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Stephen Merchant plays the Grindr Killer in BBC’s deft drama Four Lives – review

Stephen Merchant plays the Grindr Killer in BBC’s deft drama Four Lives – review
If Merchant is a convincing villain, Sheridan Smith is an equally believable hero campaigning for justice in this real-life case

Someone at the BBC has had their Weetabix. After A Very British Scandal and The Tourist, here is another new drama that’s hard to take your eyes off. Four Lives is executive producer Jeff Pope’s three-part dramatisation of the case of the so-called Grindr killer, Stephen Port (Stephen Merchant), who murdered four men in their early twenties over 16 months between 2014 and 2015. He is currently serving a whole-life sentence.

The first episode focuses on the first two victims: 23-year-old Anthony Walgate (Tim Preston, charismatic in the short scenes he’s given) and 22-year-old Gabriel Kovari (Jakub Svec). Walgate was a student, who Port hired as an escort before giving him an overdose of GHB and leaving him outside his flat. He phoned in a report of the body, initially claiming to have seen the corpse as he was driving past, but changing his story under police questioning.

We are used to Merchant using his unusual features – the height, the eyes, the general sense of unease he can project – for comic effect, most recently in superior crime caper The Outlaws. Here, he’s all understated menace. The interrogation scenes are chilling, as the background noise and music is stripped out to focus on Port’s face, as he squirms and dissembles, apparently without remorse. His Port is a childlike figure, whose lies are unsophisticated and who acts without any grand plan. When he is not cruising online for “twinks”, he sits alone in his flat in Barking buying kids’ toys online. His neighbour Ryan (Samuel Barnett) suggests going out for a drink. But why would he go out, he replies, when things are so much easier online?

Anthony’s mother, Sarah Sak (Sheridan Smith), gets frustrated with the speed of the investigation. At first, she is told he died from a drugs overdose, but she doesn’t believe it. As other victims emerge, her resolve hardens. The second is Kovari, a Slovakian student who accepted an offer to sleep on Port’s sofa and is then found dead in a graveyard. Svec plays him as a wide-eyed ingenue, for whom London is a liberal haven compared to what he knew growing up.

In less sensitive hands, a case like this could lend itself to prurience or melodrama, but Neil Mackay’s script and David Blair’s direction deftly avoid these traps. Four Lives doesn’t linger on the crimes themselves, but balances the events leading up to them with the fallout. The police investigating Port’s case are slow on the uptake, taking months to seize his laptop which was bursting with evidence. In December, an inquest jury found that there had been “fundamental failings” in the investigation and that the three deaths after Holgate’s could have been avoided.

As with ITV’s fine, if draining, Hillsborough drama Anne, Four Lives is a series driven by a mother campaigning for justice in the face of repeated police failures. Here, the impression is of incompetence in the Met, rather than the outright wickedness of some senior officers around the Sheffield disaster. Michael Jibson gives a wholly credible performance as DC Paul Slaymaker, the policeman charged to be Sak’s family liaison officer. He has to keep presenting the official line to the bereaved mother even as that conclusion looks increasingly shaky. If Merchant is a convincing villain, Smith is an equally believable hero: heartbroken, practical, dogged. If her life will never be the same again, perhaps she can help save other families from similar tragedy, and make sure the cops do their jobs properly.