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‘Nail Bomber: Manhunt’ Is A Breathtaking Exploration Into The Devastating 1999 London Bombings

by : Julia Banim on : 26 May 2021 18:02
'Nail Bomber: Manhunt' Is A Breathtaking Exploration Into The Devastating 1999 London BombingsNetflix

If you were to walk around London’s buzzy Brixton Market this weekend, with its vibrancy and strong community feel, you’d perhaps find it difficult to imagine the terror that unfolded there a little over 20 years ago this spring.

On Saturday, 17 April 1999, while shoppers were out browsing fresh produce and chatting over DVD stands, a bomb contained within a sports bag was quietly placed amid the noise and the bustle, planted specifically to target what was and is still a predominantly Black community.

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Something about the bag didn’t sit right with the market traders, who moved it about repeatedly in the resulting confusion. At one point, a thief actually made off with the bag, leaving the bomb inside bared and undeniable. A short while after the police arrived at the scene, the bomb went off.

Check out the trailer below:

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The injuries inflicted by the blast are too nightmarish to contemplate, with nails that had been cruelly jammed into the device injuring 39 people. Among those wounded was a little boy who was left with a four inch nail deeply embedded in his skull.

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That nobody was killed that day is nothing short of ‘miraculous’, in the words of Gus McGrouther, a consultant surgeon who had attended to the wounded that day. Sadly, there was further agony to come.

Just one week later, in Brixton’s famed Brick Lane, another nail bomb went off, this time targeting members of London’s Bangladeshi community. Thirteen people were injured in the blast, which once again sent thousands of nails flying in every direction; intended to maim, destroy and kill.

CCTV footage of a suspect emerged and racist threats were sent to local papers, further suggesting the attacks were motivated by far-right ideology. However, police were reluctant to distribute wanted posters or warn the public, claiming afterwards that they hadn’t wanted to get it wrong. Then the third bomb went off.

Still from Nail Bomber: Manhunt (Netflix)Netflix
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On the evening of Friday, 30 April, just as many people were finishing up work for a long, sunny bank holiday weekend, a third nail bomb exploded in The Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, striking at the very heart of London’s LGBTQ+ community.

This time around, there were fatalities. 27-year-old Andrea Dykes, who had been out celebrating her first pregnancy with her husband and their friends, died alongside 32-year-old John Light, the man she and her husband had already named as the godfather of their unborn child..

Shortly after the attack, officers caught and arrested David Copeland, a 22-year-old Neo-Nazi militant who would become known as ‘the London Nail Bomber’.

Now, 22 years on, this period of terror is being explored in a gripping new Netflix documentary that focuses on the resilience of the affected communities rather than on Copeland’s evil thoughts.

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Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

Manhunt: Nailbomber is a thoughtful, beautifully-made documentary that drives the events home with moving commentary from those who survived the harrowing attacks. Woven in with this is a disturbing, compelling look at the corrosive forces of far-right indoctrination.

Among various other fascinating individuals, we hear from ‘Arthur’, an informant for Searchlight who successfully managed to go undercover in far-right groups in the UK for many years, during which time he was able to feed back vitally important information.

I spoke with producer Colin Barr (A Black and White Killing: The Case that Shook America) and director Daniel Vernon (Inside the KKK) about the process of making this documentary, a film that is at times frighteningly immersive.

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Explaining what first drew them to this story, Barr told UNILAD that they had first started discussing it some years back, not long after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox at the hands of a far-right extremist.

Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

Barr recalled speaking with the development team about Cox’s death, asking them whether they remembered Copeland and the nailbombing campaign of 1999. Half of the team knew nothing at all about the tragedy, with the shock and the fear of the headlines forgotten after just two short decades.

Barr told UNILAD:

I remember thinking, ‘My God, that’s amazing that already that’s starting to be forgotten’. So they went off and had a look at it, and came back with some research and, of course, it instantly became clear that not only was there so much more story in it compared to what the headlines told us.

