HOW do you depict an absence? How do you portray a loss? The screenwriter Jimmy McGovern came up with an ingenious solution when he was approached by Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered schoolboy Anthony Walker, to write a television drama to commemorate the 15th anniversary of her son’s death. The writer told a story of what might have been, but which now never can be.
Anthony, broadcast on BBC1 this week, began by showing Anthony at an awards ceremony at the age of 25. Then, in a reverse chronology, he imagined what the Liverpool teenager might have done, the people he could have influenced and loved, and the realisation of his dream of studying law and working to promote black rights.
Inexorably, the backwards story led to 29 July 2005, the night that made all this impossible, because that was when Anthony was murdered by two racist thugs who buried an ice-pick in his head.
In a tragedy, the central figure dies because of some fatal flaw or failing. But this death was more senseless. Anthony was killed merely because someone disliked the colour of his skin. In Huyton, the rough working-class suburb where the Walkers were one of only two black families, the racism was routine. Bigoted drivers refused to allow black children on the school bus. Just three weeks before Anthony was killed, he was taken to hospital after being hit over the head with a cricket bat by another schoolboy.
Bishop James Jones, who led Anthony’s funeral in Liverpool Cathedral, offered a poignant Thought for the Day on Anthony’s death on Radio 4 this week. He said: “As I’ve looked back over the last 27 years and the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor, and Anthony Walker, I’ve wondered why it’s taken the killing of an unknown man from Minneapolis to make us in this country ‘take the knee’. Why did not the murder of three of our own black teenagers drive us to our knees?”
That question is too profound to be susceptible of an easy answer. Most of us lack the moral imagination, or the spirit of will, to go there. But the banal truth is that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was filmed, in its grim entirety, on the phone of a passer-by. The video went viral on the internet, and the world watched, over and over again, something as callous and calculated as an old-style Southern lynching, as a white man knelt on the black man’s neck and, in eight long minutes, squeezed the life out of him. The video confronted us with a truth that we had shied away from facing.
Now McGovern, using his skills as a popular television screenwriter — which mix a vivid imagination with an empathetic ear for the unsentimental language of ordinary people in extraordinary situations — has rectified the deficiency in our moral imagination in a different way. He has turned Anthony Walker from an icon of racist guilt back into the funny, bright, caring young man whom his family knew — and shown the rest of us how his loss diminishes us all.
Read a review of Anthony by our television critic here