Anthony review – reimagining a life cut short by hate

Jimmy McGovern’s drama about Anthony Walker is a beautiful, harrowing look at the life the teenager might have led had he not been murdered in a racist attack

Jimmy McGovern had been friends with Gee Walker for years. Whenever he had needed to tackle the subject of grief or loss in one of his scripts, he had gone to her and she had talked him through what she knew and what he needed. Then, one day, she came to McGovern and asked him to write about the source of her knowledge, her grief, her loss. He agreed. They talked. The result is Anthony (BBC One), a 90-minute drama about her son, broadcast almost 15 years to the day after he was murdered in a racist attack in his hometown of Huyton, Merseyside, at the age of 18.

The bare facts are stated in a caption before the story begins. “This is the life he could have lived,” it concludes. We meet Anthony when he is 25 and work backwards from there to the moment of truth in a deserted park when two men – and the ice pick one of them wielded – made this story impossible.

Maybe in hands other than McGovern’s – probably our finest TV writer since Alan Bleasdale, whose commitment to dramatising and humanising systemic social injustice he shares – it would have felt tricksy. Maybe without Gee’s input, or their friendship, it would have been a coldly clinical narrative exercise. But it worked to beautiful, shattering effect, aided beyond measure by a brilliant cast and two pitch-perfect performances in particular from Toheeb Jimoh as Anthony and Rakie Ayola as Gee. There is not a false note from either of them. Their scenes together – and they had only one major one, which did so much to establish their relationship in a few short minutes that it took your breath away – were magnificent.

At 25, Anthony is attending the fictional Phoenix Turnaround awards. He has nominated his friend Mick, a former alcoholic, who wins and dedicates the prize to Anthony. As the years un-unroll, we learn that Anthony had taken him in off the streets and helped to rehabilitate the mate who had been his best man and, in various nightclub confrontations with other racists, his protector. He steps in during Anthony’s first date with Katherine, the woman Anthony will propose to at 21, marry at 22 and have a beloved baby with at 23. She is a teacher he meets when trying to wangle a delay to a detention for one of the basketball team he coaches at the local leisure centre.

McGovern does not stuff Anthony’s imagined seven years with huge triumphs or gilded moments. His wedding is lovely, but he refuses to mention his father – who left the family when Anthony was a teenager – in his speech; there is only the barest hint of a possible rapprochement later when they meet in the queue for drinks. The wish fulfilment exists only, and all the more powerfully, in the simple idea of him getting to live. Every scene of happiness hollows out your heart a little more – it is an incredibly evocative replication of the grief bereavement brings.

McGovern sidesteps the trap of making Anthony – a devout Christian and a hardworking student who dreams of becoming a lawyer and working for civil rights in the US – a plaster saint. He is, in the manner of young, confident men with worlds to conquer, sometimes over-righteous (taking Mick to task, before he realises who he is, for pretending to be a Big Issue seller) and capable of lashing out unfairly when unhappy (telling his sister that she is taking advantage of their dad having left).

The attack is awful. His death is terrible. The moment his mother – unable to reach his face because he is intubated and swaddled in bandages – moves to the other end of the bed and cradles his bare feet, pressing them to her face, is the most harrowingly intimate thing I have seen and a fitting cap to an extraordinary piece of drama.

A caption tells us Anthony’s killers were sentenced to life in prison. Another, over a shot of the real Gee sitting alone in her front room with a picture of Anthony on the table behind her, tells us that she set up a foundation in his memory to promote racial harmony through education, sports and the arts. She stares down the lens, unblinking, at us all. What, now, are we going to do?

• This article was amended on 11 August 2020 to clarify that Anthony was broadcast almost 15 years to the day after Walker’s murder.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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