BBC One’s docu-drama Three Girls started on Tuesday 16 May at 9pm and it’s got everyone talking.
Written by Nicole Taylor, Three Girls dramatises the far-reaching grooming, sexual assault and trafficking of young girls in Rochdale between 2005 and 2008. The abuse was exposed by The Times in 2012 and led to a subsequent police and CPS investigation and trial, that Three Girls explores in depth.
The 2012 investigation blew the lid on an epidemic of grooming that was taking place at the hands of sex gangs made up of men aged between 29 to 59 to underprivileged young white girls across towns including Rotherham, Derby and Oldham. A suspected 1,400 girls were involved – but this BBC drama focuses closely on just three of them in close detail.
Consisting of three, hour-long episodes, the drama tells the stories of Holly (Molly Windsor), Amber (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Ruby (Liv Hill), vulnerable girls who are preyed upon and exploited by the older men who raped and prostituted them.
In Rochdale in particular – the focus of the BBC One drama – the group was led by 59-year-old takeaway driver, husband and father of four, Shabir Ahmed, who forced his victims to call him ‘daddy’.
It’s a difficult watch – one that, at times, it seems easier and more preferable to switch off.
But it’s a must-see.
1. It places focus on the victims not the abusers
Instead of telling the story of the abusers – as so many programmes do – Three Girls places the focus on the girls who are targeted by the sex gang, and powerfully portrays their utter helplessness.
We see 15-year-old Holly as the protagonist. First in the investigation room and then in the weeks leading up to it. We see how her difficult relationship with her parents led her into a friendship with two sisters, Amber and Ruby, who introduce them to a group of older Asian men.
For many, it can be difficult to understand how girls can be groomed. Why did they want to be friends with these older men? Why didn’t they tell their parents? Why didn’t they run away?
But these seemingly innocent questions are all carefully addressed in the programme. Three Girls shows how these men were able to infiltrate this group of girls, gain their trust by plying them with free food and alcohol, and being there for them to escape their daily lives. They groom them.
In one particularly harrowing scene, ringleader ‘Daddy’ takes Holly into a room and asks: “'When are you going to let me have sex with you?” before reeling off a list of things he’d given her: chips, cigarettes and vodka, saying “We’re friends. Friends do things for each other,” and throwing her on the bed and raping her. When he’s finished, he warns: “'you're my bitch now and if you cross me I'll kill you' “
It shows how this abuse takes hold of Holly’s life, how the men rape her and then abandon her and the others miles from home with no money or means of transport, and how Holly unravels and spirals into terror and confusion, unable escape the grip of her perpetrators.
In real life, the victims were ignored and let down by the criminal justice system, but now they’re front and centre.
2. It was made following extensive research
Watching Three Girls, it’s difficult to believe that these horrifying events actually took place in 21st Century England right in front of our eyes. But the events in the programme are not depicted for dramatic effect, they actually happened.
Screenwriter, Nicola Taylor, undertook extensive research and interviews with victims to portray an accurate depiction of the crimes. The three girls in the programme tell a composite of stories of multiple victims, but everything that takes place in court and the way in which the victims were treated by both the perpetrators and the authorities actually took place.
The team behind the drama spent four years researching and building relationships with the girls in order to gain their trust so that they could tell their story accurately, and incite change in institutional bias against underprivileged victims.
When the abuse is portrayed in the first episode and subsequent flashbacks, it’s not glorified or titillating as rape scenes so often are (think Game of Thrones). The camera pans away from the victim’s traumatised face, and instead focuses on her crumpled heap of clothes on the floor.
It’s an incredibly difficult programme to watch – but that’s exactly what it should be.
3. It exposes the extent of the police failings
The programme doesn’t skirt around the failings of the criminal justice system. It makes it the primary factor in the girls’ continuing trauma. While many were systematically abused, the authorities turned a blind eye.
Exposing the true danger of victim blaming, we see Holly attempt to seek help before being dismissed as a ‘child prostitute’, and girls being questioned for their ‘lifestyle’ choices by authorities. When Holly goes to the police, they arrest her for criminal damage, and when she explains she’s been raped, she is questioned about how many times she’s had sex before.
We see how so many don’t understand how being groomed takes hold, when Holly’s own father says: “If you get raped you don't go back for more”.
She doesn’t go home because she’s terrified.
And we see the problem with victim stereotyping, that has no understanding of the true vulnerability of women who are trafficked and groomed. The programme shows that, yes, trafficked girls are sometimes sexualised and aggressive, embracing danger to escape their situation. They’re not always angelic, virginal young women. And this does not mean they are not victims, nor that the authorities should protect them less than girls who are angelic. Like 21st Century slavery, the Rochdale and Rotherham cases exposed underlying class bias that is cemented in our society and criminal justice system.
While the girls in Rochester names over 20 men involved in the sex gang that they were being groomed by, just 11 were taken to trial by the CPS, and the girl witnesses were ruthlessly grilled by the defence counsel.
The vile treatment of the girls by the authorities is palpable in Three Girls, asking viewers to question their own internalised discrimination. It humanises the victims and takes them from being just a number, or ‘Girl A’ – one of the most famous in the abuse cases – to being living, breathing children with as much a right as anyone to a fair life.
4. It doesn’t shy away from race issues
During the press exposure of the grooming rings, the race of the abusers – Muslim men of predominantly Pakistani descent – was discussed as having been brushed under the carpet by people who feared appearing racist, thus allowing the abuse to continue.
Ignoring the men’s ethnicity was also said to have badly impacted the Pakistani community and led to racist protests by the EDL surrounding the trial.
Louise Casey, who led the report into the abuse into the Rotherham case, stated that “Rotherham's suppression of these uncomfortable issues and its fear of being branded racist has done a disservice to the Pakistani heritage community as well as the wider community. It has prevented discussion and effective action to tackle the problem. This has allowed perpetrators to remain at large, has let victims down and, perversely, has allowed the far right to try and exploit the situation.”
In Three Girls they tackle this head-on, unafraid to face the issue. And yet, they do so with incredible sensitivity – a difficult line to toe.
6. The incredibly powerful acting
Maxine Peake plays Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who blew the whistle on the epidemic. Repeatedly ignored by police, Rowbotham stopped at nothing to protect the girls. Eventually, it is her evidence that enabled the CPS to build a case against the perpetrators.
Peake’s nuanced acting shows her horror at the discovery, anger at police ignorance and kindness to the girls. She is one of few who saw them as people, urging the authorities to do the same.
When Holly’s father questions whether she is in fact a child prostitute, Peake replies: “Holly is not a prostitute. There's no such thing as a child prostutue. What there is is girls who are abused”.
The girls themselves are played by newcomers and their visceral portrayal of the victims’ experiences brings to life the horrors of the Rochester case in a way that known faces might not.
And, of course, Simon Nagra as the group’s vile ringleader who forces the girls to call him Daddy, is a role that only the most seasoned actor would dare take on.
Three Girls concludes at 9pm on 18 May and is available on iPlayer thereafter.