“It’s like one of them Magic Eye posters,” screams sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham, shaking with rage, “Me and you are looking at the same thing, but where I am seeing kids turned inside out by abusers, all you lot are seeing is slags bringing it on themselves.”
This sentiment, voiced by actress Maxine Peake, who plays Sara in the new BBC drama Three Girls, powerfully encompasses the real-life scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of teenage girls in Rochdale – and the authorities’ initial failure to protect them. In 2011, an investigation by Andrew Norfolk for The Times exposed the sexual grooming, mostly of white girls aged around 12 or 13, by gangs of middle-aged men, mostly of Pakistani origin. The girls were befriended, plied with free food and alcohol, then repeatedly raped, beaten and coerced into having sex with countless men.
Beginning this Tuesday on BBC1 and airing for three consecutive nights, Three Girls looks specifically at the abuse of Holly, Amber and Ruby. Written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word), it was created with the help of Norfolk, and the full cooperation of three of the victims and their families, although their names are changed in the script to protect them.
Holly, Ruby, Sara and Amber
15-year-old Holly (terrifically portrayed by 19-year-old Molly Windsor) has recently moved to Rochdale and starts hanging out with sisters Amber and Ruby (Ria Zmitrovic and Liv Hill). Her make up gradually thickens and her clothes become more scant as she spends time with the girls and their “friends” at the local kebab shop. There is an eerie emphasis placed on the ecstasy of it all – the thrill of being grown up and rebellious – and it is difficult to watch Holly getting lured into their circle, blissfully unaware of her fate. After Holly’s abuse begins, the make up and suggestive clothes are no more, and she appears increasingly bedraggled and gaunt.
Taylor chose to focus on these three children in particular because of the light their stories shed on the complexity of the case: Holly is a bright girl from a loving family, the real-life Amber was forced to act as an enabler in the recruitment of younger girls, and her younger sister Ruby has learning difficulties and fell pregnant by one of her rapists aged 13.
While Maxine Peake is extraordinary as Sara – the sexual health worker who fought tirelessly to help the girls – Holly, Amber and Ruby are very much the focus of the series. The culprits, meanwhile, are shown only in brief glimpses and it’s the girls that the camera rests on. It’s their voices coming through.
But Three Girls makes its point by juxtaposing youth and maturity: its three protagonists might swear and slap on make up like big girls, but they play-fight and bounce on beds like children.
In one awful scene in the first episode, Holly pays a rare visit to her family home and asks her father if he wants her to do a “prozzy dance” for him. To his horror, she begins to perform. The exchange is all the more horrifying because Holly had originally returned home to get her school uniform – one of many stark reminders of the girls’ once-innocent youth.
Their naivety bleeds into their language, too: they refer to their rapists as “friends” and “boyfriends”. They call one of the men “Daddy” and say things like, “I’m getting absolutely wankered tonight, like black-out wasted”. The drama uses the power and distortion of language by different groups to try to understand how the gang continued to operate for so long, and why the girls weren’t given the benefit of the doubt by many of the adults around them.
When the scandal first broke in 2011, much was made of the failure of the police and social workers to detect such widespread sexual abuse, but Three Girls is full of the authorities’ accusatory language and victim blaming culture. The police, for example, say the girls have “chaotic lives” and are unwilling to be saved, while the social workers describe Holly’s predicament as a “lifestyle choice” and tell her parents she is “working as a prostitute”.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sara, who seems to be the only one who understands that there is no such thing as a child prostitute – just a child being abused.
Why didn’t they speak out? Why were they kept under the thumb of these men? At one point, Holly’s dad learns his daughter has been raped and asks, “you don’t walk back into it, do you? You don’t go back for more?” But what Three Girls does so well is unspool the psychology of the victims and the trappings of their situation, subverting our preconceptions.
While the first instalment of the drama focuses on the abuse itself, and Holly’s experience in particular, the following two explore Amber and Ruby’s home life, the eventual investigation undertaken by police, the subsequent trial and the racial issues that the case brought up. Three Girls challenges the viewer throughout, forcing us to re-examine our own prejudices. With any luck, it will also serve to further investigator Andrew Norfolk’s legacy of changing our society for the better.