The new drama by Jimmy McGovern is tough to watch though a lot of it is, in an odd way, steeped in joy.
We witness a young man falling in love, helping others, becoming a powerhouse in his community, starting a family, and preparing to embark on a career as a civil rights lawyer.
However, Anthony, which airs on BBC1 tonight and can be seen on iPlayer is the story of a life that may have been lived had Anthony Walker not been murdered aged 18 in a racist attack by two white men in Huyton, Merseyside in 2005.
The power and poignancy of the film lies in the fact that all this joy we witness, all this potential achievement, died with Anthony 15 years ago this summer.
McGovern was asked to write the one-off film by Walker’s mother, Gee.
In this week’s Big Issue, the writer says: “I didn’t want to tell Anthony’s story. I’m an old white man and Gee Walker (Anthony’s mother) was asking me to write about her son, a young black man.
“I knew I’d be criticised for doing it. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t say no. Nobody in Liverpool can say no to Gee Walker. I can remember my exact words to Gee. ‘Gee,’ I said, ‘if you’re asking me to do such a thing, I have a God-given duty to do it.’”
I am bloody certain that, like me, Anthony would have considered The Big Issue to be a wonderful initiative
In a long and pivotal early scene, with the fictional Anthony aged 25, we see him engage with a young man selling The Big Issue.
It is not an easy watch. Anthony is dealing with someone troubled, haunted, struggling with alcoholism. But we see Anthony persist. He comes back to this young man experiencing homelessness and issues with addiction and, true to his deep-held Christian beliefs, refuses to pass by on the other side of the street.
So why, when McGovern needed to show Anthony’s strong principles and unswerving faith in the possibility of hope and redemption, did he instinctively reach to our magazine.
“There’s now no way of knowing what Anthony thought of The Big Issue but he had a deep sense of social justice and dreams of becoming a lawyer and working in civil rights,” McGovern tells us.
“So I am bloody certain that, like me, he would have considered The Big Issue to be a wonderful initiative.”
A wonderful initiative with heavy connotations. The Big Issue, in this context, represents something important – hope and faith and the potential for redemption.
As well as being a good deed and a great read, The Big Issue is, these days, a powerful cultural signifier
This is not the first time The Big Issue has been invoked as shorthand in a piece of high quality popular culture this year.
In the most recent series of Killing Eve, we watched in horror as Eve Polastri (played by Sandra Oh) confessed to having never bought The Big Issue. Why? Because Eve was engaging in an office pissing contest to prove who was the worst person.
And what better way to showcase the cynicism and cold-heartedness she claims lies beneath her warm exterior – attributes better suited to chasing immaculate assassins rather than choosing socially conscious reading material – than by claiming to never having bought our magazine?
As well as being a good deed and a great read, The Big Issue is, these days, a powerful cultural signifier. Our vendors work at the heart of communities across the country. They are well-known, extremely visible public figures in so many UK neighbourhoods – the iconic red tabard marking them out as approachable, as people working to find a new path.
Only this summer, actor Daniel Mays referred to The Big Issue as “the lifeblood of our high streets”. And thankfully our vendors, along with shoppers and workers are now able to flow back to these streets post-lockdown.
And on the high street, for the cost of a fancy coffee, readers and buyers of The Big Issue can signal their determination to do good, their empathy towards those in need by buying a magazine and, pro-actively joining the fight against poverty by offering someone a hand-up, not a hand-out. There’s a symbolic micro drama in every interaction and transaction between customer and vendor.
So don’t be surprised if you see us cropping up in more films and television shows in the near future.