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11 January 2018

Channel 4’s Kiri is complex story of race, power, privilege and social service budgets

Much like his last drama, National Treasure, Jack Thorne’s latest series concerns scandal and its aftermath.

By Rachel Cooke

In Jack Thorne’s new drama Kiri (9pm, 10 January), Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker whose smelly mongrel is, out of hours, her only companion. Likeable but flawed – she carries a hip flask with her at
all times, a habit lifted disappointingly straight from the working-women-and-their-empty-lives playbook (of which more, later) – she is kind, funny, sceptical, impatient and determined. She’s also a native Bristolian. And yes, ark at ee! Lancashire’s Bristol accent alone may win her another Bafta for this one. To these northern ears, her mastery of it is total.

Like Thorne’s National Treasure before it, this series is concerned with scandal and its aftermath. Miriam allowed Kiri, a nine-year-old black girl who was shortly to be adopted by her white foster carers, to spend time with her birth grandparents, and the worst happened. During the period she was in their care, her violent father reappeared. We do not yet know to what degree her grandparents sanctioned what he did next, but with or without their consent he took her from their house, and now she is dead. Miriam has been suspended. The press is in full cry. Kiri’s grieving grandparents Tobi (Lucian Msamati) and Rochelle (Andi Osho) are in deep shock, and so, too, are her foster parents, Alice (Lia Williams) and Jim (Steven Mackintosh).

As a set-up, this is both complex and compelling. In play are race, power, privilege, political correctness and social service budgets. (“Did you allow unsupervised contact because she was black?” shouts a reporter from the pack outside Miriam’s home.) Still, I feel weirdly anxious about how this one is going to proceed – a worry born, perhaps, of my fear it won’t match up to National Treasure, which remains one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in recent years. I’m unnerved, for instance, by the depiction of Kiri’s foster parents the Warners, at whose lifestyle we’ve already been invited to sneer (when Miriam admires Alice’s luxuriant yellow kimono, she half-apologises for it, insisting it’s just a “dressing gown”). It’s as if being middle-class is a crime in itself. What role, moreover, is the Warners’ (non-adopted) teenage son, Simon, set to play? We already know that he feels Kiri was “chosen”, while he was merely a biological fait accompli. Let us pray his envy is not going to prove to have been too (ludicrously) toxic.

And so to Kay Mellor’s latest, Girlfriends (9pm, 10 January). Oh, lord. Of course it’s brilliant, and completely astonishing, to be presented with a primetime ITV drama in which the three lead roles are played by women whose ages range from 59 to 68. Not even the cynical box-ticking involved in its commissioning – “Now, what shall we give the older ladies this winter season?” – can detract from that. But you have to ask: is this basket case of cliché, wild improbability and internalised sexism honestly the best they can do?

Sue (Miranda Richardson), Gail (Zoë Wanamaker) and Linda (Phyllis Logan) are old friends, brought to renewed closeness in later life by traumatic events: Sue has been dismissed from her magazine job by its owner, her married lover; Gail, who wields a lollypop on a crossing outside a school, is recently divorced and being put through hell by her petty criminal son; and Linda stands accused of the murder of her husband, who fell off a cruise ship. Their sisterly solidarity is, of course, warmly done. These are three great actors; Richardson in particular has rarely been better. But it feels contrived, nevertheless. Sue, rich and glamorous, might have been beamed into Gail and Linda’s world from another planet.

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Far worse, though, is the fact that Sue is yet another woman whose career, the source of all her sadness and sacrifice, is a matter only for huge regret. Forget older women. I still live for the day when a female character in a primetime drama has a job she loves, and performs with a great deal of satisfaction. This woman, it goes without saying, will be a non-drinker, and when she goes home it will be to a beloved partner or child (or even both), rather than to some farting old mutt and yet another lonely takeaway. 

On the NS culture podcast this week, Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by film critic Ryan Gilbey to discuss the new Pixar film Coco. Then they analyse Jack Thorne’s new drama Kiri and celebrate the noniversary of Alexandra Burke’s “Hallelujah”.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief