Three Girls: A story of fragile self-esteem, abused

A powerful drama exploring the Rochdale child grooming scandal contains miraculous performances

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Self-esteem: how hard it is won and how easily it ebbs away. For the teenage protagonists of Three Girls, Nicole Taylor’s three-part drama about the Rochdale child grooming scandal (16-18 May, 9pm), inner confidence was nothing but a chimera, yet another miserable staging post on the road to disillusion. Offered praise and half a bottle of vodka, it would briefly flare, warm and hopeful, only to disappear again as the men of the piece – brutes who thought of these mixed-up children as so much meat – put it out as easily as they would a candle.

There is, it seems, an awful lot still to be learned from what happened in Rochdale to 47 girls between 2003 and 2011, crimes for which nine men were finally convicted in 2012. But beyond the lazy, dysfunctional processes of the police and the social services – their institutional sexism and (how odd that these things can coexist) their stubborn political correctness – perhaps the biggest lesson of all has to do with self-worth. If only this was a thing we could give to our young women, as we would a mobile phone or a key to the front door.

I began watching Three Girls, which promised 180 minutes of bottomless misery, with something close to dread. We find ourselves in the middle of a glut of TV series based on real-life events, most of which are pretty lame and parasitical. The Rochdale case, moreover, brought with it an added danger: surely the BBC wouldn’t let the titles roll without earnestly reminding viewers that although those convicted in this case were all British Asian and knew one another, most abusers are white men operating alone, usually within their family. I feared the inevitable lecture, and not just because sermons are the enemy of drama. The specific facts of this case matter. Context is an excellent thing, except when it provides an excuse to look in the opposite direction.

Sure enough, there came one excruciatingly laboured scene in which, at a fractious community meeting, everyone who spoke had some preposterously well-rehearsed anti-racist message to impart. But otherwise, I found myself utterly in awe of Three Girls. What a script by Taylor (until now, best known for The C Word), her dialogue faultlessly unmannered, her structure seamlessly smooth. Careful and involving, her screenplay honoured the three girls on whose experiences she focused by depicting them in the round. Wayward, foolish and streetwise, they threatened to drive us, as they did their long-suffering parents, halfway round the bend; and yet not for one moment did we lose sight of them as so vulnerable that their basic needs (sustenance, shelter, even love) were being met by a kebab shop.

Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who repeatedly told the deaf Greater Manchester Police just what was going on in Top Curry and other establishments like it, was played by Maxine Peake, and Margaret Oliver, the detective whose job it was to win their trust after being ignored for so long, by Lesley Sharp. Both were predictably brilliant, especially Peake, vibrating with rage. But they were also, I’m glad to say, acted off the screen by Ria Zmitrowicz, Liv Hill and Molly Windsor, who played our three girls, Amber and Ruby Bowen and Holly Winshaw, respectively.

Amber, put to work by her abusers as a kind of pimp, deployed her considerable toughness in the cause of denial, a balancing act Zmitrowicz performed with dexterity and sullen vim. Holly, meanwhile, simply sank every further, a numbness Windsor transmitted first with a zombie stillness, and then with a noiseless inward collapse, the tears seeming to come not from her eyes but from her very soul.

For my money, though, it was Hill who stood out, for all that she had the smallest of the three roles. Ruby’s learning difficulties led her to muddle pleasure and pain, and Hill was horrifyingly convincing in these tinny explosions of joy (“It were mint!” she insisted, when first asked about the nature of her relationship with the man who passed her among his friends “like a ball”.) A miraculous performance and, or so I found, an indelible one, too. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies