There’s a heartbreaking scene – one of many – in this week’s drama Three Girls, based on the Rochdale child abuse scandal, where a blankeyed, fragile, underage girl describes to the police how she was systematically raped by different men.
“You are passed around like a ball. They get your number… then there’s like 50 people you don’t know ringing you.” All of these calls are demands for sex.
Nicole Taylor’s harrowing story shows young girls being picked up from school in their abusers’ taxis, being plied with drink and cheap takeaways before being taken to derelict buildings to be assaulted. Then they are left to make their own way back to whatever they call home. If they are “lucky” they might be handed the odd grubby tenner.
I can understand that the prospect of three hours of such remorseless bleakness might be offputting (it’s broadcast Tuesday to Thursday on BBC1). But Three Girls provides a proper, valuable public service, shining halogen-bright lights into one of Britain’s most fetid corners.
This is what true-crime dramas – if they are careful and sensitive – can do so brilliantly. We’ve all seen and read coverage of the court cases into not just the Rochdale abuse ring, but also the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones (Little Boy Blue, which ended on ITV on Monday), the Fred and Rosemary West murders (Appropriate Adult), the hoax kidnapping of Shannon Matthews (The Moorside) and the Ipswich prostitute killings (Five Daughters).
Some of us are old enough to remember our mums warning us not to go out to play on the waste ground near our houses during the hunt for and subsequent trial of the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, dramatised in 2006 for See No Evil: the Moors Murderers.
We know the bald facts of all of these infamous crimes, but what a good dramatisation does is give a story emotion and dimension. Court cases are all foreground, true crime dramas give us background.
We get to “see” the victims, people like young Rhys Jones, and the girls in Three Girls, who were perhaps once filled with hope and happiness. Until someone came and snuffed out the light.
In Little Boy Blue we go home with Rhys’s broken parents, Mel and Steve, as their marriage starts to crumble under the weight of a grief they simply don’t know what to do with. “I don’t know if I love you any more, I can’t feel anything,” says Mel (Sinead Keenan). You don’t get that in court cases.
Both of them can do little except sit in their dead football-mad son’s bedroom and will themselves to be close to the child that has gone for ever, taken from them by a bullet fired across a pub car park.
It’s that sense of emptiness, of now hollow lives that can never be properly filled again, that good true crime dramas show us. Similarly, anger at a judicial system that fails those it’s meant to protect is rarely aired in court. But in Three Girls sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham (the splendid Maxine Peake) explodes into fury when police decide, at last, to take a serious interest in allegations of child grooming by gangs of largely British-Pakistani men.
Why should the girls say anything to detectives when they’ve been trapped in a cycle of “raped… beaten… not believed… raped… beaten… not believed,” yells Rowbotham in the face of a complacent cop.
It’s these hinterlands we rarely hear about that make good true-crime dramas so valuable. We need them.