Warning: contains spoilers.
The latest in BBC Three’s series of docu-dramas which also includes Murdered For Being Different and Murdered by My Boyfriend is Killed By My Debt, the deeply upsetting story of nineteen-year-old Jerome Roberts, a young man from Croydon who killed himself after debt from two £65 traffic fines escalated, and the bailiffs and police became involved.
Dramatised with actors but written and researched based on interviews, video footage and testimonial, Killed By My Debt is moving, depressing, very current and sensitively portrayed with a great performance from Chance Perdomo as Jerome at the forefront as well as strong supporting turns from Juliet Cowan as his mum Tracey and Craig Parkinson as the bailiff.
Since the title makes it very clear where this story is heading we’re not so much waiting to see what happens as watching an unfurling chain of events leading to tragedy – as such, watching can feel oppressive – the desire to scream at the screen ‘tell your mum!’ is strong, and this can’t be described as an enjoyable viewing experience in any way.
More, though, it’s an important one, highlighting the wider issue of a scarcity of regular jobs and increasing use by employers of zero hours contracts. Jerome was self-employed as a motorbike courier ferrying blood and hospital packages between locations on a freelance basis. His contract meant he had to pay all his own expenses, was required to rent a ‘courier package’ from his employer by the week regardless of how much he worked, was given no guarantee or indication of how much work he could expect or when it would be on any given day and had access to no benefits like sick pay, holiday pay or insurance. Instead, we see Jerome being frozen out of jobs after he’s unable to pick up an assignment due to having an asthma attack.
“It’s not a real job,” his brother (played by Calvin Demba) tells him, in a moment of tenderness and understanding that brings short-lived hope.
The lack of compromise and excessive bureaucracy of debt collection agency Newlyn and the unwavering insistence of the bailiff sent to confiscate Jerome’s motorbike, only compound things – Jerome is initially refused a payment plan to pay off his debt and can’t work without his bike anyway.
The proliferation of very high interest ‘payday’ loans is touched upon too, as Jerome tries to dig himself out of his spiralling debt. The two £65 fines have escalated to more than £1000 by the time Jerome took his life, which seems outrageous in itself, though not as outrageous as a situation of such economic polarisation where a young man with a loving family should feel so crushed, panicked, ashamed and helpless as to take his life over an amount of money some people spend on a holiday.
Killed By My Debt is a personal story with a state of the nation backdrop, and talking heads dramatising comments made on websites such as reddit and mumsnet are intercut with Jerome’s story. Narratively speaking it’s a bit clunky (the idea is that Jerome is watching these other people online talk about considering suicide because of debt) but it does a good job of highlighting other debt issues – the sense of isolation when you live alone and can’t afford to see your friends, the struggles faced by single parents and the extreme emotional labour of constantly worrying about money.
This is the kind of drama that BBC Three does well, and should be applauded for making – whether viewers not already aware of some of the country’s employment and debt problems will tune in remains to be seen, though hopefully the show’s airing on BBC One at 9pm will drastically increase its reach.
Those that do, though, may well find themselves choking back tears at the show’s conclusion. In it we hear audio of the real Jerome’s mother talking to Newlyn after her son’s passing along with shots of what looks like a very happy young man before an entirely avoidable set of circumstances lead to his death.
It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened and if the show can shine a light on these kinds of problems that are all too common or encourage someone to ask for help when they’re struggling then perhaps in some small way Jerome’s legacy can have a meaningful wider reach.
Killed By My Debt is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
If you or someone you know has been affected by debt issues the BBC suggests the following organisations might be able to help.
The Money Advice Service provides free and impartial money advice. An independent service originally set up by government.
Phone 0800 138 7777 (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm; Sat 9am-1pm)
National Debtline offers free, impartial, debt advice.
Phone: 0808 808 4000 (Mon-Fri 9am- 9pm; Sat 9am-1.30pm)
My Money Steps is a free, interactive online debt advice service, which provides a personalised action plan for dealing with your debts.
Citizens Advice Service provides information on benefits, employment and housing and help on debt, credit and legal issues.
StepChange Debt Charity helps people in financial difficulty by providing free, confidential, independent and realistic debt advice.Helpline: 0800 138 1111