Racism, social-work and blame take centre stage in KIRI, Channel 4’s new hard-hitting drama.


Inevitably, with something as potentially divisive and heart-breaking as child abduction, there are bound to be repercussions. Twitter was alive with complaints about the presentation of social workers and the job they do. I’m not here to argue ‘Kiri’ has documentary-style accuracy but what it does have is powerful, engaging drama.

Sarah Lancashire, who I have never seen give a bad performance - plays Miriam, a kind of maverick senior social worker whose days consist of a cuppa for breakfast complete with a drop of something other than milk – some might say to set her up for the demands ahead. Others might argue that it's to dull the pain.

There’s some beautiful shots; from the opening darkness of Miriam’s kitchen, the steam of the coffee pot framing her face, to the ‘screw the system’ mural on the end of her row of buildings. The entire show has that edge of realism and observation, the dourness and grime of the town, the chipped dialogue and a score that ranges from jolly celebration to solitary single piano notes.

The harshness of Miriam’s daily encounters – from dropping off sausages to a drug addled woman, to calling into school to speak to a young man who is covered in bruises and in dire need of a decent father – are offset by the (some would say dark, I say British) humour. The on-going joke about her dog’s flatulence works nicely at tying her day-to-day activities together, whilst serving as a reminder that Miriam helps everyone yet appears to have nobody in her life but her dog. A visit to her bed-ridden mother (an unexpected Sue Johnstone) adds another nice touch at showing us the slices of her life, none of them particularly pleasant.

Not ten minutes in Lancashire picks up the sweet nine-year-old Kiri of the title as her middle-class white foster mother prepares her for a visit to paternal grandparents (“Not even a day, six hours”). Race is established subtly, Kiri saying she needs to learn what it is to be black. Foster mum pointing out the girl’s slender neck is very similar to (white) Audrey Hepburn’s, and after the tragedy, the press accusing Miriam of a slapdash approach to her job as the kid was black.

How far writer Jack Thorne will take this remains to be seen but there’s a nice balance of themes here between race, social care and the fall out of events such as these. Interesting how Miriam encounters a past case leaving court, gleefully shouting of his freedom whilst his solicitor informs her he’s guilty, a rapist and got away with it. Thorne weaves in ideas on retribution so quickly it could easily be missed, and there’s no ramming the viewer with moral answers, more a presentation - draw what conclusions you will.

Some viewers took issue with Miriam’s initial reaction to Kiri’s disappearance, believing she’s just run off and labelling her a “stupid girl”. Yet Lancashire’s performance gives these scenes the added nuance needed to understand the inner dilemma. She is clearly concerned, not just about herself but more importantly the little girl, and often the natural reaction in grim situations such as these is to be blasé or make jokes. The gradual build-up of panic in the police interview is heart breaking because there’s a real understanding on our part that Miriam – established as a caring and hard-working woman, will be the one carrying the bucket when the proverbial hits the fan.

This is what I’ll take away most from the opening episode; in no way is this your standard murder-mystery. This is about the after effects of a crime and those who are left taking the blame. There’s an obvious suspect (the violent biological father) and other potentials (the slightly odd foster brother, the obsessive foster mother unable to show emotion and unwilling to let others). It’s nice to find a sharp, cutting and provocative drama on British TV and after the opening episode I highly recommend you give it a go.

- Aired on Channel 4, January 10 2017 at 21:00.