THREE GIRLS is based on August 2008, police arrest a fifteen-year-old girl for smashing up a cabinet in an Indian restaurant. Later, in the custody suite, she makes the shocking revelation that she has been systematically abused and raped by a gang of men.
Shockingly, it took eleven months for the CPS to put together a file of evidence. Then in July 2009, she was ruled ‘not credible’ as a witness. It wasn’t until May 2010 that the case was revisited after Rochdale youth project worker Sara Rowbotham (Maxine Peake) spent many years collecting evidence from the girls who visited the project and spoke of the ‘relationships’ they were having with older men.
If you read it quickly it sounds almost passable, awful but not horrendous. Dates and details can be clinical, you can remove yourself from the situation and skip imagining the scenario should you wish to. When you watch it and see these fragile, troubled and vulnerable girls plied with drink, laughing and dancing together as young girls should, you realise the route events will take and something inside turns over, appalled. As expected this is no easy hour of television, and I doubt the following two episodes will be any better, because with content like this how can it be anything but?
The opening episode of Three Girls focuses on Holly Winshaw, in an unbelievably brave turn by Molly Windsor; it’s easy to forget this is an actress in a role. She is flawless as the teen rebelling against her father’s rules only to blindly wander into hell. Still donning her school uniform, one night she meets Amber Bowen (Ria Zmitrowicz) and her sister Ruby (Liv Hill) and the three head out to have fun. Unbeknownst to Holly, Amber is having a relationship with an older Asian man, and her ‘job’ is to recruit other young girls into their group for other men to rape.
When Holly ponders why the men are being so friendly by casually handing out free food, the alarm bells sound for every adult watching, but not for the young girl. And that is where this story hinges. These are young girls, most had probably never been shown real affection, some had been shifted from foster family to foster family, others had experienced sexual abuse as young as eleven. The three girls represent the hundreds who formed part of the ring, and though they may act older, or speak with an adult turn-of-phrase, they are still children. As Sara starkly points out, “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute. What there is, is a child who’s being abused.”
As with similar dramas that explore real life events – think Moorside and Five Daughters, you realise often it is circumstance that leads to these horrendous crimes. These things aren’t happening to the privileged, they’re happening to the working class, to the poor and poorly educated. To girls who take up drink and drugs because it dulls the pain of their reality. As traumatising as it was to be a witness to poor Holly’s rape at the hands of a vile individual who liked to be called ‘Daddy’, what was even more disturbing was the treatment of these teenagers by the authorities.
These girls didn’t have a voice. They were labelled troubled young slappers, girls who had made ‘lifestyle choices’ and whom social workers judged rather than helped. Thank God people like Sara didn’t give up or ignore the degradation.
Thank goodness there are production companies out there brave enough to turn a story like this into a television drama. Because through it, and especially through the outstanding performances of the three young actresses, for once those girls had a voice and it was painful to listen to, but it needs to be heard.
- Aired on BBC1, May 16 2017 at 21:00.