The BBC continuity person doled out lots of warnings – sexual violence, physical violence and all the rest – before this three-part drama (stripped over three nights) started. There was no doubt – if there ever was any doubt – that this was going to be a harrowing, difficult watch. It was the story – another drama based on real-life events – of three girls who had been groomed and horrifically exploited by a paedophile gang (mostly containing, the story goes, Pakistani men, a fact that wasn’t lost during the reporting of the case by the British media when it broke in 2012). Nope, this wasn’t going to be a helter-skelter, fun procedural. It was going to be a very, very difficult watch.
The first 10 minutes or so focused on Holly (Molly Windsor), who was doing what every teenager does – she careened from friend’s house to friend’s house, experimenting with make-up, booze and dancing without inhibition to music. But we saw in the very first scene something portentous that put me on edge straight away – she was being interviewed in a police station for stealing a can of coke and criminal damage. The policeman said he was sick of the sight of her and her kind, and she should get out. The reality was that she had been beaten up by the owner of a curry house. Why, we weren’t sure.
We also saw that her home life was fractious. She found it difficult to relate to her parents, Jim and Julie (played by Paul Kaye (in probably his best ever performance) and Jill Halfpenny), who, in turn, gave her short shrift. Like most parents of teenagers, they didn’t know what to do with her. Holly, meanwhile, wanted excitement and action and fun. She swore at them when they got heavy with her, and often stormed out. “Why does everyone have to be so miserable?”
Soon, she moved out completely to a friend’s house.
A quarter of an hour in and we saw Holly and her new friends Ruby (Liv Hill) and Amber (Ria Zmitrowicz) befriend the owners of a curry house, who were friendly and, what’s more, allowed them to party in the room above their shop. They gave them free food and booze. The girls liked it there because they could do what they wanted.
“Come into the room with me, I want to talk to you about something,” asked one of the men, known as Daddy, as he led Holly into the bedroom. And then the bombshell; the bombshell that woke Holly from her care-free partying: “When are you going to let me have sex with you?” Daddy’s argument was this: I gave you free kebabs and tikka, now you must give something to me. We’re friends and that’s how this works.
He had sex with her, Holly weeping as he did so. It was horrific. As he pulled on his clothes, his tone changed dramatically: his friendly facade dropped, and he told her that she was now his bitch. If she crossed him he would kill her, he growled. Later, as she hugged her knees in the bath, shaking with disgust and shame, Amber proffered advice: don’t let them kiss you, or let them touch your tits. Holly wasn’t the only one they were doing this to.
Twenty-two minutes in.
Act two. The aftermath. We saw Holly had smashed up the curry house because one of the other men wanted to have sex with her. We were in the police interview room again, where Holly admitted she was raped. Not once, but twice. It happened to her once in the room above the shop and then in a car park. She admitted she got into the car knowing what was going to happen.
Jim didn’t understand – he said you don’t go back for more after it happened to you once. He just couldn’t compute why someone – his daughter, his bright daughter – would do that. Later, a police interviewer wanted to focus on how many time she had had sex before her assault. Everything was pointing to Holly, and not her abusers.
But just by going to the police had seemed to begin a process of extricatation, and there was hope that her courage would be rewarded. That was until her ‘friend’ Amber pressured her to come back into the fold. It wasn’t long before she was taken in a car to a flat, where a number of underage girls were lined up in front of a group of men. Each man chose which girl he wanted to have sex with. Holly protested; Amber told her to shut the fuck up and get on with it. It’d be ok, she told Holly, because the man who wanted to have sex with her was good looking.
This was one of the more shocking aspects of the story – that a contemporary, someone who was trapped in the same circle of abuse, would coerce her friend into doing the same.
Sara Rowbotham (Maxine Peake, who I will watch in anything) – a sexual health worker at the local clinic where the girls often dropped in to get free condoms – became suspicious when some of the girls started to brag about their Pakistani boyfriends and their exploits. Sara’s initial pleas to the authorities were greeted with deaf, bureaucratic ears. We can’t get involved in this sort of thing because there’s no abuse at home, she was told. We don’t know for sure this is happening, and besides, these girls know what they’re doing, they added.
But it was happening, and by this stage Holly was beginning to become beaten down by her abusers – being picked up from school by the men, swigging vodka freely to blunt the awfulness and, shockingly, going back home to pick up her school uniform and performing a ‘prossie dance’ to her horrified dad. Even when the social worker came round to her house, she was made to feel ashamed and not given a way out. Sara, on the other hand, didn’t see her predicament as a ‘lifestyle choice’, instead seeing a terrified teenager who was being abused.
She had been turned, but Sara was offering her a way out.
Of course, this was difficult to watch and difficult to comprehend – why do authorities blame survivors before the abusers? Why did Holly and the rest of the girls go along with everything the men wanted them to? My viewing partner felt that this didn’t give enough context and didn’t understand why the girls were so stupid. Me? I understand that once you get trapped in this scenario it’s difficult to get out of (especially when your family and friends are threatened and physical violence is meted out if you don’t go along with the abusers’ demands). And, lest we forget, these girls are young and at a stage in their lives when complicated feelings of sex, love, acceptance and notoriety are confused and blurred. Mix them all up together and you get a really difficult situation.
This is why Three Girls was a very necessary drama. It showed us, unflinchingly, the experience of abuse through the survivors’ eyes. In this awful world of ours, the whole subject of teenage grooming needs to be talked about and needs to be addressed properly. Dramas like this help, especially dramas so outstandingly acted and naturally played. I also have slight misgivings about the structure of this first episode, but you can’t really be picky about something like this.
Part two tomorrow night.