The first few minutes of Anne (ITV) come with a sense of grim foreboding. It’s April 1989 and Liverpool fans are preparing for the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough in Sheffield. Fifteen-year-old Kevin Williams (Campbell Wallace) wants to go to the game. His mother Anne (Maxine Peake) is reluctant to let him, but in the end she relents. She doesn’t know what this will mean. Watching at home, we do. “God Steve, that looks bad,” she says to her husband (Stephen Walters), as the disaster unfolds live on TV. In the chaotic aftermath, the Williams drive across the country to make enquiries about their son. They run out of fuel on the way and are helped out by a stranger. “People are good, Anne,” Steve says. “Most people are good.” Not everyone, they will learn.
As the title suggests, ITV’s new four-part Hillsborough drama focuses on Anne’s efforts to seek justice for her son and the 96 others who died. The coroner originally recorded a verdict of accidental death. It was Anne’s lifelong cause to overturn it. The series spans 24 years – from the disaster until Anne’s death in 2013 – although this opening episode focuses on the first year after Kevin’s death. The police start lying at once, and keep lying for decades: it was only through the dogged campaigning efforts of Anne and others like her that the authorities were eventually held to account. You don’t need to look far for more recent examples of police wrongdoing. Drama like this, gruelling as it can be, is a reminder that a diligent population should always be suspicious of its cops.
While Walters is a sturdy and sympathetic husband, at least to start with, Peake will take the notices and presumably many prizes for her performance as Anne: heartbroken, grieving, vengeful, determined, haunted by imagining what befell her son in his final moments.
The script is by Kevin Sampson, a writer with a deep personal connection to the story as a Liverpool fan who survived Hillsborough. It’s compassionate, knowledgeable writing. Director Bruce Goodison evokes the period with considerable attention to detail alongside archive news footage: clips from the game itself; Des Lynam and Jimmy Hill discussing what happened; Margaret Thatcher announcing there will be an inquiry. The producers are World Productions – they of Vigil and Line of Duty – and for a tragedy that unfolds over nearly a quarter of a century, Anne bounds along at a surprising clip.
But for all its polish, and Peake’s commanding lead, Anne sometimes verges on being too much to bear. Settling down to a film about Hillsborough, you know you are not in for Harry Hill’s TV Burp, but it’s a lot all the same. Another production might have curtailed the scenes in which the Williams learn what has happened to Kevin, but here it feels like we are with them in real time. For all the corruption at senior level, Sampson finds humanity in the policemen whose unenviable job it was to tell relatives that their loved ones were dead. Anne is well written, tense, beautifully acted, unrelentingly sad and angry. It does everything a drama ever could. I’m just not sure I can watch.