Four Lives, BBC1, review: Stephen Merchant is ghoulishly convincing as ‘Grindr killer’ Stephen Port

From Robin Williams to Steve Coogan there is a long and not always glorious tradition of comedic actors taking on straight roles. The latest to swap jest for drama is Stephen Merchant, last seen in his charming Bristol caper The Outlaws.

His new role could not be more different – or potentially controversial. The gripping and chilling Four Lives told the devastating true story of the bungled police investigation into the deaths of four young gay men at the hands of London serial killer Stephen Port.

As Port, Merchant displayed hitherto un-hinted at dramatic depths. He was ghoulishly convincing as the murderer, a reptilian oddball who would contact his victims on dating websites and then fatally drug them and leave their bodies to be discovered.

These terrible events occurred in the near past, with first victim, fashion student Anthony Walgate, found near Port’s flat in Barking in June 2014. As with Steve Coogan’s upcoming portrayal of Jimmy Savile, Four Lives was thus open to the accusation of exploiting the recent suffering of real people and of forcing their loved ones to relive the trauma.

So it was a relief to discover the series had avoided the pitfall of glamorising Port as a real-life Hannibal Lecter. This taut true-crime thriller instead honoured the families who campaigned, in the face of police indifference, to hold a monster accountable for his crimes.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 23/12/2021 - Programme Name: Four Lives - TX: n/a - Episode: Four Lives - Ep 1 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, THURSDAY 23RD DECEMBER, 2021* Kate (LEANNE BEST), Sarah (SHERIDAN SMITH) - (C) ITV Studios - Photographer: Ben Blackall
Sheridan Smith is wrenching and raw as Four Lives’ moral centre Sarah Sak (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall)

The moral centre in the first of three episodes was Walgate’s mother, Sarah Sak. She was wrenchingly portrayed by Sheridan Smith as a parent determined to keep alive Anthony’s memory.

Sak’s efforts were frustrated by institutionalised homophobia within the Metropolitan Police which led the force to drag its heels over the investigation into Walgate’s suspicious death, and to ignore red flags connecting his killing to the later murders.

Ultimately, Four Lives was an emotive tribute to a mother’s determination to achieve justice for her son. If Merchant’s Port showed us the worst in humanity, Smith’s raw and honest turn ensured the focus was on the young men whose futures were so horrifically stolen.

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