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Four Lives review: BBC drama exposes undeniable homophobia in policing failed Stephen Port’s victims

‘Port being convicted is only half the story, the other half is the police… if this is what policing is like in this country then it’s broken,’ says Sheridan Smith, who stars as the crushed mother of one of Stephen Port’s victims in the new BBC drama Four Lives.

Four Lives exposes undeniable homophobia within the police force failed serial killer and rapist Stephen Port’s victims. It’s impossible to ignore and impossible not to feel a great sense of anger.

The new three-part factual drama from Jeff Pope and Neil McKay, the team who brought us The Moorside, is told from the point of view of the victims’ families. It focuses on their fight to uncover the truth about what happened to Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor. Port, known as the Grindr Killer, used the gay dating app to target the four young men before drugging and raping them and dumping their bodies near his home in Barking, east London. His reign of terror began in June 2014 and ended in September 2015 before he was eventually jailed for life.

Four Lives paints a picture of the police’s utter incompetence to thoroughly investigate the murders from the get-go. Time and time again they are called out for incorrectly pronouncing Anthony Walgate’s name, something that should be simple enough to remember. Then there’s the case of the ‘dedicated’ family liaison officer who never seems to be on-hand to answer desperate calls from Sarah Sak (Walgate’s mum played by Smith). But that’s only a drop in the ocean compared to the blatant homophobia that encapsulates.

The families are at the forefront in Four Lives (Picture: BBC)

From airs of judgement and outright stereotyping to ignorance surrounding poppers, the investigation wreaked of homophobia. One particularly striking scene involves a detective gathering information from Whitworth’s partner Ricky Wamsley in the aftermath of his murder. After asking invasive questions about the couple’s sex life (‘Was he into more extreme sexual practices?’) the officer goes one step further by assuming he should know what the date rape drug GHB is because he’s gay. Although Ricky responds by telling the inspector that ‘gay men aren’t all the same’, Four Lives conjures up the narrative that police thought exactly that.

While the police struggle to link the murders, the victims’ loved ones made themselves available to detectives and offered up crucial information to help facilitate investigations time and time again. But they were ignored. ‘It’s not for me to tell you how to do your job, but…,’ one of Walgate’s friends says as she suggests police delve into the possibility of him being drugged. It’s excruciatingly viewing and all you want to do is plead for someone to listen.

Stephen Merchant plays Grindr Killer Stephen Port in the three-part series (Picture: BBC)

Four Lives goes beneath all the headlines to tell a new side of the story sensitively and effectively. It doesn’t glorify Port in any shape or form, with the murders all happening off-screen. This doesn’t make the drama any less compelling. Audiences are introduced to the victims before they meet their tragic fate and then see the families broken by the devastation Port has inflicted. By placing the victims and their families at the heart of this drama, their loss, pain, and confusion are shared as it’s impossible not to feel empathy. By bringing this LGBT+ drama to the mainstream, the BBC will undoubtedly be raising awareness of homophobia and prejudices towards gay people.

Sheridan’s performance as Anthony Walgate’s grieving mother, Sarah Sak, is completely heart-wrenching. From constantly having to chase up the family liaison officer dealing with the case to demand answers, to having to repeatedly correct the police on the simple matter of the correct pronunciation of her son’s name, audiences feel her frustration at their very core. Although Sheridan previously admitted this job was one of the hardest performances of her life, it’s clear she has thrown her all into this role and it’s arguably her best yet.

The same goes for Stephen Merchant, who plays the sickening Stephen Port. Although a difficult role to play given that little is known about why Port committed the four murders or of his psyche, he is a tour de force as the creepy child-like killer. Merchant’s particularly standout scenes take place in episode three when Port is brought in for questioning before standing trial – where not a single ounce of remorse is detected.

The series faced a string of delays due to Covid pushbacks and legal proceedings. Last month, inquest jurors found the shambolic inquiries probably contributed to the deaths of three of Port’s victims –Kovari, Whitworth, and Taylor.

With that verdict in the shadows, Four Lives serves as a testament to the strength of those families who continued to fight for justice. The police failed them in the most spectacular way. One can only hope that Four Lives brings them about some peace that their story is out there.

Four Lives airs tonight at 9pm on BBC One and all three episodes will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

Credit: Original article published here.

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