TV star Sheridan Smith hugs the mum of a murder victim in what has become an extraordinary close friendship forged in the making of a new TV drama.
Its seeds were sown when Sarah Sak – whose son Anthony was killed by Grindr serial killer Stephen Port – told a BBC writer she wanted “a gobby northern bird to play me, someone like Sheridan Smith”.
To Sarah’s astonishment, producers approached the down-to-earth Gavin & Stacey star.
And Sheridan, 39, was so moved by battling mum Sarah’s determination to force sceptical police to nail the date rape drug killer jailed in 2016 – she said yes.
The Cilla star regularly exchanges texts with Sarah, and sent her a message about how brave she must have been.
And the star has promised she can meet her own 11-month-old son Billy once lockdown is over.
Today supermarket worker Sarah, 55, tells us how they first met at her sister’s house in her home town of Hull.
“Sheridan walked in and within five minutes it was like I’d known her for ever,” says Sarah.
“She’s so down to earth and had a cuppa with me and my sister Kate. She said she always wants to meet the people she plays and she hoped she would do me proud.”
Sarah is just the type of strong, working-class woman Sheridan admires.
She was torn apart by grief after 23-year-old fashion student Anthony Walgate was found dead outside chef Port’s East London flat in June 2014 with traces of date-rape drug GHB in his body.
The two had met though the Grindr dating app. Port, 46, at first claimed he had stumbled across Anthony’s body in the street – but Metropolitan police suspected he was lying.
They charged him with perverting the course of justice after he changed his story, saying Anthony had died of an accidental overdose at his flat following consensual sex.
No murder investigation was ever opened and Port later went on to kill at least three more men who were found dumped in a graveyard near his flat.
Grieving Sarah refused to accept Port’s overdose story and begged cops to investigate him further.
Yet police initially failed to connect the cases despite all the men being gay, in their early 20s, and had apparently died of drug overdoses, with their mobile phones missing.
And as BBC drama Four Lives reveals, it was only after Sarah joined forces with the other men’s families that police finally nailed Port.
She says: “When I was first approached about the drama I said I’d only take part if the other families also agreed to do it.
“I told series writer Neil McKay he had to find a gobby northern bird to play me, someone like Sheridan Smith or Sarah Lancashire. I couldn’t believe it when he said Sheridan had agreed.”
Sarah was invited on set in Manchester where she watched Sheridan film a scene which captured a touching moment between Sarah and Anthony after a college fashion show. “It was so strange watching someone replay that,” she says.
“Sheridan had me to a T, and the actor who plays my son got all his mannerisms just right. It was like watching Anthony in motion. It made me so sad – and when a filming break came Sheridan said, ‘Shall we go and have a fag?’
“Another day she must have had a tough time playing the role because she messaged me to say, ‘I’ve just finished for the day and I can’t believe you were so brave and carried on’.”
Sheridan gave birth to her son Billy in May last year at the height of lockdown and Sarah says: “She’s such a good mum and dotes on the baby. When Billy was born my sister knitted him a little crochet star blanket.
“Sheridan really loved that. She was due to bring him to see us then we went back into lockdown, but she’s said we can meet him soon.”
Sheridan told of her bond with Sarah in a Rob Brydon podcast. She said: “It must be hard for all the families because they were on set here and there.
“You just feel such a responsibility to tell their story. I play Sarah and got to become really good friends with her.
“The strength and what they went through – I think it’s going to be a really harrowing piece.”
Four Lives follows the families and their fight for justice while exploring criticism of the police investigation raised in a previous BBC documentary.
Chef Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Gabriel Kovari, 22, were killed while Port was awaiting his court date for perverting the course of justice over Anthony’s death. He got eight months.
When forklift driver Jack Taylor, 25, became Port’s fourth victim his sisters Donna and Jenny became suspicious. It was only through their persistence along with Sarah’s that the pattern of deaths was uncovered.
Sarah says: “I strongly believe had it not been for our voices there could have been more victims.”
In 2016, Port – who once appeared on Celebrity MasterChef – was finally convicted of murdering all four men.
The killer used Grindr to lure his victims to his Barking flat before drugging and raping them then dumping the bodies.
A total of 12 men are believed to have been attacked by Port between 2012 and 2015. He got a whole life sentence.
The Office star Stephen Merchant had to shave his head to play the creepy, twisted killer.
Sheridan said: “Port was bald and he used to wear a wig.
“He looked quite young in his online pictures when actually he’s quite terrifying, with a bald head. Stephen plays the role really brilliantly .”
The series, originally titled The Barking Murders, is in post-production and set to air on BBC One once an inquest into the victims’ deaths is finally heard. The hearing was postponed until September due to the pandemic.
It means the show might not be on our screens until 2022, when Sarah’s book, A Life Stolen: The Tragic True Story of My Son’s Murder, is also due to be published.
Sarah said: “I know I’m very lucky to be played by Sheridan, although I did cringe a bit when I watched the show.
“There’s one scene in which a second lot of police came around to see me. Sheridan tells them, ‘I hope you are better than the last lot because they couldn’t find the hole in their a****.
“Looking back I can’t believe I actually said that, but I did. I was like a mama bear trying to get justice for her son. Then there’s a moment when Stephen Merchant stares at Sheridan as he walks into court and he’s really got the look of Port about him. It sent a chill down my spine.”
While Sarah still desperately misses her son every day, she believes he would have been “impressed” by the fact that a star like Sheridan is playing the role of his mum.
She said: “He dreamed of being a fashion designer and was such a caring lad. He had his whole life ahead of him.
“I feel like he’s still looking after me in a way, making sure that I’m still his voice even although he’s no longer here.”
Actor loves to meet with real life characters
It’s not the first time Sheridan Smith has starred in a moving real-life story – and she always tries to meet her characters if possible.
In 2012 she played Train Robber Ronnie Biggs’ wife Charmian in ITV drama Mrs Biggs, debunking myths about the 1963 crime.
Charmian invited her to her home and showed her old photos and letters.
In BBC 2017 series The Moorside she played Julie Bushby, best pal of Karen Matthews, who faked daughter Shannon’s kidnap.
Sheridan met Julie and they struck up a friendship. Julie later said: “She hasn’t forgotten her roots. She’s just like us.”
Sheridan also bonded with the late Cilla Black when she played her in a 2014 ITV biopic.
She said it was terrifying meeting her “because she’s such an icon”.
The same year, Sheridan played the murdered first wife of Scottish killer Malcolm Webster in ITV crime drama The Widower.
Her portrayal of Claire Morris was so realistic her brother Peter thanked her.
He said: “I feel if I want to see Claire again all I have to do is switch on the drama.”