There was so much in it that felt like it had a modern-day resonance. And if anything, it felt more important that this film was made now almost than it was back then because the issues, the ideologies, the violence, is on the rise now.

Copeland was one of the earliest examples of that, and obviously the first far-right terror incident to happen in the UK.

Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be the last, and the figures on this topic make for troubling reading. In October, MI5 Director-General Ken McCallum warned that right-wing extremism was a rising threat within the UK.

This trend is also worryingly apparent on a wider scale. Last year, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP)’s Global Terrorism Index Report found that there had been a 25% hike in far-right terror attacks throughout Europe, North America and Australasia since 2014.

Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

Given how topical it is, Manhunt: Nailbomber does at times make for an uncomfortable watch, with its descriptions of poisonous extremist indoctrination made all the more disquieting following the advent of vicious online communities.

However, despite the hurt and the trauma, viewers are ultimately left on a positive note, with the proud communities at the heart of the story remaining strong to this day.

Veering firmly away from the sort of documentaries that focus on the killer – the sort that Vernon describes himself as having an ‘allergic reaction to’ – the narrative here focuses on hope and extraordinary courage in the face of hate.

Barr said:

I think if anything, the most inspiring message from the film is the idea that no one is ever going to break those communities. And the horror is that people will try, and they’ll probably try again.

And they’ll try through spreading their toxic ideology as much as they might through violence. They will try and wreak divisions if they can. But they won’t succeed, and the things that tie us together are way stronger than the things they will use to divide us.

Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

One such inspirational contributor in the documentary is Gary Reid, who had stopped off for a Friday drink at The Admiral Duncan. Gary ended up losing a leg in the blast, a devastating reminder of the injuries and lasting trauma so many survivors have to live with every day.

Vernon told UNILAD:

Gary is just an exceptional character really; that he’s strong enough to be able to confront what happened, relive it with us and tell the world his story again.

But also to come out the other end with this incredible kind of philosophy, this very humane philosophy. He boiled it all down very acutely at the end of the interview. Just talking about the damage, not just to him, but it’s Copeland’s family. It’s Copeland himself.

He’s able to think big thoughts because, it’s too simple to say he’s gotten over it, but he’s been able to deal with it head on.

Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

This is a documentary that draws you in. It brings viewers a sense of London in the late ’90s, with the camaraderie and humour of the market traders feeling very much like a celebration of the genuine goodness to be found in the city, despite its darker corners.

When it comes to evoking the experiences of survivors, the striking visuals and emotive storytelling make for a breathtaking watch, with moments that will stay with you long after the film ends.

Reflecting on the power of documentaries can have in terms of showing the human toll of fascism, Vernon told UNILAD:

One of the biggest challenges of something like this, especially when it’s something where people have been killed or severely mutilated and still traumatised, is trying to recreate that. It’s such a fine dangerous line to cross.

[…] How do you bring to life a terrible moment like that without doing a big explosion? And I think that was one of the biggest challenges. Each time finding a way to tastefully make it really impactful and really shocking without it becoming shocky and kind of Crimewatch reconstruction.

We did find a balance in the end. Because you can’t do the same thing each time either. For me, you can’t have anything more intense than someone like Gary taking you from the moment he steps in the pub to the moment he woke up in hospital, those drugs swirling round his head.

To me, even if you took off all the visuals, everything, just his voice telling you that would be powerful enough to give you the intensity of that moment.

Still from Manhunt: Nailbomber (Netflix)Netflix

Manhunt: Nailbomber is an absolutely brilliant documentary, covering a few weeks in history that still resonate to this day.

What people went through during the London Nail Bombings should never be forgotten, and should serve as a reminder of the importance of tackling prejudice and hate wherever we see it.

You can stream Manhunt: Nailbomber on Netflix from May 26.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30, 10am–6pm Monday to Friday, or email [email protected]

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Featured, Netflix

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