Uprising, review: Steve McQueen’s oral history rises above the fashion for true-crime cliché

On January 18, 1981, 13 young black people died when a fire ripped through 439 New Cross Road in southeast London. Ever since, rumours have persisted that the blaze at the three-storey house was the result of an arson attack by racist extremists.

Uprising (BBC One), Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s moving, distressing film about New Cross and its aftermath, painted a picture of hell on earth. In the first of three parts, survivor Wayne Haynes recalled feeling something “like sand” on his face. It was his skin peeling off. “The heat from the smoke is so intense I feel like I’m being pushed,” remembered Denise Gooding, who was just 11 at the time.

Uprising acted as a heartbreaking sort-of-companion piece to McQueen’s Small Axe series of dramas last year (one of which touched on the New Cross fire). Haynes, manning the sound system that evening, described the doomed birthday party at New Cross, with its smooching couples and reggae soundtrack, and it could have been a scene from the Small Axe instalment, Lovers Rock.

Part of the skill of this film lay in how it contextualised the fire by looking at the racial prejudice which was on the rise in Britain. George Rhoden, a black man who had defied his parents to join the police, recounted meeting a white officer who wore a National Front badge on his lapel. When Rhoden performed a routine check-in on his police radio, the colleague at the other end responded with monkey noises.

Two inquests were held into the fire but an open verdict was returned in each case. With the potential perpetrators never brought to justice, a less civic-minded film might have framed the events of January 18 as an unsolved mystery. But there was no true-crime cliché here, with McQueen and co-director James Rogan essentially creating a deeply affecting oral history.

Andy Hastings recalled the first time he met Paul Ruddock, who would die when he went back into the burning family home searching for his 16-year-old sister, Yvonne (the party was a celebration of her birthday).

Andy and Paul had become acquainted in hospital. Both were in traction recovering from biking accidents. When they first spoke from separate rooms, Andrew had no idea Paul was black. They would vie for ownership of the radio.

He introduced Andy to reggae, Andy insisted on listening to Radio 1. By the time they could sit upright and look one another in the eye, they were friends.

Here was a simple, moving story of two people drawn together by their similarities rather than pushed apart by their differences. It warmed the heart – and made what was to come all the more unbearable.

Uprising continues on BBC One tonight at 9pm