The broadcast of Four Lives, a three-part drama about the crimes committed by Stephen Port in Barking, Greater London, between August 2014 and September 2015, was delayed by around a year by the inquest into his victims’ deaths; the coroner having appointed a jury, its transmission would have put the BBC in contempt of court. But while one gathers that this was frustrating for the true-crime dream team behind it – the writer Neil McKay (Appropriate Adult, See No Evil: The Moors Murders) and producer Jeff Pope (Hatton Garden, The Moorside) had already moved on to their forthcoming Jimmy Savile drama – I wonder whether it mightn’t have been a good idea to wait a bit longer. As I write, I’m all reluctance: my hands are slow and heavy, my mind desperate to turn to happier things. What a way to begin the new year.
That the inquest, which finally reported in December 2021, found that police failures had “probably” helped to enable Port’s later killings (he drugged, raped and murdered four men, and assaulted several others) must have been no surprise to McKay. His script, clearly well-researched, bears witness to a perilously atomised and under-funded operation.
But there is something even more important at play in his version of events. By his telling, the Metropolitan Police is a force in which strict budgets, rigid processes and chilly acronyms have elbowed out not only the instinct for investigation, but also all empathy, kindness and respect. When the body of Port’s first victim, the 23-year-old Anthony Walgate, is found, his mother, Sarah Sak (Sheridan Smith) is told that a family liaison officer (FLO) has been appointed to the case. Can she get hold of this man on the phone? Mostly, she cannot. When she does, having first mispronounced her son’s name, he meets her distress with low-level irritation; it is as though he is working in a call centre, and she is a customer complaining of a lost Sim card. “No, but I’ve done the training,” the FLO tells her, when she demands to know whether he has played this role before.
The director, David Blair, has coaxed pleasingly understated performances from his actors. Life is rarely as histrionic as television would have us believe, and in Four Lives the shocked are subdued – dumbstruck, almost – rather than tearful. Proper attention is given to Port’s victims, to Walgate (Tim Preston), Gabriel Kovari (Jakub Svec), Daniel Whitworth (Leo Flanagan) and Jack Taylor (Paddy Rowan), their lives made vivid and real. McKay’s script is quietly eloquent on such matters as couch-surfing and hook-up sites, urban loneliness and exploitation. The men Port killed were deeply loved, but there’s no escape from the fact that modern life also had its way with them. Social media was the first of Port’s weapons, if not the last; it was his bait (he met the men online) and, for a time, his cloak.
But in the end, nothing can quite dim my anxiety over the popularity of this kind of drama with commissioning editors. That the families of Port’s victims have lent their support to McKay does not change the reality that this is entertainment, with “scary” music playing as bodies are found, just in case we aren’t horrified enough already. Those who make such shows push away talk of prurience, preferring instead the notion of greater “understanding”. But who really feels, after watching a series like this, that they’re in possession of some profound new insight? The inquest has already informed us of the police’s failures. As for serial killers, they’re beyond comprehension, and always will be.
Like David Tennant’s impersonation of Dennis Nilsen in 2020, Stephen Merchant’s performance as Port is careful, detailed, pernickety. Though he looks a bit weird – think Lurch of The Addams Family in a Burton anorak – what the actor mostly wants to convey is the sheer banality of Port’s evil. But as the producers know perfectly well, Merchant’s casting is in itself a freak-show exhortation to tune in. Roll up, roll up! Rub your eyes in amazement as the funny and adorable co-creator of The Office turns into a monster! Not, of course, that they, or anyone else, is likely to listen to me. The Reckoning, in which Steve Coogan will star as the paedophile broadcaster Savile, will be right along in just a few months’ time.
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance