Anthony, written by Jimmy McGovern, is a 90-minute BBC TV movie about a young man's life. It might be the most heartbreaking and vital TV movie of the year. It's utterly ordinary, filled with joy and sadness, to give us the story of Anthony Walker. Anthony is not a superhero or a hero cop. His is a life utterly ordinary and that is the point. It matters. He matters. Because it's a life. Anthony is not a saint. He's given to self-righteousness and lashing out at his siblings when he's hurting over his father leaving the family. He has to contend with racism by being his best self, never putting his foot wrong even under pressure. Devoutly religious, he holds onto the lessons of the church to be a good man.
It begins with Anthony (Toheeb Jimoh) at 25 years old, happily married and father of a baby girl, enjoying a moment of triumph. He's at an awards ceremony to watch his best friend win, but Mick (Bobby Schofield), a recovering alcoholic, announces that the award should go to Anthony for saving his life. Then the next sequence goes back a year when Anthony discovers Mick drunk, homeless, and begging on the streets and takes on a mission to get him off the streets and back to life. Then back a year where Anthony and his wife Katherine give birth to their daughter on a train. And on and on, backward through his life… to that night in 2005 when Anthony was 18 years old, and he was murdered by a pair of racists in an unprovoked hate crime. And everything that he went on to accomplish in the next 7 years never happened. That life that we saw unfolding backward is erased. It was a fantasy all along, a dream of what could have been, now never to be.
Antony Walker was a real-life person, and so was his murder. His mother Gee Walker played here with a stoical dignity by Rakie Ayola, became a campaigner and founded a foundation to promote racial harmony through education after his death. She asked long-time friend Jimmy McGovern to write a drama about her son so people would remember the horrors of the kind of senseless racism that led to her son's murder. McGovern created the original Cracker along with other acclaimed dramas like The Street, Hillsborough and Reg, is one of the UK's finest screenwriters. He is also possibly the most uncompromising, his scripts burn with a sense of social justice and political anger with raw anger, invests his script here with an inescapable sense of grief and loss. You know the opening moments of joy and redemption are all denied the real Anthony, and when his murder occurs, it's like a bomb that goes off that erases everything we saw before, a whole world and other lives are wiped out, never to happen. That, McGovern and Gee Walker tell us, is what senseless murder does. It sends out ripples that destroy more lives than the one victim.
The History of the Life-Told-Backwards Subgenre
Anthony is a subgenre of Science Fiction: the Life-told-backwards story. The first example might be Fritz Leiber's 1947 story "The Man Who Never Grew Young", written in reaction to the end of World War II where time in the universe runs backward as a man recalls history and wars going backward through time, all the way back to ancient times and beyond. Then there was J.G. Ballard's 1964 story "Time of Passage", which clinically and calmly describes a man's life backward, from the moment he's dug up and taken out of his coffin to his growing younger and getting unmarried to his wife to his de-aging all the way to being an infant being taken to the hospital by his parents and disappearing altogether.
Ballard's story inspired Alan Moore to write his version in a 1983 short story for 2000AD called "The Reversible Man" where a middle-aged man narrates his life story in reverse, trying to make sense of everything before "they" kill him, his last moment being the moments before his birth as everything goes black forever. In 1991, Martin Amis took on the subgenre in his Booker-nominated Time's Arrow, which follows a German Holocaust scientist experiencing his life backward. Amis used the time-going-backward structure to explore the atrocities the Nazis committed.
The genre found its way to recent movies as well, with Christopher Nolan's Memento in 2000 turning the story into a mystery where the revelations are revealed at the end, which is the true beginning of the hero's story where his mental condition of not being able to retain memories is psychological rather than neurological and he is not the crusading hero he thinks he is but a killer easily manipulated. Gasper Noe's Irreversible in 2002 used the structure to make a horror movie about human violence and brutality.
The Life-Told-Backwards story is an act of deconstruction. It turns everything we take for granted in linear stories and flips it on its head and forces us to rethink the story, the nature of cause-and-effect, and subvert the emotions we might feel. Anthony is unique for being the most emotional use of the Life-Told-Backwards genre in a new way, in the service of social and political activism. It wants to change the world, to show the devastating effects of racism and hate crimes on a human scale. That's what the most effective drama does. In reminding the world – and the British public – of the death of Anthony Walker on the anniversary of his death, it might have the kind of impact that classic British dramas like Cathy Come Home and Boys From the Blackstuff did in their times. It might be the most heartbreaking drama of the year. It may never be shown in the US, but it demands to be seen.
Anthony can be streamed in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.