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Lockerbie review – a masterclass in moving, urgent TV

This documentary on the 80s air disaster is a multi-layered, compelling watch. It’s a gripping detective story and a beautifully-made, sensitive portrait of grief

Trauma survivors … Margaret and Hugh Connell who found one of the bodies still with its seat.

The four-part series Lockerbie is a masterly example of a true-crime documentary put together with great care and compassion, which offers compelling insights into a familiar story. The first episode sensitively recalls the disaster that took place over, in and around the Scottish town on 21 December 1988, when Pan Am 103, on its way from Frankfurt and then London to Detroit, via New York City, exploded mid-air, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board, as well as 11 people on the ground. At first, it was called Britain’s worst ever air crash. Soon, it would also become known as the deadliest terror attack in US history, at that point.

There are plenty of ways to tell the story, and many have been attempted before, but this series takes a multilayered approach, through an extensive, substantial and wide-ranging series of interviews and archive news footage. It opens on the ground, as the residents of Lockerbie explain where they were and what they were doing on that terrible night, moments before a series of explosions blew in the windows. One was watching This Is Your Life, another plucking turkeys for Christmas. Upon leaving their houses, people could not make sense of what they saw. Some thought it must have been a military issue, others that a chemical tanker had exploded, but none could understand how there could be damage from one accident on both sides of the town.

A local couple, Margaret and Hugh Connell, get out an album featuring photographs of the area in the hours and days after the crash, painstakingly labelled and stuck into the book. Like other residents, they found bodies, one still with his seat. They kept watch over him until he was taken away. Later, we discover who he was and meet his family. Over archive news footage and reports, others recall their roles: a reporter who was perhaps first on the scene surveys aerial footage from the aftermath, which still appears incomprehensible to him. Another man remains traumatised by the horrors of what landed in his garden. There are snapshots of suitcases, doors, clothes, a child’s shoe. We meet two women who washed the luggage that was found, so that it could be returned to the families of the victims who had owned it. The teddy bears, they say, are what got to them most.

There is extraordinary access to some of the key figures in the official investigation, which adds real narrative urgency. Retired FBI special agents Dick Marquise and Phil Reid, integral to the US investigation, explain how and why they built a case against Libya, resulting in the 2001 conviction of the late Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. In among its many layers this is a gripping detective story, albeit on a staggering scale. At 845 sq miles, Marquise explains, it was the largest crime scene in history.

Lockerbie offers comprehensive geopolitical context where necessary, particularly when it comes to explaining the emergence of some theories surrounding the bombing. There are conspiracy theories, and the film-makers approach them sensitively, acknowledging that among the families of survivors, there are divisions and differences in what they believe to be true. Some accept the official line. Others are more sceptical.

Bringing all of these elements together is Dr Jim Swire, now 87, whose daughter, Flora, was killed on Pan Am 103, just before she turned 24. She had been travelling to the US to see her boyfriend. Swire does not believe official accounts of the bombing and has spent the last 30 years investigating it. He is furious that American diplomats were warned of bomb threats made against flights from Frankfurt to the US, while ordinary passengers were not, and he makes a case for his belief that the full story is yet to be told, even now. But the series is clear-eyed and balanced. It has to be, because this is continuing, as the final episode makes plain.

The film-makers never lose sight of the human loss at the heart of Lockerbie. Victoria Cummock remembers hearing news of the crash, and having a moment of silence for the victims, noting that husband, John, would be on the same number flight home the next day. In fact, he had been killed. We meet fathers, mothers, children and partners, all with memories and questions and coping strategies of their own. This is the story of Pan Am 103, and of Lockerbie, and of investigations, trials, theories and facts, but crucially, it is a portrait of grief, and it is very moving and gracefully done.

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