In its last act, Three Girls resembles but vastly exceeds the shape of a legal drama

The final episode of the astonishing drama moves into the courtroom and the aftermath of the horrific events in Rochdale

   Katherine Pearce and Lesley Sharp in Three Girls. Photograph: BBC/Parisa Taghizadeh

Katherine Pearce and Lesley Sharp in Three Girls. Photograph: BBC/Parisa Taghizadeh

 

In a good drama, everybody is right. But it takes a particularly even-handed one to allow a trenchant insight to be voiced by one of its most repugnant characters. By the time Three Girls enters its third episode and final act, the fathomless trauma and institutional betrayal of the first episode had ceded to the forensic investigation and moral re-engagement of its second. Now the nine men accused of raping and trafficking teenaged girls in Rochdale are standing trial in an instalment that resembles, but vastly exceeds, the shape of a legal drama.

“Look at yourself in the mirror,” announces Shabir Ahmed, the child abuser known as “Daddy”, from the dock. “Where’s school? Where’s social services? Where’s everybody else?”

This is one of the horrors of this story, which finds an enabling culture inclined to blame its victims, in which the 15-year-old Holly (the extraordinary Molly Windsor) had been considered a prostitute by social service workers, while her friend, Amber, was interrogated for being a madame by police. Only an exasperated sexual health worker, Sara Rowbotham (Maxine Peake), reminds the authorities of the diminished agency of underage girls further manipulated by isolation, coercion and threat.

In one of director Philippa Lowthorpe’s subtle manoeuvres, such as beginning episodes with the hum of microphone static, the audience is stealthily asked to consider how the girls’ actions will come across; muted, amplified or easily distorted. One galling reason that Holly’s case was dropped was because the prosecution did not consider her “a credible witness”, and the TV audience, which sees every misstep and abuse as indelible and inarguable, worries whether the truth can survive the seeming implausibilities of a real and messy life. How different is a jury from an audience?

A belated and necessary representation from Rochdale’s beleaguered Muslim community arrives post trial, in a community meeting. The level of informed articulacy may seem a little glib, but it covers the territory well: 90% of sex abuse in Britain is perpetrated by white males, but, as one frustrated Pakistani asserts: “White people are never asked to account for the deviant behaviour of other white people.”

Nor are they asked to champion the bravery and commitment of other white people. It is both dispiriting and predictable that neither Peake’s Rowbotham, nor Lesley Sharp’s DC Oliver get satisfactory recognition for their work, instead leaving their professions under a cloud of misgivings and back-stabbings.

But while this story takes in a wide context, it returns admirably to the ordination of its title, the three girls who were “voiceless, blamed, treated appallingly” and still survived their ordeal. In a moment that will stay with you long after this powerful drama ends, the camera – finally steady after three jittery days of broadcast – lingers on each of them, and their eyes slowly come to meet your gaze.

It’s a startling, yet assuring gesture. Finally, they have been seen and heard.

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