This review contains spoilers.
Doubt was the engine of writer Jack Thorne’s previous Channel 4 drama National Treasure, in which Robbie Coltrane played a popular entertainer on trial for multiple sexual assaults. Was Coltrane’s character guilty or not? Whose memory of events was reliable? Who was lying and who was telling the truth?
Kiri, Thorne’s latest, directed by Euros Lyn, is driven by blame. When a child in care is murdered, where should the blame land? With her killer, certainly, but also with those charged with keeping her safe—foster parents, grandparents, social worker?
Sarah Lancashire plays the latter, Miriam Grayson, with the instant, garrulous appeal of her role as Sgt Catherine Cawood in BBC police drama Happy Valley. We meet her mid-monologue, cheerily listing the medical complaints of her flatulent mutt to a fellow dog walker, a comic speech but one tinged with images of violence. (“Always involve blood, my visions, never a nice, clean death.”)
Like Catherine, Miriam has lost a child (“Cancer. He was thirteen.”) and has devoted her life to helping people. The kids Miriam looks after are difficult. One boy has broken a girl’s arm in a fight at school. A former charge has been acquitted of a rape charge despite being guilty. Another ex-‘client’ lives in squalor and smokes crack. Miriam looks after them all with maternal competence, her protection and care extending beyond the age they’re expelled from the system. She sometimes pushes the envelope, we later hear, relying on her instincts because “early intervention saves lives.” She makes “bold decisions, occasionally with mixed results”, concludes her boss.
Miriam’s reliance on instinct makes her vulnerable when the worst happens and nine-year-old foster child Kiri Akindele is murdered. Kiri is killed during her first unsupervised visit to her birth-grandparents (“we call it birth, biological makes them sound like washing powder”), a visit Miriam approved and arranged.
As soon as the news breaks, there’s no time for grief. Responding to tabloid pressure and accusations of “lefty box-ticking” (Kiri was black and her soon-to-be adopted family white), Miriam’s bosses suspend her pending an investigation of her role in Kiri’s death. Before a tear has been shed for the girl, fingers are pointed and Miriam is hounded.
It’s a fictional story that recalls a number of real-life instances, not least the press treatment of former Haringey children’s services director Sharon Shoesmith and the Baby P case. The Sun newspaper ran a campaign supported by then-leader of the opposition David Cameron, demanding Shoesmith be removed from the job after her team failed to spot the extreme risk faced by one-year-old Peter Connelly, who died from multiple injuries inflicted at home. Shoesmith was sacked by Education minister Ed Balls, and has since published a book about the experience.
Kiri’s case appears to be much more straightforward, so far at least. As a result of following Miriam’s point of view throughout the episode, the audience certainly feels that her actions were justified. How was she to know that there was a risk Kiri’s visit would end as it did? As she tells boss Julie, she didn’t do anything wrong. She doesn’t deserve to be used as a scapegoat.
Writer Jack Thorne though, as National Treasure proved, is a master of playing with perspective. Despite being resolutely on her capable, funny and down-to-earth side, episode one showed us things about Miriam that could later change our point of view. There’s the hip flask she carries, the contents of which she pours into her morning cuppa before driving (and driving nine-year-old Kiri). The last time we see Miriam, she’s passed out drunk in the kitchen of a former charge who is now an addict.
“I try to keep my notes positive,” Miriam explains when questioned on the absence of severe risk in her paperwork on Kiri. Could her preference for positivity (“It’s just a day, Alice, barely that, six hours, half a day, nothing at all”) give Miriam blind spots? Expect our opinion to shift as the story is told, on Lancashire’s character, and those of Kiri’s foster family (Steven Mackintosh, Lia Williams and Finn Bennett) and her grandparents (Lucian Msamati and Andi Osho).
Kiri lays bare the risks to which those in the caring professions are exposed – not just ingratitude and resentment (as Miriam tells Simon, she can’t take offence at flippantly offensive remarks, she’d need to be in another job if she did), but the prospect of physical danger and even sexual violence from the troubled young people in their care. Compassion—something that, along with empathy, is always urged by Thorne’s writing—tells us Miriam’s drinking and breeziness are a response to the unusually intense pressures of her life and job.
Thorne’s dramas, even those with the darkest subject matter, ring with humanity and engaging humour. However painful this particular story, his words coming from the mouth of an actor as charismatic as Sarah Lancashire make for a rare and compelling combination.
Kiri continues next Wednesday the 17th of January on Channel 4 at 9pm.