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In a 16-month period between 2014 and 2015, Stephen Port, infamously dubbed the ‘Grindr killer,’ murdered four gay men.
It’s a notorious case not only known for the horrific drugging, sexual assaults and terrifying light it shone on online dating, but for the part played by the police as well. Despite three of the bodies being found near the same spot in a cemetery in Barking (two were discovered by the same dog walker) and the other outside Port’s flat, the deaths were not treated as linked nor suspicious until four weeks after the final killing. This three-part series, directed by David Blair and written by Jeff Pope and Neil McKay (The Moorside), takes a firm stance that the Met’s failing let Port’s killing go on.
It is all cheers and laughter to begin with, though. Opening at Middlesex University’s graduate fashion show, a jubilant Sheridan Smith, who is superb as Sarah Sak, cheers on her lovably camp son Anthony Walgate (Tim Preston). Enjoy this, because it happens to be the last time you’ll smile throughout. What follows is the grisly, haunting and relentless re-telling of the repercussions of Port’s crimes. Prepare for each victim’s name to clang across the screen and brace for the imminent killing. Weaved between their stories is a close look at Port, who is portrayed by a chillingly convincing Stephen Merchant. The actual murders, which involved the date rape drug GHB, are only the start. Crucial here is the fall-out for distraught family and friends, and a police investigation so hopeless you are always inches from screaming.
Walgate, the first victim, was tempted out of his home for £800 to sleep with Port. “There’s a young boy, looks like he’s collapsed outside,” Merchant says in a detached tone that sticks with you, calling for an ambulance after dumping the body on his doorstep. And so begins three hours of non-stop trauma - the only breaks from tears and screeching include scenes showing the toupee-wearing killer caress his new plastic trucks.
Gabriel Kovari, an endearing Slovakian immigrant played by Jakub Švec, is next. He perfects another holler at the television screen moment, when he lets on to Port’s neighbour Ryan Edwards (Samuel Barnett) that he “doesn’t like” the man whose sofa he is currently sleeping on. Too little, too late. In quick succession, you also briefly meet Daniel Whitworth (Leo Flanagan) and Jack Taylor (Paddy Rowan), before they meet a similar fate.
But it is neither a repulsion for Port or fear of meeting people online that you will end up feeling strongest. It is fury that the case was so badly handled from the outset, and that it was left to relatives to connect the dots which should have been obvious. The family liaison officer doesn’t bother to pronounce Walgate’s name properly, there was no care taken to initially investigate a forged suicide note, and distinctly homophobic undertones run through most lines of police questioning on topics of escorting, gay sex and drug use.
Suffice to say, Four Lives is not pleasant viewing. Neither is it unique in its production or storytelling: this is a straightforward re-enactment that leans wholly on a gripping true plot. But its interest in the lives of those affected is touching, and, as we are shown, desperately needed after their treatment during proceedings. It is both shocking, brutally saddening, and a true embarrassment for the Metropolitan Police.
Four Lives continues on BBC One at 9pm on January 4 and is available to stream on iPlayer