Last night, the first episode of the three-part Three Girls kicked us all in the solar plexus and made us hover on the verge of tears. It told the story of Holly and her young teenage friends who were lured into a hideous paedophile prostitution ring, populated by men in Rochdale. At the end of the episode, Holly was given hope in the form of Maxine Peake’s sexual health worker, Sara Rowbotham, who, unlike the social services and the police, saw Holly as a human being rather than just another teen who lived a certain lifestyle.
The first scenes went by in a bit of a blur. Amber arrested. Fast forward to 2009, with Holly pregnant. fast forward again to 2010, where had given birth and passed her A levels with flying colours. Just for a moment Holly looked like any other teenage girl with her whole life in front of her.
However, on the day she got her A-level results a letter from the CPS arrived, revealing the case had been dropped against her abusers because of insufficient evidence. Jim was broken; Holly once again plunged into an emotional state she couldn’t explain or want.
We then met DC Margaret Oliver (Leslie Sharp, complete with power haircut), who was heading up Operation Span. It was revealed that there had been 47 survivors of grooming and she and her team were on it and determined to bring these men to justice. They got to work, with an abortion Amber had previously key to their investigation (the police took the foetus and put it in a freezer, as evidence. Which, when you read it back, is pretty extraordinary). Suddenly the police (the team included Kerrie Hayes, who appeared in another recent true-crime drama, Little Boy Blue) were interested.
The investigation centred on three girls: Holly, and Amber and Ruby Bowen. But, naturally, no one wanted to talk to them: it had been almost three years since the initial allegations had been made; when, back then, they had been ignored. They felt anger and betrayal, and harboured a deep mistrust of the police and CPS. Quite rightly, Oliver had addressed her team and told them that they needed to start treating these families with respect and as human beings; and to be conciliatory and contrite. The fact that she had to remind her team to do this spoke volumes of how the police and the authorities had regarded ‘families like that’.
It wasn’t just the girls and their families who were angry at the police: Sara Rowbotham was, too. In an almighty stand-off, Rowbotham sounded off at Oliver after she had been asked to hand over her files. It was brilliant from Maxine Peake as Rowbotham shook with rage at the fact it was only now the police were interested in looking at the reams of notes she had taken during that time.
Raped, beaten, not believed, she seethed. Raped, beaten, not believed, she repeated through gritted teeth. In the end, Rowbotham helped to get Holly onboard.
Leslie Sharp – another fine actress – gave her a stare somewhere between ‘don’t you dare mess with me’ and ‘wow, you dared to mess with me’.
From there on in it was a case of trying to get the three girls onside and willing to go through their horrors once again, but this time to people who wanted to listen. It was a tough task. Holly, who by this time was living in a mother and baby hostel and was drinking (to the extent that she had her baby taken away from her, resulting in a suicide attempt), and Amber – who was calling Holly all kinds of names under the sun – eventually relented. But it was Ruby who was the toughest nut to crack – she still regarded those times in 2008 as ‘the best times of her life’. With some careful coaxing, she also came round.
So we were set for the trial.
Yes, this episode jumped around in terms of timeline to the extent it got a little bit confusing, but when Margaret Oliver and her investigating team got involved it provided tension of a different kind – that tension, that momentum, that only procedural drama can provide. So, not perfect in terms of structure, but once again the acting was superb and the story… well, the story was still shocking and horrific, but also a story that still absolutely that needed to be told.
For our episode one review, go here