“Murdered For Being Different” – Sophie Lancaster Murder (docu-drama)

Just some background for those who don’t know – Sophie Lancaster was a 20-year-old goth woman killed in a viscous attack in Lancashire, England in August 2007 which also left her boyfriend Robert Maltby in a coma and with significant brain damage. Sophie died defending him after he had been rendered unconscious.

(“Murdered for being different” – cast pic)

I remember reading and hearing of the Sophie Lancaster case at the time of her murder and the resulting trial. I have one goth friend in particular who was very shocked and touched by it (as pretty much anyone with any familiarity with the case and an ounce of empathy would be). I have watched this BAFTA winning drama (first shown in 2017) and other docs relating to the case. It was recently rebroadcast -and so it seems a good time to review it and (by extension) the case.

(Sophie Lancaster)

The drama starts “in at the deep end” as it were. We have a little preview of friendly banter between Sophie and her boyfriend and her eventual attackers and associates which switches sharply to sounds of brutal murder.

We then jump two years before to their meeting at a Goth Club where they swap numbers and make a connection talking philosophically about (as Douglas Adams put it) “Life, the Universe and Everything” and share a kiss. We have little vignettes of the attack, the ambulance arriving, the parents arriving at the hospital and exclaiming a horrified “Is that a footprint?”, observing the patterned injury on his face.

It proceeds through the investigation and the reluctant, disinterested or just plain frightened witnesses. The breakthrough the interviews, the prosecution….

There is a lot of flashing forward and back in this drama-often I find this results in confusion and even anger at “pretentious filmmaking” but here it’s the opposite. Especially if you are familiar with the case, a linear exploration of the assault would be quite stale but here it keeps you focused on the core of it…Sophie and what was done to HER…and, of course, WHY…

The overwhelming feeling when watching the drama, and further reading on the case, is dismay at the human condition. Any anthropologist, psychologist or sociologist will probably tell you about the notion of “The Other”. It’s something we all do to some extent when we dismiss groups of people “as not one of US”, if only subconsciously. It can be something as simple as kids from a rival school, a football team, and of course people of different countries, cultures, races and, it seems, fashions and sub-cultures. It can result in something as seemingly harmless as “(un)friendly banter” but can escalate into discrimination, assault, murder and ultimately, of course, genocide.

In Sophie’s case it seems to have been her and Robert’s goth couture which singled them out as some kind of sub-humans who were liable to unprovoked attack. Of course it could have happened even if they had been dressed differently…or any number of any other reasons, perhaps to them or to some other hapless individuals…

Robert Maltby himself seems to believe that too much attention has to have been paid to his and Sophie’s gothdom.

The goth thing was an oversimplification”, he says, stating that the only thing that really set them apart from the gang that attacked them were a few piercings….and Sophie’s braided hair. “It was always: ‘Sophie was killed because she was a goth’. No, she was killed because some arseholes killed her. Why can’t we ask what it is about them that made them want to murder someone? Not what it is about someone that made them be murdered.”

(Robert Maltby)

Indeed, whilst Robert and some others seem to have detected elements of victim-blaming in the focus on their goth dress as a motive for the attack, the overwhelming focus of media reports (especially at the time) was the “feral nature” of the teens who attacked them, and the “lost” nature of youth, especially on British housing-estates.

Rod Liddle of The Sunday Times stated his belief that the victims of the attack had paid the price for the indulgence of the criminals who perpetrated it “by their parents, by the courts, by the council, by a government which wants to send fewer such people to prison.”

Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell of Lancashire Police said it was one of the most violent murders he had come across in his career:

“I do not think …(the main attackers)…have recognised how violent the attack was. They have just done it without thinking, but they seemed to have enjoyed it, and carried on remorselessly kicking at two very defenceless people who were unable to protect themselves because of the level of violence inflicted upon them… I am very critical of some of the parents involved. I really don’t think they have taken completely seriously how repulsive this incident was…”.

He added that when Harris was initially interviewed about the assaults he was “laughing and joking” with his mother.

If you are a goth or any person of distinctive look or appearance, I suppose the overwhelming lesson to be learned is probably those age old adages of “safety in numbers” and “stick to your own”…but of course that approach ultimately may also lead to more of the kind of tribalism which provoked (or at least facilitated) the attack.

(Brendan Harris and Ryan Herbert)

The sentences handed out to the couple’s attackers struck many people as on the light side – ranging upwards from a little under four and a half years. However the two main attackers (Brendan Harris and Ryan Herbert) received “life sentences” with a minimum “tariff” (as it is called) of 18 and 16 years respectively.

Sophie’s death naturally affected the goth community deeply and she is remember to this day. Various events and evenings have been dedicated to her and in 2014 her mother was given an OBE medal for her good works with the campaign S.O.P.H.I.E (Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere)

(Sophie Lancaster & mother Sylvia Lancaster-receiving her OBE medal)

Perhaps most notably, in 2009 the annual Bloodstock Heavy Metal Festival rechristened their third stage the “Sophie Lancaster Stage”. The following year this stage was expanded and became the festival’s “Second Stage”.

(“Sophie Lancaster Stage” at Bloodstock Festival)


Written by Jason Stone