Four Lives review – truly damning TV about those who are meant to protect and serve

We’re getting to the point, surely, where television drama could be named the sixth estate. In the last year alone, we have had Deceit, probing the police ethics around the Rachel Nickell investigation, Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Stephen, about the ongoing mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence case, Jimmy McGovern’s look at the prison system’s failures in Time, and Jack Thorne’s Help, telling, almost in real time, the story of care homes abandoned by government policy and the inhabitants left for dead as a result. All brought terrible injustices by those supposedly sworn to uphold the law and protect us – risibly old-fashioned though such phrases feel – to greater public prominence, and hopefully add to the pressure for holding to account those whose dereliction of duty at best, and corruption at worst, does society so much harm. Anne, a drama about the mother who fought through police denials and obstructions for the eventual unlawful killings verdict for the Hillsborough victims, is currently airing. And there are surely more in the works – perhaps on the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and the two officers sent to guard the scene, who took photos and shared the images on WhatsApp, or the murder by another officer of Sarah Everard (possibly including the breaking up of a peaceful vigil for her thereafter). The thin blue line refuses to run unerringly straight.

And so to Four Lives (BBC One), about the murders of four young men by serial killer and rapist Stephen Port (a fine and chilling performance by Stephen Merchant) and a police investigation so fundamentally flawed that an inquest jury recently found that it probably contributed to three of the four deaths.

The drama does a good job of making the victims – Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, Jack Taylor (portrayed with depth, vigour and sweetness by Tim Preston, Jakub Svec, Leo Flanagan and Paddy Rowan, respectively) – live again. It shows them with the families and friends who will come to be the ones who follow leads and pull together most of the evidence necessary for Port’s eventual conviction, giving space to their relationships, and shape to everyone’s loss when it comes. Anthony, a fashion student who occasionally worked as an escort for extra cash, is the first to cross paths with Port. He is found dead outside the man’s flat after Port himself – posing as an anonymous citizen concerned about the apparently drunk young man – calls an ambulance.

Beyond that, and despite the usual great work of Sheridan Smith (as Anthony’s mother, Sarah) and others, the drama never catches fire. It is doomed perhaps by the extremity of the police failures. News reports of the inquest jury findings are compelling reads – the list of things the police did not do, chose to ignore or failed to follow up is mind-boggling. Some of the most egregious examples (in a competitive field) make it into Four Lives. The Met’s insistence that there can be no link between the deaths of four young gay men by the same means and in the same locality – two of them found in the same graveyard, one with a suicide note the family says it (contrary to police claims) never identified as being in their son’s handwriting. No testing of the bed sheet he was found on. And, above all, no full interrogation of Stephen Port after a mobile phone trace revealed he was the anonymous caller, who also owned the flat Anthony’s body lay outside and gave a variety of inconsistent statements about how he came across him.

Dramatically, it leaves the main characters little more to do than shout down the phone at disinterested officers and boggle at their unwillingness to chase what seems to them and us obvious leads and suspects. There seems to have been no coverup – just a long line of people who didn’t care enough how or why these young men, these sons, these friends, these lovers died. And, presumably, there was an element of deep-seated homophobia (though you also wonder, even if we take only recent headlines as our touchstones, just for whom the police do still bestir themselves and deem worthy of justice), which is of course awful – if not exactly shocking.

Very few of the tangible failings are even mentioned in the first episode and we never see any behind-the-scenes work (or lack thereof) by the police. We are limited to the investigating officers’ inability to remember how to pronounce Anthony’s name (with the ‘th’ audible) and assumptions about his lifestyle, based on his occasional escort gigs and poppers found in his flat, to infer their lack of professionalism and humanity. But this kind of drama thrives on detail, not mere gesturings towards motive and should not depend on assumptions that right-minded viewers will draw the right conclusions.

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