Four Lives: The Real Story Behind The BBC's Chilling True-Crime Drama

·9-min read
Sheridan Smith (centre) plays Sarah Saks in Four Lives (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall/Matt Burlem)
Sheridan Smith (centre) plays Sarah Saks in Four Lives (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall/Matt Burlem)

From the makers of The Moorside comes the BBC’s latest hard-hitting true crime drama, Four Lives.

The three-part series tells the real story of the four men murdered by serial killer Stephen Port, and their families and friends’ fight for justice and the truth, amid fundamental failings by the Metropolitan police in their investigations into the men’s deaths.

What is the true story behind Four Lives?

Between June 2014 and September 2015, four young men – Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor, were murdered by Stephen Port in Barking, east London.

Port became known as the ‘Grindr killer’ when his arrest and subsequent trial made headlines in 2015, referring to how he used LGBT+ hook-up and dating apps to lure his victims to his home. He would then drug them with GHB – a date-rape drug that is also sometimes used during chemsex – before going on to rape and kill them.

His first victim was Anthony Walgate – a 23-year-old student originally from Hull who lived in Barnet – who Port hired as an escort via the website SleepyBoys.

Handout photo of Anthony Walgate (Photo: Handout via PA Media)
Handout photo of Anthony Walgate (Photo: Handout via PA Media)

After killing him, Port dragged Anthony’s body outside his flat and anonymously called the police to report a “young man passed out” he saw when driving past.

When police traced the call to his address, they questioned Port, who changed his story and said he had seen Anthony on his way to work. Despite this sudden change, he was only brought in for further questioning after his previous communication with Anthony later came to light.

During his police interview, Port then changed his story once more, claiming that he and Anthony had consensual sex and he had later died in his bed after an accidental overdose. Port admitted to moving Anthony’s body, fearing he would be blamed for his death.

Port was later convicted of perverting the course of justice in March 2015 and was imprisoned for eight months, but was released that June.

However, prior to being convicted, Port had already gone on to kill Gabriel Kovari, 22, and Daniel Whitworth, 21.

Gabriel had moved in with Port after they met online in August 2014, shortly after he arrived in the UK from his native Slovakia.

Handout photo of Gabriel Kovari (Photo: Handout via PA Media)
Handout photo of Gabriel Kovari (Photo: Handout via PA Media)

Just five days later, his body was found slumped against a wall by a dog walker in the graveyard of St Margaret of Antioch Church – just a short distance from Port’s address – with GHB in his system.

Less than a month later, when Port was out on bail for perverting the course of justice in Anthony’s death, Daniel Whitworth’s body was also found in the same location as Gabriel Kovari’s, coincidentally by the very same dog walker.

Port had chatted to Daniel – a 25-year-old chef from Kent – on website Fitlads a month before meeting up with him.

After killing him, Port planted a fake suicide note found on Daniel’s body, which said he took responsibility for Gabriel’s death. The note claimed he and Gabriel had sex and accidentally overdosed, and had subsequently killed himself out of guilt over Gabriel’s death.

Handout photo of Daniel Whitworth (Photo: Handout via PA Media)
Handout photo of Daniel Whitworth (Photo: Handout via PA Media)

Having failed to draw the clear lines between all three deaths, the police closed all cases, not treating them as suspicious, with the original inquests recording open verdicts. This came despite pleas from Anthony Walgate’s mother Sarah Sak, who claimed police failed to investigate her son’s death or consider it as murder, as she believed it to be.

“It didn’t matter what I did or what I said — they just wouldn’t investigate, and they just didn’t care,” she told The Sun.

Two months after Port was released from prison, the body of his fourth victim – Jack Taylor, a 25-year-old forklift truck driver from Dagenham – was found in the same position as Gabriel and Daniel’s near the same church graveyard. Staggeringly, the police once again did not make any links to the other three cases. Jack’s death was also ruled as a drug overdose, after his body was found with a needle mark on his right arm, an unused syringe, and a tourniquet, along with a small plastic vial of clear liquid.

Handout photo of Jack Taylor (Photo: Handout via PA Media)
Handout photo of Jack Taylor (Photo: Handout via PA Media)

Not content with the ruling knowing their brother was firmly anti-drugs, Jack’s sisters Jenny and Donna Taylor took matters into their own hands, piecing together clues from internet searches that linked all four deaths to the drug GHB, and presented their evidence to the police.

CCTV footage from the night of Jack’s death was subsequently searched, which uncovered him walking with a “tall man” down Barking high street.

That night, Port had met Jack at Barking station, having made contact with him on Grindr, before taking him back to his flat.

After the image of the man was publicly released, a police officer who had previously interviewed Port finally linked the deaths and Port was arrested in October 2015. He was formally charged with four counts of murder after three days of questioning.

Handout image issued by the Metropolitan Police of a map showing the spots where bodies of murder victims were dumped by Stephen Port  (Photo: Metropolitan Police via PA Media)
Handout image issued by the Metropolitan Police of a map showing the spots where bodies of murder victims were dumped by Stephen Port (Photo: Metropolitan Police via PA Media)

What sentence did Stephen Port receive?

In November 2016, Port received a life sentence with a whole-life order, meaning he will never be up for parole. He was convicted alongside 18 other charges, including further rapes and sexual assaults relating to eight living complainants who came forward with their stories following Port’s arrest, claiming he had spiked them with GHB after meeting online.

