Three Girls: a story of horrific abuse and extraordinary bravery

The BBC’s three-part dramatisation of the Rochdale child sex abuse scandal is unflinching in its truth-telling

Molly Windsor, Liv Hill, Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz in Three Girls. Photograph: BBC

Molly Windsor, Liv Hill, Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz in Three Girls. Photograph: BBC

 

A remarkable drama, based on events that were all too harrowingly real, Three Girls (BBC One, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 9pm) presents its credentials in nervy, insistent titles: “This is a true story… based on extensive research.” It’s as though the programme itself has grown anxious that however sincerely it makes its case before the jury of a television audience, it may still not be believed.

That, the makers know, would be just a faint echo of the insult that followed the injuries endured by the three girls of its title (and a distressing number more). In Rochdale, Manchester, beginning in 2008, they were groomed to become part of a child sex ring and trafficked through the country. When they had the temerity to report their rapes, they were mostly distrusted, blamed and allowed to languish, until the case was renewed, in 2012, finally bringing the conviction of 12 men.  

Faced with a three-part drama, broadcast on successive, sombre nights, some will find the gathering despair of its first episode, however sensitively and artfully presented, too much to bear. That would be a shame. Because while time seems to slow down as writer Nicole Taylor and director Philippa Lowthorpe build up an exhaustive traumatic history, this is ultimately a story of inexhaustible support and inestimable bravery.

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

Two of its real-life crusaders, the perceptive sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham (given a tenacious performance by Maxine Peake) and the persevering Detective Constable Margaret Oliver (an affecting, understated Lesley Sharp, introduced in its forensic second episode) acted as consultants on the show. Yet the emotional veracity comes down to three extraordinary performances from its young leads.

The first, so subtle and shifting you forget it is a performance at all, is from Molly Windsor as the teenager Holly. Adrift in a new school in a new town she falls in with Ria Zmitrowicz’s seemingly street-smart Amber and her trusting sister Ruby (Liv Hill), takes to drinking and hanging around a local kebab shop, until the seamy men who ply them with booze demand sex in return.

The prevalence of rape in television drama is as depressing as its trivialisation, but Lowthorpe’s handling is uncommonly delicate and sober. In Holly’s violation, she lets her woozy camera fix on fractured details – a bedroom clock, a fallen shoe, Windsor’s pained face – as though the memory was already fragmenting in shock and confusion.

Other ordeals are just as grave: a boorish interview with police, digging into the 15-year-old’s sexual history in the presence of her father (a revelatory Paul Kaye), an automatically shaming social-services interview when she gets pregnant, and, perhaps most horrifyingly, how the girls behave as their own jailers under systematic manipulation. Recorded by her “boyfriend” dancing naked, Ruby blandly announces, “Now I’m famous in Pakistan.”

Here is where the programme, giving the raw power of images to an already sensational media story, recognises its own potential to rouse moral panic. “Old Asian men. Vulnerable young girls. It’s happening again,” summarises Sara, not inaccurately.

Race does become an issue (original investigators apparently downplayed the evidence to avoid racial tensions, and the final episode includes a necessary, if slightly glib, anguished response from Rochdale’s beleaguered Muslim community).

But it is hardly the whole story. Instead, the drama is wounded, betrayed, but not despairing. Courage comes from telling the whole story and vindication comes from finally hearing it. It is complicated, vital, and neither pure or simple, but it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

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