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What would life have held for murdered teen Anthony?

The young Merseyside boy was killed without reason 15 years ago. This one-off BBC drama Anthony imagines which he could have gone on to achieve, as Georgia Humphreys reports

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Toheeb Jimoh who plays Anthony Walker in the BBC drama

Toheeb Jimoh who plays Anthony Walker in the BBC drama

Anthony Walker

Anthony Walker

Toheeb Jimoh who plays Anthony Walker in the BBC drama

On the night of July 29 2005, compassionate, funny, intelligent teenager Anthony Walker was murdered in a racist attack in Huyton, Merseyside.

The 18-year-old was walking his girlfriend, Louise, to the bus stop when he was ambushed by Michael Barton and Paul Taylor, who had earlier hurled racist abuse at him from outside a pub.

Walker, who was a devout Christian and talented basketball player, died the next day, with his family by his bedside. He left behind parents Steve and Gee, sisters Donna, Stephanie, Angella and Dominique, and brother Daniel.

Now, 15 years later, the BBC has made a one-off, 90-minute drama which imagines the life Walker could have lived.

Written by Bafta winner Jimmy McGovern (known for TV series such as Cracker and Broken, and the TV movie Hillsborough), Anthony is inspired by conversations with the teenager's devoted mother Gee.

It is not only an incredibly moving and emotional story about loss but is also full of hope and love.

The programme came about after Gee approached Liverpudlian McGovern (the pair had known each other for quite some time) and "you just don't say no to Gee", the writer lovingly quips.

"The BBC had just shown a really good film about the death of Damilola Taylor, and I knew that if I went to the BBC with a drama that showed a lead-up to the killing, the killing and the aftermath of the killing, about a young black boy, the BBC would say, 'Well, we've already done this with the Damilola Taylor story'," continues McGovern, when we chat over Zoom.

"So, I had to find a fresh way in. I'd been thinking about the First World War... the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, they kept on fighting right up until the 11th hour, even though everybody knew the war was over.

"Thousands died and I kept on thinking, 'How many of those men who died could have achieved something in their life?' A cure for a virus, perhaps...

"And that got me thinking about Anthony. That's the way it came about."

Playing Anthony is Toheeb Jimoh, a rising British star who is set to have a leading role in Amazon's highly anticipated sci-fi series The Power, and also appears in the Apple TV+ comedy, Ted Lasso, which is released in August.

"One thing I was painfully aware of was that, had I been born at a different time, and I had been at that bus stop in Liverpool, that could have been me - that could have been anyone," he suggests. "As a young black boy myself, it was super-important to me and it was a subject super-close to my heart."

He confides he was nervous to meet Gee for the first time at the read-through. But when he introduced himself, "she just basically gave all of us her blessing to tell the story and she wished us the best and it was nothing but positivity and kind words".

He chuckles as he adds what she whispered to him later on that day.

"I was improvising, I was throwing stuff in that wasn't even in the script at some points, and she just pulled me aside and went, 'Anthony didn't swear!'"

A particularly poignant part of the film depicts Anthony getting married, to a woman named Katherine, who is played by World On Fire star Julia Brown.

Gee was on set for the wedding scenes, and Jimoh recalls the moment she walked in to see him suited and booted for the ceremony.

"She grabbed me, and she went, 'Wow. This is what my son would look like if he was getting married'.

"It was huge for both of us and we had the longest hug in the world."

Katherine is not based on a real-life person, which Brown - known for BBC series World On Fire - describes as "liberating".

However, there were obviously many challenging moments on set.

"Especially, with the way that Jimmy did it, the couple of the scenes at the end, we show the alternate reality," she elaborates.

"So, sometimes, Toheeb and I would be laughing... like, we were filming when he walks me home after our first date, and we were having a great time, and then Terry our director said to us, 'OK, now Toheeb, go stand over there and Julia we're going to film you walking alone'."

"And then it hits you like a wave... That was quite difficult."

The show is coming out at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Following the shocking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May - which was caught on camera - protests against racism and police brutality have taken place across the UK.

"It feeds into the conversations that people are having at the moment about the bizarre nature of racism and Anthony really highlights for me how nobody wins," notes Welsh star Rakie Ayola, who portrays Gee, and is best known for her role in Holby City.

"Obviously Anthony's family don't win but the people who killed him don't gain anything. They don't gain so much as a pound coin from what they do.

"There was no reason at all to kill that young man. It wasn't to take his wallet, his phone, which is ridiculous enough. There is something so pointless about putting your energy into any kind of hatred in that way.

"So, if you're of a mind to not quite understand why everyone is up in arms about this racism thing, well here you go.

"But it also means that we will take a lot of heat from people who are bored with the racism conversation right now."

Does Jimoh think things have changed for him, as a young black man, in the 15 years since Anthony's death?

"Of course things have changed and moved forward - but we still have a huge way to go," he says.

"What's interesting now is that the climate has shifted a little and everyone is reimagining their relationship with race.

"As a country, that's important and a huge step forward, but nowhere near enough has happened yet."

Even though she describes her daughters as "home-bodies", Ayola confides she has been having more blunt conversations with them, about "being careful, why other people need to be careful", since the death of George Floyd.

"That's been interesting as a parent, explaining what's gone on and trying not to terrify them," she adds.

"There's still a lot of work to do, as what happened to Anthony could still happen again tomorrow."

Anthony airs on BBC One on Monday, July 27, 8.30pm

Belfast Telegraph