THIS week’s TV was dominated by the BBC drama Three Girls (BBC1, Tuesday–Thursday) which told the awful story of a sex gang in Rochdale who raped young girls.
The BBC deserves the highest praise, not only for telling this story, but for placing it in a prime-time slot and showing it over three consecutive nights, so its impact wasn’t allowed to dissipate.
I saw someone snipe on Twitter that it was hypocritical of the corporation to tell this story when they employed Jimmy Savile and his ilk for so many years, but that is rubbish. Why should one particular horror mean another cannot be dragged into the light? Besides, the BBC have offered some kind of televisual atonement for Savile with the recent Louis Theroux documentary, and the DJ’s hideous crimes should not throw a spangled curtain over all other offences.
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It is right that the BBC told this story because it is in the public interest. The Asian grooming gang in this drama were not a horrible one-off. As the programme made painfully clear at its conclusion, similar gangs have been uncovered and brought to trial all over England, and the implication that plenty of others may still be operating was clear. It’s only when the judgemental attitude of the social workers is cut back, and the poison of political correctness is overcome, that justice might begin to step forward.
It’s hard to imagine the difficulty that the men in suits at the BBC must have faced with this drama. It was such a painful and sensitive subject but there was no way to avoid the central difficulty: that the perpetrators were Asian men and the victims were white girls.
In our age of crippling political correctness it must have taken some sturdy courage for the BBC to proceed with the blunt facts of the story, and not try to leaven them in some way, perhaps by throwing in a dodgy white guy here and there.
There was an acknowledgement of the racists who might try to capitalise on this case when we saw the mobs outside the court. Their inclusion seemed like a quiet nod from the BBC that they know this drama might cause a storm and yet it needs to be told, and without trying to soften or edit the facts in the interests of community cohesion. It would have been abominable if they had tried. To their great credit they did not, but they did sometimes guide us away from the central issue by adding lots of other difficult moments.
An angry viewer would not have felt three hours of rage against Asian men swell up in their breast, because lots of troubling issues were scattered throughout this story. Everyone felt a tug at a variety of their own prejudices. Holly’s father surely spoke for many stressed parents when he questioned why his daughter kept going back to her abusers. That raised the awful suspicion that she was “asking for it”. Her mum wondered in baffled desperation why she didn’t just come home.
As Sara Rowbotham, played by a spectacular Maxine Peake, who was sometimes shaky with rage, made clear, abused girls often feel ashamed and so might think they’re not welcome in the sanctified space of the home. But the parents spoke to the prejudices of safe and cosy families across the land who must have wondered the same thing: if it was so terrible, why did she keep going back?
Other prejudices were pulled into the light by showing the girls as “skanks”, “neds”, “chavs” — there are plenty of grubby words in our language for girls who wear trackies and scrape their hair back with a scrunchie, swig vodka and smash up kebab shops, and there must have been people who would have uttered little clucks of distaste at seeing such girls without first knowing their dreadful back story.
I’m one of them. I would have crossed the road to avoid the “three girls” in this drama if I’d seen them strutting down the street towards me, shoving each other and swearing. Three Girls encouraged us to put up our prim little fence of judgement and then it steadily smashed it to pieces. “Here’s what you think,” said the drama. “And now here’s reality.”
I suppose some people will use the series to further their own ends, using it as proof multiculturalism or immigration is dangerous, but its real value lay in making us assess our prejudices, not just against Asian people, but against council estate families, girls from broken homes, so-called “feral” children.
In the emotion of the story, many viewers will have thrown all their sympathy at the “three girls”, but, in real life, how many would have done the same?