When Jimmy McGovern’s landmark 1996 television film Hillsborough was first released, many viewers found it shocking. Actor Christopher Eccleston, who played Trevor Hicks, the father of Hillsborough disaster victims Sara and Victoria Hicks, later told Liverpool’s Echo newspaper that before the film aired, “no one knew the truth about what happened at Hillsborough”.
He added that outside of Merseyside, “people had swallowed the lies that the right-wing press told, together with what the government and the police put out there.”
25 years after the film aired, one would think that by now the British public would know everything there is to know about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, a fatal human crush that had the highest death toll in British sporting history: 97 people died as a result of the disaster.
Yet over three decades after the fateful football match in Sheffield, much is still unknown or misunderstood by the wider public. It’s hardly surprising: for years, there was an unofficial policy of obfuscation. In 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that 116 police statements were amended “to remove or alter comments unfavourable” to the South Yorkshire Police, with panel chairman Bishop James Jones saying that police and ambulance services made “strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto innocent fans”.
All these years later, there still remain overlooked stories of injustices, and of the subsequent activism and bravery of the bereaved. One such story is of campaigner Anne Williams, whose 15-year-old son Kevin Williams died at Hillsborough. Her story, and the story of her family, is the subject of new ITV drama Anne.
The first episode begins the evening before the fateful match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Kevin has a ticket to the game, but both his mother, Anne (Maxine Peake), and doting stepfather Steve (a standout Stephen Walters) are reluctant about him going.
However, Anne relents, waking Kevin on the morning of the 15th April, 1989, by gently tapping his scalp and stroking his mussed hair (a gesture which sets up a devastating moment later in the episode).
The first half of the episode skilfully takes us through the events of the 15th, one agonising moment after another. At 3:05pm, Kevin’s nine-year-old sister notices a shift in the weather: it’s “gone cold”. Shortly after, a match commentator on the radio tells listeners that “something has gone badly wrong”.
At 4:55pm, Anne heads to the pub, searching for her older son Michael. By 5:30am on the morning of the 16th, Anne and Steve are driving to Sheffield. On a countryside lane they run out of petrol, but a farmer comes to their aid, siphoning off some from one of his vehicles. Anne is shocked at the kindness. “Most people are good,” Steve tells her.
In Sheffield, the couple head first to a local boys club, where the families of the missing have headed for answers. It’s full of shouting and weeping, a cacophony of worry and grief.
There’s initially a horrible mix-up, when the Williams are at first relieved to learn that a Kevin Williams has been taken to a local hospital, very much alive. But as it turns out, it’s not their Kevin, but a different man in his forties.
Instead, the Williams are directed to Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre, where a shaken police officer leads them into a room with a corkboard, covered with Polaroids taken of unidentified bodies. “Is your loved one on the board?” he asks.
Anne, quickly scanning the faces, says “no”, relieved. But Kevin is there on the board, Steve tells her, ever-gentle even in his own grief – Polaroid number 51.
It’s by far the most impactful scene in the entire episode; that, and the couple’s devastating visit to the undertaker’s.
The second half of the episode sets up Anne and Steve’s growing suspicions that the police and emergency services are not on the side of the bereaved, and are in fact hiding something about their son’s death. It’s a full year after Kevin’s death that Anne learns, for the first time, that her son may not have died in Pen 3 after all, but on the football pitch.
On 28th March 1990, when the inquest jury returns a majority verdict of accidental death, Steve Williams is bitter. “When did the system ever protect us?” he says.
But it’s Anne, who has spent much of the latter half of the episode in bed and overwhelmed with grief, who decides action must be taken. “Justice has not been done,” she says.
As the first episode concludes, she arrives at a meeting of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. Asked to introduce herself, she speaks first of Kevin. She lost her boy, Kevin Williams, she tells the group.
“And I’m his mum. Anne.”