It’s always exciting to see Sarah Lancashire back on TV. I’ve been a big fan for a little while, since Happy Valley really, and drama lovers will agree that she’s a big draw for a new series. Writer Jack Thorne has another ripped-from-the-headlines story for us and hopes are high as he wrote National Treasure broadcast in 2016 which won the best mini-series BAFTA. That was about historic cases of sexual abuse, drawing on various high-profile scandals involving celebrities. This is about vulnerable children under the care of social services and calls to mind some recent real-life cases.
Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam Grayson, a Bristolian social worker who decides to offer unsupervised visits between 9-year-old Kiri and her grandparents. Kiri is a young black girl about to be adopted by a middle-class white family and social services agree she ought to know “where she came from”, and have a chance to develop links with appropriate members of her birth family. While Kiri is on her visit, she goes missing, apparently abducted by her ex-con birth father Nathaniel. This is all made clear in the first 30 minutes, so knowing the laws of TV drama, this means literally anything could have happened to her.
Miriam is a close cousin to Sgt Catherine Cawood of Happy Valley, a sort of amalgam of confident capable Catherine and her kind but messy addict sister Clare. Miriam is very honest and has no filter; we meet her mid-soliloquy on the intimate health problems of her flatulent dog, with one baffled dog walker as her audience. She looks like a old hippie – slightly scatty, rather quirky and very sassy, but it’s clear she’s extremely kind and optimistic; both excellent qualities in a social worker. Unfortunately she has a hip flask on hand 24/7 and drinks an ‘Irished’ coffee at breakfast. She might have one or two family problems of her own. Her current major problem seems to be her mum (Sue Johnston playing against type) who stuck in a nursing home is still unrepentantly mean, superficial and racist.
Miriam knows there’s trouble ahead as soon as Kiri goes missing. Initially she think she’s run away, but the police make it clear it’s much more serious than that. “Poor girl” says Miriam. “Poor us. Poor you” says her boss Julie. “You know how this could fuck us” Not one to mince her words that Julie. And how right she is. Not only are there headlines about a missing girl who should have been under the protection of social services and her dangerous father, but the media get in a flap about the issues around interracial adoption, always guaranteed to be contentious.
I like the disorientating close-ups director Euros Lyn uses with the camera just cropped in slightly tighter than is comfortable. It’s very unsettling, as is the use of vivid colours in the graffiti, and character’s clothes, and the bright summer sun. And I like that Miriam is a fairly well fleshed-out character, but regrettably we learn next to nothing about anyone else. And I don’t think Lancashire’s accent will impress anyone. I think it’s supposed to be Bristolian but I could be quite wrong. She spends the first ten minutes at least sounding Cornish. I understand they wanted to set it in a particular area of the UK (and all praise to them for not setting it oop in’t north where it’s all grim) but it’s extremely jarring and detracts from the story. The pacing is slow too, and I found myself counting the advert breaks thinking this must be finished soon. That is not at all what I wanted.
I am interested enough to watch episode 2, if only to know where the story goes from here now that Miriam is at rock bottom. I think we can rely on Sarah Lancashire to do the heavy lifting and give a great performance despite being hobbled by the accent but for her sake and ours I hope the next few episodes are pacier and more compelling.
Kiri is available to catch up with on All 4 and episode 2 will be broadcast on Wednesday at 9pm on Channel 4