BBC One’s Three Girls is a powerful and important three-part drama, based on the 2012 Rochdale child sexual abuse scandal.
The drama follows three girls – Amber (Ria Zmitrowicz), Ruby (Liv Hill), and Holly (Molly Windsor) – who have been dragged into a cycle of sexual violence by a group of older Asian men.
They are groomed, they are abused, and they are raped. And, when Holly lashes out, she is arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage to a glass counter and stealing two cans of fizzy pop from a takeaway. The police treat her as a suspect, yawning throughout the interview, and bullying her into confessing her guilt: their contemptuous attitude towards the vulnerable working-class teen is palpable.
And it’s a stark reminder that the children at the centre of the “biggest child protection scandal in UK history” were let down by the authorities on countless occasions: neither social services, the police, nor the council were willing to listen to the girls. Indeed, an official report in 2015 later revealed that the council had a bullying, sexist culture of covering up information and silencing whistle-blowers, and was “not fit for purpose”.
There is only one adult who comes out well in the first installment of Three Girls, and that is sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham (Maxine Peake).
In the first episode (16 May), viewers watched as she meets with the underage girls, speaks with them, and realises what is going on. Then, in a bid to stop further abuse, she diligently records and reports what they have told her. Just as she did in real life, Rowbotham becomes instrumental in getting the girls’ voices heard, and refuses to let the reluctance, ignorance, blindness and fear of everyone else stop her in her task.
And, when the authorities dismiss the girls as nothing more than “child prostitutes”, Rowbotham firmly reminds them that there is absolutely no such thing.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” Peake’s Rowbotham informs them. “What there is is a girl who’s been abused.”
After last night’s episode sent shockwaves across social media, there was one question on everybody’s lips: what would have happened to these young women without Sara Rowbotham?
The real-life Rowbotham worked for the NHS’s Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team from 2004 to 2014.
“I was based in the town centre and my role was to reach out to young girls,” she writes in a piece for The Guardian. “Because of our nonjudgmental approach, we were able to win their trust in a way that police and social services could not. The girls knew we weren’t there to try to get evidence from them – we were there to help and support them.
“As a result, our centre became something of a refuge where teenagers would pop by for a brew and a chat.”
Over time, more and more underage girls began to visit the centre – and Rowbotham became shocked at the “magnitude of the problem” in Rochdale. She called the police and social workers, but found herself ignored – and was even told to accept the girls’ “lifestyle choices”.
“How could no one see we were in the midst of a major crisis where girls were being raped on an industrial scale?” she writes.
Rowbotham met with 13 and 14-year-olds who had been violently gang-raped. She spoke with children as young as 10 who were terrified that their mothers and younger siblings would be targeted by their perpetrators if they failed to comply with their twisted demands. She sat with a terrified young girl as she recalled an incident where a man in his 40s had poured petrol over her and “threatened to set her on fire unless she performed a sex act on him”.
And still nobody listened.
In one particularly powerful scene in Three Girls, Peake – as Rowbotham – meets with the authorities and attempts to force them to acknowledge what is happening.
Met with blank, almost bored, stares, she says: “Would it help if I told you what kind of sex they’re having?
“They’re giving out blow jobs like sweets and having anal with no condom, no lube.”
Undeterred by the police’s disinterest in what she had to say, the real-life Rowbotham continued to fight to make the girls’ voices heard. From 2005 through to 2011, she made referrals for 181 young people – and yet only nine prosecutions were made.
Speaking at the MP-led inquiry into the case in 2012, Rowbotham said: “It was unfortunate that it was about attitudes towards teenagers. It was absolute disrespect that vulnerable young people did not have a voice. They were overlooked, they were discriminated against.
“They were treated appallingly by protective services. I told everybody these children were being abused. As far as I’m concerned, I told everybody.”
After years of being ignored, Sara Rowbotham was finally taken seriously by the new detective assigned to the case, DC Margaret Oliver (Lesley Sharp). And it was Rowbotham’s evidence that proved crucial in the conviction of nine men for sex trafficking crimes against at least 47 girls between 2008 and 2012.
The fallout from the Rochdale case led to apologies being issued by Greater Manchester Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the local council for failing to act sooner on Rowbotham’s warnings about the abuse.
Yet, despite her tireless efforts to help the vulnerable young women in her community, Rowbotham was made redundant in 2014.
Peake met with Rowbotham (pictured below) as she prepared for her role in Three Girls – and, in an interview with The Independent, praised the real-life sexual health worker for her courage.
“Sara was frustrated and angry over the injustice that was happening to these young girls. You start to think you're going mad because the powers that be are not helping, they're shutting doors.
“No one seemed at all interested in helping these young girls who were in desperate situations. These were really vulnerable young women and the lack of care, I felt, was mind-blowing.”
Peake’s performance in the first episode of the hard-hitting drama has been widely praised – and countless viewers have, on the basis of her role, taken to social media to thank the real-life Rowbotham for dedicating her life to helping to rescue young women from violent sexual abuse.
Rowbotham, who is now a Labour Councillor for North Middleton in Rochdale, has also praised the show – and has revealed that she finally feels ready to move on with her life, which she intends to start by appearing on Channel 4’s First Dates next Tuesday (23 May).
“I’m coming out of a very difficult, dark time,” she reveals on the dating show.
"I’m ready to start to live my life again where I haven’t been for such a long time.
"And be able to just have nice times and not be so stressed or worried or anxious or angry. To be carefree.”
Everything you need to know about Three Girls
What does the show look at?
Three Girls is based on the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in Rochdale. It will look at the way in which these girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities directly responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.
Nicole Taylor, who penned the script for the show, explained that she refused to put pen to paper until she had spent time with the real people at the centre of the story.
She told the BBC: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding - not just of the terrible suffering they experienced, but of the courage it took to persist and persist over years, in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and ultimately participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”
Why is it such an important story?
The Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal has frequently been described as the “biggest child protection scandal in UK history”. Twelve men were sentenced for the crimes, 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation, and authorities were slammed for being discriminated against white working-class girls.
A safeguarding review began in 2015 and is currently still ongoing.
Speaking about the case, Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West, told the BBC: “The Rochdale case was both groundbreaking and heartbreaking. It forced every agency to look at their ways of working afresh and the creation of the first guidance for prosecutors, police, and local authorities. The case caused seismic and long-overdue change in the way trials involving vulnerable victims were dealt with.
“At last, victims had a voice.”
Susan Hogg, head of drama, Studio Lambert, added: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual 'grooming', providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”
Who’s in it?
Maxine Peake, Lesley Sharp, Paul Kay, Lisa Riley, Jill Halfpenny, Ace Bhatti, Liv Hill, Roa Zmitrowocz, Molly Windsor, Simon Nagra, Qas Hamid, and Wasim Zakir.
How many episodes is it?
The show has been filmed as a three-part drama.
When will it be on television?
Three Girls is on at 9pm on 16, 17 and 18 May.
What channel will it be on?
If you or anyone you know has been affected by the events portrayed in Three Girls, call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999.
Images: BBC One/Channel 4