Whenever Channel 4 produces its own drama, you sit up and take notice. The channel doesn’t produce anywhere near as much as it should, but when it does it’s usually of the highest quality. Past series (like last year’s Born To Kill, and things like the Red Riding trilogy and Samantha Morton and Tony Grisoni’s The Unloved) have always been thought-provoking, beautifully and artfully shot and often involve talent of the highest quality. In the past few years, writer Jack Thorne has proven himself to be one of the country’s very best, especially after his last Channel 4 series, National Treasure (read our reviews of that here). He’s back with another four-part crime story, and if it continues as it did during this first episode, it’ll be another fine series.
Sarah Lancashire is, of course, well known to crime drama fans thanks to her terrific performance as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley, and here she’s centre stage again, displaying all those incredibly natural acting qualities she’s now so well known for. Complete with (a very good) Bristolian accent, she plays social worker Miriam Grayson, who approaches life with that familiar, earthy pragmatism – she works in a difficult area of social care, and (as we find out later in this episode) she’s experienced severe grief and trauma in her life. And yet Miriam is breezy, pushing everything aside, focusing on the things that really matter – helping the people that need help, working within the rules but pushing them because some of them are needlessly bureaucratic, and looking after her ailing, flatulent dog. She reminded me of a social worker version of Vera – no-nonsense, but incredibly empathetic and caring. Some of her exchanges with her dog walker and ‘clients’ were genuinely funny and affecting.
Her life is turned upside down when she takes a young British African girl, Kiri, to her birth grandparents for her first ever unsupervised visit. She reassures her foster parents-to-be (an unemotional middle-class, white family) that everything will be fine – it’s not long to go until they get to foster Kiri formally, and this visit to her grandparents is important and necessary.
So far, so straightforward.
That is until Miriam gets a phone call from her superiors informing her that Kiri has gone missing and that her birth father – a dangerous man, just let out of prison – is thought to have abducted her. Suddenly Miriam’s world collapses, and her practices and reputation are called into question.
Miriam dismisses the incident as another child doing a runner, and she’s certain that she’ll turn up soon. Except she doesn’t – Kiri is found, lifeless, in a patch of woodland on the outskirts of town.
Immediately Kiri turns into a murder mystery and, for Miriam, a noirish descent into panic and paranoia. She tries to talk to her infirm, ailing (and racist) mother about it, she gets support from some of her colleagues and one particular client who she takes sausages to every week (the client admits, in Kiri’s time of need, that she hates sausages). “I’m in the shit,” Miriam admits to all of them. “I’m really in the shit.”
Elsewhere, guilt takes over – the grandparents explode with it, as does Miriam – and so does blame. Jim and his wife are distraught but insistent that Miriam has been negligent and somehow complicit in Kiri’s tragic death, while the bigwigs at work are already drawing up a tribunal to somehow get rid of her. Because everyone needs someone to blame.
“Poor girl,” Miriam shudders when given the news. “Poor us,” Miriam’s boss whimpers. And this is the difference between Miriam’s character and the rest – she’s empathetic and caring and focused on what a social worker should be; the rest are fearful of the system and reprisal if anything goes wrong.
I mentioned Kiri’s ethnicity earlier because race obviously plays a part here – Miriam is accused of pushing the unsupervised meeting with the Akindeles because it might help Jim and his wife sign-off on their adoption earlier. But Thorne weaves these themes of race – themes that the press frenzy over – in so deftly that nothing neither feels forced nor pious or showy. Because Thorne understands – and has demonstrated this in his previous series – that life is never one thing or the other; it’s a bit everything. And that’s what made Kiri so watchable and compelling – each character had good points, bad points and everything in between. They were struggling with life and trying to make the best of it, and then a trauma provoked emotions of grief and guilt. In other words: high-class, human drama.