Three Girls: A Masterclass In Docudrama

Significant or sensationalising? BBC Docudrama Three Girls illustrates how child sex-abuse should be translated to screen.

Script-writer Nicole Taylor no doubt faced quite a challenge when presented with the task of turning the infamous Rochdale child-abuse sex scandal into a drama. Indeed, no one would be alone in feeling dubious as to how a story so undeniably horrifying and traumatic could be translated on screen – without sensationalising the violation of young children at its core. Yet, somehow, the uncomfortable feeling that the real girls are in some way being exploited (again) never happens, thanks to the production’s reiterated emphasis on ‘truth’.

This theme is introduced at the opening as the protagonist, Holly Winshaw (Molly Windsor), is questioned by police regarding a supposed robbery of a can of soda in her local kebab shop. Clearly shaken, she is trying to tell them she didn’t steal anything and from this point forward we will witness how ‘telling the truth’ was all these girls ever tried to do. By working directly with three of the victims and their families to shape this story, ‘telling the truth’ is what we need to realise Three Girls is attempting too.

Yes – many a docudrama on traumatic issues will claim to be coming from this standpoint. But the temptation to be arresting through sensationalism and shock tactics, whilst effective, always seems to detract from the reality of what happened. The rape scene of the first episode of Three Girls broadcasts how it intends on a different form of story-telling. The scene is raw, heart-breaking and sickening, but there is no attempt made to charge the scene with unnecessary violence or dramatic panache. It is low-energy, subtle and yet frighteningly-real.

This is how Three Girls approaches its darkest corners, with an emphasis on the real and true. Everything from costume and setting to the exceptional acting gives the impression of being free from embellishment and true to life. I will never understand how Windsor and her two young co-stars Ria Zimitrowicz and Liv Hill succeed in giving such performances at their age – but they undoubtedly steal the show. Each girl seems to have an understanding of the weight they were carrying and their portrayals were understated and yet charged with the vulnerability needed to demonstrate the reality of the victims’ naivety.

More importantly, Three Girls could easily have spent its whole screen time focusing on directing the anger of its viewers towards the perpetrators. Yet, when faced with the question of why it is morally justifiable to create a TV programme out of rape/abuse/violence, inciting hatred is not a sufficient nor acceptable answer. Instead, this production does what a good adaptation of a real-life atrocity should do: ask us to reflect on ourselves.

The incessant focus on the failure of the care system, the police and everyday people who were ignoring the red flags becomes as much, if not more, of the reason why these children suffered to such an extent. It is easy to hate the group of Asian paedophiles who seem so far removed from us whilst we sit on our sofas at home. But here we see every day people judge the young girls on their dress, their behaviour and their background. Thus they don’t believe them, they don’t take their claims seriously and they cease to treat them like the children that they are. Three Girls comes to our screens with a purpose other than the clichéd ‘raising awareness’ – to ask us what we would do if we were faced with one of these three girls.

Perhaps this message is best personified by sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham (Maxine Peake), as she is screaming at anyone who will listen to open their eyes and see the reality of the situation: This isn’t drama, this is the truth.

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