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Maxine Peake on Hillsborough drama Anne: ‘The criminal justice system can be a very hostile place’

Maxine Peake on the privilege of playing Anne Williams, who campaigned tirelessly for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, in ITV’s Anne

Anne Williams was not supposed to be celebrated on a major primetime television series and documentary. She neither sought nor enjoyed the limelight. But, after the Hillsborough disaster, which resulted in 97 people losing their lives as a result of police and other systemic failings at the FA Cup Semi Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989, Anne stepped up. 

Anne’s 15-year-old son Kevin died at Hillsborough. The truth about his final minutes was covered up and lied about. And the truth only ever came to light, as this harrowing, heartbreaking, vital four-part drama – in which Maxine Peake plays Anne – shows, because of Anne’s tenacious, tireless campaigning alongside other survivors and bereaved families.  

The truth.  

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Now there’s an emotive pair of words for anyone affected by Hillsborough. Because not only is the truth what they were denied for so long. But ‘The Truth’ was the frontpage headline in The Sun newspaper that tried to pin the blame on fans drinking, fighting and obstructing the police and the ambulance service. But everything they wrote beneath those words – The Truth – was a lie, designed to protect the guilty and dismiss the victims of Hillsborough.  

“We are in this constant battle against the powers that be, the establishment,” says Peake. “It’s such a part of working-class history – because it was about how people from Liverpool were viewed. This was in the 1980s, and let’s not forget who was in power. And Liverpool felt like a threat. Politically it was a bit of a powder keg at the time.

“And it was football fans as well. And football back then wasn’t the expensive, slightly exclusive sport it is today. It was the working-class sport. We remember Peterloo hundreds of years later because it was about an injustice to working people. And this is also what Hillsborough was about. It was an attack on working-class people.” 

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Who is the law there to protect? Who has access to justice? We know what the answer to these questions should be. Yet we keep coming back to them. And it is at the heart of Anne

The drama shows just how stacked the odds were for a woman fighting for justice for her son when so many politicians, tabloid newspapers and many in the police were all against her.  

“Nobody’s ordinary. I hate the term ordinary. What does that mean? But she was a mother, a wife, she was living her life under the radar. She was a very private, gentle soul,” says Peake. 

“Anne was very reserved. Yet obviously, within her was this rod of steel, this determination.

“And this woman, who had no training, and I don’t think she had any further education, educated herself on the legal system. Many people in the legal fraternity said she could have been a solicitor or a barrister because she just absorbed all this information. What she didn’t know she learnt. And she became an aficionado on the law around Hillsborough.  

“I found that so impressive. And in her 24-year fight she never got bitter, you never saw her being angry or rude to people. It is inspirational to see, when people are put in that situation, what we’re all capable of. It’s just whether we decide to tap into that or not. So Anne is about the human spirit and how extraordinary it can be.” 

Peake is talking to The Big Issue via Zoom on the day of the first resignation over the Christmas party in Downing Street during the height of the winter 2020 lockdown. So the big question at the heart of Anne is still being asked.

“That’s the way the establishment works isn’t it?” she says. “One rule for them and another for the rest of us.

“We know in this country that law is not for all, that justice is not for everybody. Especially after the legal aid cuts. It really is a very stacked system if you cannot afford it. The criminal justice system can be a very hostile place. We know that if you come up against the establishment, you’ve got a long, hard battle on your hands. They will not roll over.”

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But before she died aged 62 in 2013, Anne Williams found a way to the truth. The Hillsborough Panel’s report, released in September the previous year, established that the medical evidence in the wake of Hillsborough was wrong. The Sheffield coroner who ruled that none of the victims could have been revived after 3.15pm was wrong, and that many might have been saved had the ambulances queuing up outside the stadium been brought in. It also established that Liverpool fans were heroes on the day, saving countless lives.  

We say it can’t happen again. But it has happened again. We’ve got Grenfell, we’ve got Manchester Arena… there will be a next fight and a next fight and a next fight.

Maxine Peake

In the intervening years Anne had, as we see in the drama, already found out about Kevin’s last hours, his heartbreaking final words, and so much more on a campaign that took over her life.  

“What Anne did became her full-time job. Every waking hour was about justice for Kevin,” says Peake.  

“This is real people’s lives and I have the privilege and the honour of telling people’s stories. The family, survivors, and friends of Anne were so generous. Sara, her daughter, welcomed me with open arms.  

“It was Sara’s daughter, Anne’s granddaughter’s 21st birthday a couple of weeks ago and I went over to Formby for the party. They were all there. It’s a big family – people who knew Anne, the survivors, campaigners. So out of this tragedy some good has come. People have come together, and they are a family. I will never be able to listen to You’ll Never Walk Alone without welling up again. Just thinking about it… 

“So this story is about love and, without quoting Frankie Goes to Hollywood, about the power of love. It is about a mother’s love for her son but also this relationship [with Anne’s husband Steve] that didn’t weather the storm, although they never stopped loving each other. It’s the impact on everybody’s life, not just Anne. It’s the ripples out.” 

The impact of the long and hard battle is immense. The reverberations of the failings of Hillsborough – and the failings of accountability over Hillsborough – continue to echo through the families and communities. 

“It really hit home when I was interviewing Charlotte Hennessy, whose father died at Hillsborough,” says Peake.  

“That kind of trauma passes down from generation to generation to generation. It’s not even just the next generation. Things seep through. We say it can’t happen again. But it has happened again – we’ve got Grenfell, we’ve got Manchester Arena.  

“Anne Williams shows us what it takes to be dedicated to a struggle like that, to fight for justice. I don’t think people have forgotten. But it is about reminding people and saying you can learn these lessons and take them into the next fight. Because there will be a next fight and a next fight and a next fight.” 

Maxine Peake stands in front of a mural to Anne Williams on Anfield Road in Liverpool. Photo: ITV

So if anyone else is looking to draw strength for the year ahead, watch Anne. Watch the new documentary about her life and campaigning. Find out more about Anne Williams. Then take some of the inspiration, some of the determination and indefatigable spirit into the new year.

“This woman decided she would strike out and try to get things changed,” says Peake.

“That really resonated with me. We need to know that these stories are out there, that people are still chipping away at the status quo, you know?”

Anne airs on ITV 2-5 January at 9pm. The Real Anne: Unfinished Business airs on ITV on January 6 at 9pm

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