Review: Three Girls (S1 E3/3), Thursday 18th May, BBC1

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(C) BBC – Photographer: Sophie Mutevelian

I had to drive down to Bristol to CrimeFest on Thursday night, so I missed the final episode of Three Girls in real time. So, yes, this review is a bit late, but I felt I needed to post something about it because it affected me so much on an emotional level. I try and be as objective as I can when I review tings for this site because I take pleasure in looking at themes and structure and all that mularky. But sometimes the objectivity has to give way to pure emotional reaction, which is what Three Girls provoked.

At the end of Three Girls, as the traditional annotations telling us what the real people (Holly WInshaw, her father Jim, Amber and Ruby Bowen, Margaret Oliver and Sara Rowbotham) faded in and out telling us what the main characters were up to know, and the three girls in question – Holly, Amber and Ruby – looked directly into the camera and faced us, the audience, I found myself crying.

Such was the power and the importance of Three Girls.

And yet, being hype-objective, it was scant, poorly constructed drama. Timelines jumped, some confusion reigned, some areas of the girls’ story were left uncontextualized, and towards the end the script resembled little soundbites. The inevitable court scenes in this final episode – where the nine men were found guilty of grooming, trafficking and rape – didn’t have that tension of a run-of-the-mill police procedural and felt rushed and disjointed. But let’s face it, you forgave Three Girls for these things because this played out more like a documentary, and in an instant perhaps became the most important British crime drama of the year.

Why? Because Three Girls shone a light on a subject hitherto swept under the carpet – that taboo subject of grooming and sexual exploitation that has and is taking place in communities up and down the UK. No one wants to think that this is happening; everyone wants to think it only happens in other countries. We need to talk about it now, examine our attitudes towards and make sure that the prosecuting authorities have a credible plan of engagement going forward. Three Girls brought this tricky, sickening and emotive subject into the mainstream.

That is for now and the future, but the series also shone a light on the rank negligence and arrogance shown by the CPS bank in the mid-Noughties, when, in this instance, evidence was ignored and its process of assessing whether a witness or not was reliable was sorely lacking. But not only that, it showed and reminded us all of how we view our forgotten society: those living in working-class communities who are either ignored, patronised or sneered at on a daily basis. They deserve respect and they deserve the authorities’ respect and help too, whenever they’ve been wronged against.

Three Girls highlighted the UK’s still rampant class divide.

And yet it was even more than that. It documented a type of coming of age no child should have to experience. The vast majority of teenagers go off the rails at some point: they drink booze, they have sex, they dance to music and they take drugs. They make mistakes, because they’re doing everything for the first time. Teenagers have always done that and they always will; they’re a bloody nightmare, let’s face it. Three Girls touched on this devil-may-care, untouchable freedom and innocence – these feelings we all experienced when we were growing up; that particular feeling that nothing can touch us and we can do no wrong.

We were once again reminded what it means for families who grow up with a teenager in the home, how they deal with volatile kids and, indeed, how they reacy when the worst thing imaginable happens. We saw all this in Three Girls with the Winshaws, but we also saw what happens when a family unit gets stronger through adversity, and actually comes out of the other side still intact with new respect and understanding for each other.

The series also explored complex relationships between love, sex and exploitation – how, when you’re a teenager, these elements can be blurred. We saw how Amber Bowen became territorial about her status among the gang, and how she in turn, turned exploiter. The ultimate tragedy is how Amber – and this is something she struggled with throughout – was a victim of the hideous abuse herself.

And then there was race. Bubbling away beneath the girls’ stories was the way many people latched on to the fact that this particular group of men were of Pakistani heritage. I’ve purposefully avoided talking about race in my reviews because it has become such a toxic subject, but we saw in this final episode how the race issue erupted to the surface – the courtroom was veiled in a red mist of anti-Muslim protests, despite prosecutor Nazir Afzal’s statement in a post-trial community meeting that most sexual offences of this nature are caused by white men acting alone. What was different about this case is that these Pakistani-British men carried out their grotesque practises in gangs, resulting in the first ever conviction of sex trafficking on this soil. So was race an issue here? You can argue that among yourselves, but for me I didn’t see race as the issue – it was men doing bad things to young women, and that was the key for me.

And yet there was more: we also saw Margaret Oliver’s disgust at how Amber Bowen had been treated throughout, and how her reputation had been sullied in order to secure a successful prosecution. Oliver had resigned from the force, once again making us look at the police and CPS’s handling of the case. Finally, we saw Sara Rowbotham pleasing in a judicial hearing to look at teenagers from this sort of background differently and to listen to grass-roots organisations who have day-to-day contact with them and know what’s happening in their local communities.

So Three Girls really did have a bit of everything. It was highly emotive if structurally unstable, and it was also fantastically acted. Really fantastically acted. Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill were just outstanding as Holly, Amber and Ruby respectively – all at once vulnerable, defiant and brave – while Paul Kaye turned in a career-defining performance.

So, much to ponder here. An extraordinarily important piece of work despite its shortcomings as a drama.

Paul Hirons
@Son_Of_Ray

For our episode one review go here

For our episode two review go here

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