Stephen Merchant wanted to show the ‘banality of evil’ as serial killer Stephen Port in ‘Four Lives’

'Four Lives'
Stephen Merchant as Port in 'Four Lives' (Image credit: BBC)

If Stephen Merchant was ever worried about being typecast as a comedian, he could not have chosen a more radical departure for his latest role – playing the real-life murderer, Stephen Port, known by the tabloids as the ‘Grindr Killer’, in BBC One crime drama Four Lives.

Port was found guilty of killing four young gay men in Barking, Essex, in 2015 by administering overdoses of the party drug GHB, a series of crimes for which an recent inquiry declared that three of the deaths could ‘probably’ have been avoided if the Metropolitan Police had not failed in its investigations.

Four Lives has been created by esteemed writers Jeff Pope and Neil McKay, the team behind the searing Fred West drama Appropriate Adult, and co-stars Sheridan Smith as the mother of one of Port’s victims, Anthony Walgate, and Jaime Winstone.

What attracts a comic actor, most recently seen in BBC One comedy drama The Outlaws, to take on a role as unsympathetic as Port? 

“It reminded me of the shark in Jaws in that the shark is unknowable but the impact of his actions is what’s of interest,” Stephen told Deadline. “Port is unknowable so the most you can do is try and render the banality of evil. To me this wasn’t about making him a moustachioed villain or really creepy it was about saying ‘here’s a man devoid of personality’.”

Stephen, 47, recently explained that ‘playing Port is certainly the biggest challenge I’ve had as an actor’ and it was ‘distressing’ learning the lines and getting into the serial killer’s shoes, so to speak.

Then there was the representation of the police who have had to deal with accusations of homophobia – that they didn’t take the death seriously because the young men were gay.

Stephen said he was 'really unsettled, really upset' to discover how long it took for the Metropolitan Police to arrest Port.

“When I first read the script,” he said. “I wanted to believe that some of the many police errors in the investigation must have been overstated for dramatic purposes... But they weren’t, were they?”

He continued: “The families were knocking on the door begging to offer information. This isn’t Stalin’s Russia where people disappear and you can’t get answers from the authorities, this is a country that prides itself on democracy. And it’s not just the police. There is something not working in these structures and it’s worrying that we don’t ask questions over how these things are run.”

Four Lives premieres on BBC One on Monday, Jan 3rd and will screen each night until Thursday.

Patrick McLennan

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.