Metropolitan Police handout file photo of Stephen Port (Photo: Metropolitan Police via PA Wire/PA Images)
Metropolitan Police handout file photo of Stephen Port (Photo: Metropolitan Police via PA Wire/PA Images)

Port is currently serving his life sentence at maximum security prison HMP Belmarsh in south east London, where some of the country’s most dangerous offenders are imprisoned.

Why was Four Lives delayed?

Four Lives, which originally had the working title of The Barking Murders, was first announced by the BBC in February 2019 with filming taking place later that spring. However, the drama was delayed when the real case was subject to a jury inquest, which itself was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stephen Merchant plays Port in Four Lives (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall)
Stephen Merchant plays Port in Four Lives (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall)

Writer Neil McKay explained (via Radio Times): “We’d shot it quite some time ago but we weren’t able to transmit it because the inquest was a jury inquest. If it had been a non-jury inquest, we would have been able to transmit it. But being a jury inquest, it could have been argued that we might influence the jury, you know, a powerful, emotional drama like this, so we were fully braced and aware as to whether we might need to do some re-editing, some adjustments and all that kind of thing.

“We kept a close eye on the inquest but in the end, the version we have, the inquest conclusions gave us our closing captions. We followed the inquest, but it didn’t in any significant way alter our account of events.”

What did the inquest find?

In December 2021, the inquest into Anthony, Gabriel, Daniel and Jack’s deaths ruled that “fundamental failings” by the Metropolitan Police “probably contributed to three of the four deaths”. However, the Coroner had ruled the jury out of considering police homophobia as an issue in the case.

The families said that the case should go on public record as “one of the most widespread institutional failures in modern history” and that the Metropolitan Police’s actions were, in part, “driven by homophobia” – something the police deny.

Sarah Sak said the jurors’ conclusion was a “massive victory” but she was “disappointed” they were not allowed to consider homophobia.

None of the officers involved in any of the investigations has been formally disciplined, and five have since been promoted.

Jenny Taylor said the police had “blood on their hands” while her sister Donna questioned why the officers should be allowed to continue their roles.

“If they weren’t good enough in 2014 and they weren’t good enough in 2015, what makes them good enough now? It’s disgusting,” she told ITV News.

Jack Taylor's sisters Donna and Jenny Taylor during the jury inquest in December 2021 (Photo: Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images)
Jack Taylor's sisters Donna and Jenny Taylor during the jury inquest in December 2021 (Photo: Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images)

Following the verdict of the inquest, Met Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said (via BBC News): “We completely accept people’s trust in us has been damaged by a number of recent events.

“What has happened in connection with each of the deaths of these four young men is part of that damage, and we know has a particular impact in communities local to Barking and LGBT+ communities across London.

“It is very important now to show that we are trustworthy, that we care, that we have changed, and that we are learning.”

The Independent Office of Police Conduct also said it is considering reopening the investigation into the handling of the four young men’s deaths. MPs have also called for a public inquiry into the bungled investigations.

How have the families reacted to Four Lives?

Writer Neil McKay and producer Jeff Pope worked extensively with the families to inform their work and to ensure the stories of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor were sensitively and accurately told.

Neil told Metro: “It’s an enormous privilege to talk to them and to hear their stories. I have to pay tribute to the courage they showed in telling their stories so openly and frankly.

“What was so brilliant about the families was that they didn’t try to censor us. They wanted us to tell the stories truthfully and accurately because, in the end, there was nothing to hide.”

The families and loved ones also visited the set and met with the cast, Neil revealed.

“Sheridan [Smith] met Sarah Sak [Anthony Walgate’s mother], Donna and Jenny Taylor [Jack Taylor’s sisters] met Jaime Winstone, and all the way through the cast they would meet with their real-life counterparts,” he said. “It was enormously helpful.”

The families of Stephen Port's victims pictured during the jury inquest (Photo: Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images)
The families of Stephen Port's victims pictured during the jury inquest (Photo: Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images)

Sarah Sak said the recent inquest and the drama had “taken a great big lump out of my chest”, having laid bare the police failings in the case.

She told The Sun of the drama: “It was important that it was about us. It wasn’t about the story. It was about our lives. This drama certainly wasn’t about Port either.”

Who is in the cast of Four Lives?

Tim Preston (Bang, Warren) portrays Anthony Walgate, newcomer Jakub Svec plays Gabriel Kovari, Leo Flanagan (Waterloo Road, Rare Beasts) appears as Daniel Whitworth and Paddy Rowan (Little Boy Blue, Time) plays Jack Taylor.

Sherdian Smith (Cilla, The Moorside, Mrs Biggs) appears as Anthony’s mother Sarah Sak, with Leanne Best (Cold Feet, Line Of Duty, Ripper Street) playing her sister Kate.

Sheridan Smith as Sarah Sak (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall)
Sheridan Smith as Sarah Sak (Photo: BBC/ITV Studios/Ben Blackall)

Jaime Winstone (Babs, Dead Set) and Stephanie Hyam (Peaky Blinders, Doctor Who) play Jack Taylor’s sisters Donna and Jenny, while Daniel Ryan (The Bay, Mount Pleasant) takes the role of Daniel Whitworth’s father Adam.

Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras, The Outlaws) plays serial killer Stephen Port.

Samuel Barnett, Rufus Jones, Robert Emms, Memet Ali Alabora, Kris Hitchen, Isabella Laughland, Alexa Davies, Michael Jibson are also among the cast.

When is Four Lives on?

Four Lives airs from 3-5 January at 9pm on BBC One, with all episodes available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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