The BBC’s new three-part true-crime drama is a damning account of police negligence with a deep sense of humanity.
This review of Four Lives is spoiler-free.
“To protect and to serve” has been the motto of the Los Angeles Police Department since 1963, and has been adopted by many other departments and forces since then; so ubiquitous is the phrase, in fact, that it’s virtually synonymous with the idea of the police force the world over. “These people,” that motto explicitly says, “are here to help you.” But what if they’re not?
This is the fundamental idea behind Four Lives, a three-part true-crime drama currently airing on the BBC across three consecutive nights. It chronicles the exploits of Stephen Port, a serial rapist and murderer who, between 2014 and 2015, raped and killed four young men with the police barely noticing, thanks either to sheer incompetence or, perhaps more likely, a series of assumptions and prejudices stemming from homophobia given that all of Port’s victims were gay men who had met him through dating apps.
Port, played here against-type by Stephen Merchant, putting his unusual look and bumbling manner to use as the eerily childlike killer, doesn’t feature much in the first episode, and exists as a kind of looming specter in the background of his own crimes. This is intentional, and smart, since Four Lives is rooted in the perspectives of Port’s victims and their loved ones as they attempt to force the Metropolitan Police to actually investigate the crimes, which are linked in a way that everyone except them seems to be able to see quite clearly.
Our primary viewports into the investigation come from Sheridan Smith as the mother of the first victim, Anthony Walgate, and Rufus Jones as the brief landlord of the second, Gabriel Kovari (the other two were Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor). Smith is giving an excellent performance as a bereft mother trying to shoulder a degree of responsibility for her son’s murder while frantically forcing supposed “family liaison officer” DC Paul Slaymaker (Michael Jibson) to look into it, but it’s Jones as an earnest, kind man who decides to help out a Slovakian immigrant who struck me the most. The performance is understated but full of nuance, and it’s refreshing for a true-crime drama to really linger on the qualities that he embodies rather than the crimes and the killer.
Port as depicted is, in fact, rather banal, a man with an unhealthy fascination for children’s toys who nonetheless maintains an acceptable front while keeping his darker impulses for his private life. But in the first episode, at least, we never actually see any of those darker impulses play out. His first two victims are killed off-screen, and we don’t even see him interact with the first. He instead spends his time ambling out of shops or feeling sorry for himself in his Barking flat. There’s little about him that suggests he’s a killer, and the show’s writers Neil McKay and Jeff Pope are careful to keep him so grounded that he’s almost boring – which is the point, obviously.
It’s not, though, why the police botched the investigation so significantly. In fact, Pope was a person of interest from the very beginning, and it’s mind-blowing that he wasn’t considered a more viable suspect much sooner. If he was, perhaps the four lives he snuffed out would still be going on today.