Anne is available to stream on BritBox now

As her husband quietly identifies a police Polaroid of a teenage corpse she refuses to recognise – “He’s on the board. Number 51” – Anne Williams’s real-life nightmare begins. The loss of her son Kevin, one of 97 football fans who died of injuries sustained in a fatal crush at the Hillsborough stadium in April 1989, cuts her down with a numb, bedbound grief that writer Kevin Sampson’s piercing dramatisation does not minimise.

His four-part story covers her 23-year fight for the truth about Kevin’s death with a controlled anger that recalls the kind of crusading British TV drama of Who Bombed Birmingham (1990), or Bloody Sunday (2002), that’s now largely extinct. Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting Hillsborough (1996) jolted TV audiences with the authorities’ seeming disdain for the Liverpool victims, and the bereaved parents’ emotional turmoil. Here, Sampson’s scrupulous account of Anne’s Sisyphean fight for answers and accountability takes the long view, revealing the injustice Hillsborough parents failed for decades at the hands of the police, the legal establishment, and successive UK governments.

He’s greatly helped by a powerhouse performance from Maxine Peake, whose Anne Williams is all pent-up pain and banked fires. We find her cradling Kevin in his coffin with a whispered apology, or roiling with shock and anger at the contradictory mess of witness statements sprung on her at his inquest. Director Bruce Goodison is well versed in pain-filled dramatisations (he helmed Leave to Remain (2013) and honour-killing drama Murdered by My Father in 2016). His camera lingers thoughtfully on Anne’s shell-shocked face during clumsy police cover-ups, and on the distressing Hillsborough survivor and witness accounts that punctuate each episode. These repeatedly immerse us in the fatal events alongside Anne, hooking us firmly into her evidence-sifting quest.

Episode by episode, Peake gently metamorphoses Anne from shy, mourning housewife to articulate activist, determinedly enlisting TV’s Cook Report and Radio Liverpool, her MP, and even Labour minister Andy Burnham to her cause over the years. It’s an intense portrait of a mother as an active, even obsessive avenger for her dead child (BBC true-crime drama Four Lives, broadcast in the same week, takes a similar tack).

Sampson, who was present at the stadium disaster, wanted Anne’s story “to embody all the heroic Hillsborough mums”. While they’re never hagiographic, his scripts stress her passionate advocacy rather than examining parental guilt and atonement. The series is acute about the collapse of her marriage to Kevin’s stepfather Steve (played with gentle sadness by Stephen Walters) as her crusade overshadows family life. A discomfiting scene where an excitable Anne disrupts supper by demonstrating on her son Michael how a tracheotomy could have saved Kevin, speaks volumes.

Anne (2022)
Anne (2022)
© Courtesy of ITV

Like Steve, the viewer may occasionally feel worn down by the repetition of key evidence, as Anne battles for new inquests, judicial reviews, or a test appeal to the European Court of Human Rights that sourly splits the Hillsborough campaign group: “It’s always ‘Our Kevin’ first, isn’t it?”. But the series’ deliberate pacing underlines the slow grind of legal process, and Anne’s extraordinary tenacity as her attempts at obtaining justice are repeatedly beaten back.

The lengthy time scale also numbly reveals Anne’s considerable achievement in keeping Hillsborough in the headlines and shows her tireless work swaying public opinion over the years. An archive clip of Tory spin doctor Bernard Ingham describing Liverpool fans as ‘tanked up yobs’, damning TV interviews with senior police officers, and the shock incursion of a Sun journalist into Anne’s kitchen waving the falsely fan-blaming ‘The Truth’ edition, are all sharp reminders of the 80s ‘hooligan’ rhetoric that suggested that drunken, violent fans caused the disaster. No wonder Lord Taylor’s 1989 report about police failures at Hillsborough took more than 20 years to be vindicated. 

One performance drives Anne, but the fine understated portrayals surrounding Peake, particularly those by the tender Stephen Walters, and Raymond Waring as traumatised survivor Steve Hart, help her bring home the ongoing physical and mental damage that the Hillsborough disaster and its drawn-out aftermath has inflicted on families and survivors alike. But it’s Sampson’s work that binds the pain together with furious questions. Without leaning into agitprop, his scripts prod you to consider who the law is there to protect. Who has access to justice in the UK? How could a hostile, costly and adversarial legal system ever be considered a level playing field between bereaved families and potentially culpable authorities? As Anne did, the show channels its pain and rage into an insistent call for lessons to be learned, and for real justice to be done at last.

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