is available to stream on Netflix from May 26.
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