wed 28/02/2024

Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, BBC Two review - devastating account of the lottery of terror | reviews, news & interviews

Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, BBC Two review - devastating account of the lottery of terror

Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, BBC Two review - devastating account of the lottery of terror

A year on, a heartrending reconstruction of the Ariana Grande concert from hell

Ella McGovern, 14, shares her memories in Manchester: The Night of the BombBBC / Blakeway North / Richard Ansett

“I thought she maybe had superpowers to go that high.” Emilia Senior, 12, watched her sister Eve, 15, thrown into the air by the force of the explosion.

When Eve came to earth her own perception had tilted on its axis: “I saw my legs on fire,” she remembered, “and then I was unconscious.” Short of targeting a kindergarten, a terrorist could not have chosen to decimate a more blameless demographic than teen fans of Ariana Grande. It was the details that broke the heart as some of these thousands of girls remembered the aftermath of the terrorist attack a year ago at the Manchester Arena. (Emilia and Eve pictured below)

Ella McGovern, 14, whose eardrums had been perforated, could just hear a sound like the wings of a moth. When one girl tried to phone her mum she realised three fingers were hanging off. Another brushed a severed ear or a finger from her hair, although she wasn’t sure which. 

Manchester: The Night of the Bomb (BBC Two) sifted through the story of that gut-punching night when Britain suffered its worst atrocity since 7/7 in 2005. At its most raw and powerful this documentary by Jamie Roberts (War Child, The Jihadis Next Door), was a cathartic reconstruction told by those who were there: victims, parents, grieving adult survivors, bystanders, and emergency services. In fact some of the emergency services actually weren’t there - the fire service turned up after two hours - or weren’t really helping if they were.Manchester: The Night of the BombFirst on the scene were the British Transport Police, who seemed to do most of the heavy lifting - sometimes literally because the ambulance services were not allowed into what was still considered a “hot zone” where a terrorist threat was still considered live.  So victims had to be ferried to them on makeshift stretchers. They variously described hearing thousands of people screaming, bodies with holes caused by detonated nuts and bolts. slipping in blood. “Imagine hell, times it by a million,” said one.

If the film had a gap it was the absence of Greater Manchester Police and the Fire and Rescue Service, both of which declined to participate and so were unable to put the case for observing protocol rather than acting on basic human instinct. “I did not hesitate, I did not think,” said one copper, evidently baffled that colleagues from other services did both.

The middle section was a composite portrait of the killer Salman Abedi, a young man of Libyan stock whose family fled Gaddafi. His school record and the testimony of Muslims who knew him suggested an angry misguided fundamentalist who, like some American shooters, could be identified as an “incel”. In another sort of film there would have been time to explore what might cause a young man to incubate quite so much overtly violent rage. But not everyone turns out like that. Duran Hassan, of Somali origin, spoke in his own subtitled language other than to declare his ethical separateness from Abedi: “I never seen even if he is talking like these bullshit things.”

Roberts pieced together his film from a remarkable amount of video footage retrieved from phones. The urge to document kicking in, some kept filming in the auditorium even after the bomb went off and girls fled for their lives. The emergency services submitted audio which was often played against images of the empty concert venue. The reality of the charnelhouse was captured in one horrific snatch of video. As for the interviews with the girls, Roberts chose a camera angle that looked down on them diagonally as if to accentuate their youthful vulnerability.

The film was bookended with images of these extraordinarily brave and articulate young witnesses brushing their long hair. It seemed an obvious enough opening to the story of fans prepping for a concert. But then when they got home they had a primordial urge to cleanse themselves, one even fearing that her hair was contaminated with the killer’s remains. The mother of Ella McGovern remembered having to stop running the tap because “the plughole was blocked with so much flesh”.

This was a devastating and intimate diary of survival or death: the lottery of terror. Someone happened to be filming as one girl was hugged in the street by her family. “We’re the lucky ones,” she said, admonishing them for her elders for their elation, the wisdom of experience suddenly thrust upon her, and innocence snatched away.


When they got home the girls had a primordial urge to cleanse themselves


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters