Some TV shows sell themselves – a tattooed Tom Hardy runs around naked! Everyone’s a zombie except Andrew Lincoln! – but others seem significantly less appealing on paper. BBC One’s Three Girls is definitely in the latter camp, since it chronicles the horrific Rochdale child sex abuse ring uncovered in 2010. But over three gripping episodes (at 9pm tonight, tomorrow and Thursday), it manages to explore not just the crime itself but also the police investigation and eventual trial of the culprits. And it does all this while keeping the focus where it belongs, on the three young teenagers who were both victims and the eventual heroes of the whole appalling ordeal. It may seem hard to watch, but keep your eye on these young girls and it could give you hope for humanity.
The first episode is the most chilling. Holly (Molly Windsor, who’s extraordinary in this) is a 15-year-old going through a rough patch. Her father (Paul Kaye) recently lost his business and the family has had to move to a smaller house in a new area. Now Holly is acting up, staying out late and drinking to fit in with a new gang of friends led by Amber (Ria Zmitrowicz) and her younger sister Ruby (Liv Hill). But there’s something dark going on behind their teenage kicks: Amber’s older friend, the cheery man who gives them free kebabs and sources booze for their partying, expects certain favours in return for his generosity.
The show spends a little time on the slow, insidious build of his grooming for abuse, and it forces you to wonder when your own alarm bells would have started ringing. When you were young and reckless, would you have been suspicious of an amiable older man who gives you and your mates free food and laughs at your antics? How about if he gives you alcohol you’re all too young to buy? After you’ve taken his hand-outs, suddenly he’s telling you that “Friends do things for each other”, and that you owe him, and all the other girls are doing it, and you have no right to refuse. And after he assaults you, he’s telling you that you’re now “his bitch” and he’ll kill you if you cross him. The switch is utterly terrifying, and since it’s all shown in a non-explicit manner that avoids any hint of titillation, it should probably be required viewing for all teens.
Episode two focuses on the belated police investigation of the crime, several years after Holly first tried to tell them what had happened. After all, the abusers very carefully chose victims who would likely be written off. They’re too poor, their lives too disordered, their behaviour too ‘bad’ to make reliable witnesses. One has special educational needs and barely understands what’s happening. In crimes which largely come down to the word of a child against the word of an adult, witnesses need to be convincing – and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) fatally doubts their ability before a jury. Holly, the brightest of the three, has trouble finding the words to explain it to police, or her family: how, they think, could she explain it beyond a reasonable doubt under cross-examination?
The resilience of these three is inspiring, and gives us hope that their courage will save other girls in future
Monstrously, the men paid the girls small sums of money, to reinforce the shame these children felt but also to muddy the waters of any attempted investigation (it falls to Maxine Peake’s sexual health nurse, Sara Rowbotham, to point out that, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute. What there is is a child that’s been abused.”). Worst of all, the abusers sometimes made their victims feel complicit. If the first episode focuses on Holly, Amber emerges as the most complex character in the second. Amber recruited her friends into this ordeal and passed on the abusers’ threats to keep them in line. But she was also a victim, in deeper than any of the rest, and the two latter episodes make that devastatingly clear.
There are good adult performances as you’d expect from Peake, Kaye and Lesley Sharpe as DC Maggie Oliver, who puts together a case that will stick as a police detective who cares. But the lion’s share of the acting credit must go to the three relatively untried actors who play Holly, Ruby and Amber with devastating believability. And the script, by The C Word’s Nicole Taylor, is equally powerful, based so thoroughly in deep research into the case that this sometimes feels like documentary. While it keeps one eye always on the trio, the plot bends away long enough to touch on the racial aspects of the crime (all the men accused were Asian and all the victims white, an atypical situation that the drama carefully puts in context) and the institutional failings that allowed it to continue for years. Social services refer to the girls’ abuse as a “lifestyle choice,” a shocking phrase also used during the trial by the defendants’ barristers, charged with delivering their client’s case that the girls were prostitutes who the men believed to be over the age of consent.
All these issues of sex and sexism, authority and negligence, class and race mean this doesn’t offer easy or comfortable answers. It’s no spoiler to say that the perpetrators of the abuse went to prison, but no triumphant finale is possible when the shadow of their crimes lingers so long over so many lives. But neither is this a total misery fest. The resilience of these three is inspiring, and gives us hope that their courage will save other girls in future. This show serves as a warning, and a roadmap, to prevent another Rochdale scandal. So while Three Girls is well-acted and riveting drama, it’s also one of the most important shows you’ll see the year.
If you are a young person affected by any of the issues raised by Three Girls, you can call Childline on 0800 1111 or get in touch via childline.org.uk . If you’re an adult concerned about a child, please call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org