The week in TV: Anne; Four Lives; Mandy; Toast of Tinseltown

Anne (ITV) | ITV Hub
Four Lives (BBC One) | iPlayer
Mandy (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Toast of Tinseltown (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Anne, ITV’s four-part drama directed by Bruce Goodison (Leave to Remain), is a reminder that we may all know about Hillsborough – the 1989 FA Cup semi-final disaster in the Sheffield stadium that killed 97 Liverpool fans – but we didn’t live it, and then relive it, viscerally, relentlessly, as the bereaved did.

Written by the novelist and screenwriter Kevin Sampson, who was at the game, it stars Maxine Peake as Anne Williams, mother of 15-year-old Hillsborough victim Kevin Williams, detailing her long, tortuous fight, along with others, to extract the truth from a swirling miasma of misinformation, police mistakes, cover-ups and lies.

It is Peake’s job to encapsulate a mother’s waking nightmare, and her performance is every kind of wild, shivering scream. Anne is an ordinary Liverpool mum, larking about with her husband, Steve (Stephen Walters), until, fatefully, she surprises Kevin (Campbell Wallace) with a ticket for the match. After Hillsborough, she’s a maternal triple threat – enraged, interrogative, tenacious (“You’re not going away, are you?” “Only in a box”) in pursuit of the truth. What time did her son die? Could he have been saved? What were the Hillsborough deaths if not unlawful killings?

As Anne unravels, the city of Liverpool – heartbroken, implacable – becomes a character in itself. Anne is also the story of a failed smear campaign against the working classes, with fans wrongly portrayed, most famously in the Sun, as drunken, marauding hooligans urinating on the dead.

At times, the drama feels unwieldy; it would have benefited from more ruthless editing. While it’s important to convey the long campaign for justice – Anne Williams died of cancer in 2013, and, even now, no one has been held directly responsible for Hillsborough – some parts felt repetitive or unnecessary. Still, there’s no arguing with the spirit of the piece. In an early scene in Sheffield, Anne and Steve are led down dim corridors into a room where there’s a noticeboard pinned with Polaroid photos of the dead, and, hysterical, pleading, Anne refuses to accept that Kevin is one of them. It is almost too painful to watch.

Sheridan Smith excels at these raw, direct roles, spasming with chain-smoking grief

In a ghoulish accident of television scheduling, there was another primetime factual drama about bereaved families caught up in a very different fight for justice. BBC One’s Four Lives, written by Neil McKay, directed by David Blair, covered the case of Stephen Port, who in 2016 was given a life sentence with a whole life order for drugging, raping and murdering four young men he lured into meeting him via LGBTQ dating and hookup apps.

Here was a tragic tale told in three parts of police incompetence, tinged with palpable lifestyle judgmentalism and shades of homophobia. Anthony Walgate (Tim Preston), a life-loving fashion student who did occasional escort work, is found slumped lifeless in the doorway of Port’s apartment block, with Port himself calling the police. When Port spins a yarn about a party drug overdose, he is believed, enabling him to also kill Gabriel Kovari (Jakub Svec), a hopeful Slovakian; Daniel Whitworth (Leo Flanagan), who has a boyfriend; and Jack Taylor (Paddy Rowan), who hides his sexuality from his family.

Sheridan Smith, playing Anthony’s mother, excels at these raw, direct roles, spasming with chain-smoking fury. Stephen Merchant veers sharply away from comedy to portray seedy, monosyllabic Port, whose clumsy manipulations – at one point forging a suicide note from Daniel including a “confession” that Daniel killed Gabriel – verge on farce, even as the bodies keep appearing in the same locality.

In the main, Four Lives was well done: the actors playing the victims had little time to establish character and do a great job. I wasn’t so sure about Merchant, who underplayed Port to the point of coming across less as a warped human being than a vacuum, though maybe that’s the point.

Welcome back Mandy in the second six-part BBC Two series of shorts created by and starring Diane Morgan (Philomena Cunk; Motherland), about the titular gobby, workshy northerner with the towering hair-don’t, bizarre tilting walk (imagine a seasick flamingo) and twisted pout.

Expect the unexpected with Mandy. The first episode opens with her explaining why she left her job at a frozen fish factory – “One of the other women who worked there looked like Rose West. Gave me the right shivers” – and segues into a satanic ritual. Elsewhere, scenarios include, among others, Mandy exploring genealogy with Deborah Meaden, space travel, and a sewage plant-based plot co-starring Tom Courtenay and Alexei Sayle (“It stinks, right?”), which evolves into a Chernobyl-style spoof.

Diane Morgan as Mandy.
‘Whip-smart silliness’ with Diane Morgan as Mandy. Photograph: Richard Harrison/BBC

It’s unsurprising that Mandy attracts such a high calibre of co-stars (others include Anna Maxwell Martin and Jo Hartley): it’s crammed with ingenuity and whip-smart silliness. Morgan had a mammoth task topping the first series, in which Mandy ended up in a wedding shootout involving the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder. This series is even better.

Last week also saw the return of cult comedy character Steven Toast, formerly of Toast of London (Channel 4), now back in the six-part Toast of Tinseltown on BBC Two. Played by Matt Berry (What We Do in the Shadows), and co-written with Arthur Mathews (Father Ted), Toast is the hammy thespian with the bizarre elocution (“Telay-viz-ion”) who deals with idiot hipsters at a voiceover studio (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango”), a running feud with “Ray Bloody Purchase” (Harry Peacock) and tart exchanges with his perma-scandalised agent (Doon Mackichan): “That’s a bit strong, isn’t it, Jane? Your language really has become increasingly fruit-ayy.”

Matt Berry as Steven Toast in Toast of Tinseltown
Matt Berry as Steven Toast in the ‘intrinsically British’ Toast of Tinseltown. Photograph: Ben Meadows/BBC/Objective Fiction

Toast was last seen burning down Shakespeare’s Globe to avoid bad reviews. This opener features him in spoof arty hangout the Colonial, and dealing/not dealing with his anger issues. Next week he sets off to Hollywood for a “Star Wars move-ay”, dealing with new car-based US agent Brooke Hooberman, also played by Mackichan. While other co-stars can’t be revealed, Larry David’s appearance in episode one hints that Toast is welcomed by the US comedy elite. However-rrr, as the man himself might say, I’ve viewed the second Tinseltown-set episode and I’m a little anxious: Toast is such an intrinsically British concept; I do hope he travels well.

What else I’m watching

Pen 15
(Sky Comedy)
I’m down to the last few episodes of the second and final series of the pandemic-interrupted US comedy, with creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine playing their 13-year-old selves. It’s witty, touching and inventive – though things turn dark when one of the girls is sexually exploited.

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in Pen 15.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in Pen 15. Photograph: Hulu

Andy Warhol’s America
(BBC Two)
A three-part docuseries on Warhol and how his life and art intersected with 20th-century America. Last week’s opening episode explores his genesis, from impoverished Pittsburgh childhood through to Campbell soup cans, fame and beyond.

The Book of Boba Fett
Disney’s latest Star Wars-derived series follows intergalactic bounty hunter slash warlord Boba Fett, played by Temuera Morrison, and is also a spin-off from their Mandalorian series. Created by Jon Favreau (Swingers), think fantasy western set in deep space.