‘I lost my boy. Kevin Williams. I’m his mum. Anne.” Episode one of Anne, ITV’s measured bio-drama about the Hillsborough campaigner Anne Williams, ends with a small moment that carries the most profound significance.
For an hour we’ve watched Williams (Maxine Peake), whose 15-year-old son Kevin was one of the 97 Liverpool fans killed by a terrace crush at the FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield on 15 April 1989, being battered and swayed by the loss of her child and the agony of not knowing exactly how and why Kevin died. At times she has hidden, sitting smoking late into the night or spending hopeless mornings in bed. But not now. Now, at her first meeting of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, she has stood up to say Kevin’s name and her own out loud. A life’s mission has begun.
Future episodes will document how Williams spent nearly a quarter of a century before her death in 2013 challenging official narratives around the disaster, specifically the claim that Kevin could not have been alive beyond 3.15pm on the day of the match, and therefore could not have been saved. The story is one of solidarity in the face of injustice, unending parental love and the confounding ways in which grief can be an inspiration as well as a burden. First, though, the series has to perform faithful groundwork.
Opening instalments of dramas like this are difficult. They have to show the life before, that we know is to be ripped apart, without the dramatic ironies becoming heavy. They must show us how events turn an ordinary person into our extraordinary protagonist, but not foreshadow their destiny too blatantly.
Anne avoids these traps with assurance. The quick sketch of Kevin (Campbell Wallace) railroading Williams and her husband Steve into letting him go to the game, is all the more affecting for how unremarkable it is: every parent of a teenager knows how it feels to weigh up demands to let them go here or there, never sure if those things are safe. That point is made with minimal fuss, an approach also taken to another potential cliche of the genre – the moment when the catastrophe has a mystical effect on those who cannot know about it yet. On the afternoon of 15 April, Kevin’s sister is playing in the garden. At 3.05pm, just as the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest is abandoned, the sun goes in and the air turns cold.
From there, the episode is a tapestry of awful incidents tenderly observed, a study of the bewildering eeriness of bereavement. Death means strangers coming to the house; trips to meet other strangers in unfamiliar buildings must be made. For Anne and Steve Williams, that oddness is intensely magnified.
The day after the game, they enter the ad hoc system set up in Sheffield to name victims and find loved ones. They move, stunned, through musty halls full of trestle tables, clipboard-wielding volunteers and anxious or already bereft parents, before an appalling scene in a tiny room. Grotesque Polaroids of the unidentified dead are on a noticeboard, numbered. Anne is desperate not to admit it, so Steve (Stephen Walters) has to step forward and say it: Kevin is number fifty-one. Walters and Peake convey the raw horror of the moment with an almost unwatchable intensity.
As for strangers at the house, those people include a tabloid reporter posing as a delivery man before taunting the Williamses with The Sun’s despicable THE TRUTH edition and trying to steal a framed family photograph. The programme is careful to acknowledge the heinous behaviour of the press, but the key scene is a visit in 1991 by an Inspector of the West Midlands Police, played with patrician chicanery by Mark Dexter. Ignore the testimonies at the inquest that Kevin was seen alive after 3.15pm, the Inspector says. Those witnesses have realised their mistake and changed their story. Don’t worry about it.
The man is instructing Anne Williams, after two years of intense pain and no clear answers, to deny her instincts and accept what she is told. That this is something Anne is not wired to do is what makes Peake, an apparently pale, frail presence with fire beneath her skin, ideal casting. She does the hard yards first, showing us the times when Williams is confused and fallible and nearly beaten by sadness. But by the end of episode one she’s ready to unleash the righteous strength of a working-class woman who has been wronged. In both modes, Peake embodies the role in life that Anne Williams would fulfil with the highest possible distinction: Kevin’s mum.