This review contains mild spoilers.
Jack Thorne is one of England’s most prolific, thought-provoking, and entertaining screenwriters and playwrights. Genre fans will know him specifically as the writer of TV shows like The Fades and the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Let The Right One In. He has won BAFTAs for his work.
Sarah Lancashire is similarly lauded – and rightly so, too. Winning BAFTAs for Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley, Lancashire is a national treasure. Her all-too-human portrayals of women who find themselves in desperate situations, using nothing but their basic decency and dark humour to rescue themselves and others from tragic situations, are a perfect match for Thorne’s original material.
Speaking of “national treasure”, this is the title of a four-part miniseries which aired on both sides of the Atlantic last year. Featuring Harry Potter and Cracker actor Robbie Coltrane, National Treasure told the story of a celebrated television comedian arrested for the rape of a 15-year-old girl some years previously. Ripped from headlines of the day, National Treasure was inspired by Operation Yewtree, a police operation that resulted in the prosecution of a number of veteran television personalities. Kiri is cut from the same cloth, a miniseries that’s both politically and culturally relevant.
Lancashire plays Miriam Grayson, a social worker from Bristol in Southwest England. Often at odds with management, Miriam has been successful in her career, specifically when it comes to placing kids in foster homes. But she’s a troubled soul. Divorced and living alone with her dog Jessie, Miriam starts her morning mixing vodka with coffee, then drunk-drives to work and goes about her day. When the story begins, one of Miriam’s charges, Kiri Akindele, a nine-year-old black girl, is about to be adopted by her white foster parents, Jim and Alice Warner (Stephen Mackintosh and Lia Williams). Kiri’s birth father, Nathaniel, is estranged – an ex-convict with a history of violence and drug-dealing. Her birth mother died of an overdose. Miriam takes special interest in Kiri’s case and has supervised visits between Kiri and her grandfather, Tobi Akindele (Lucien Msamati). With the Warners’ formal adoption of Kiri about to go through, Miriam allows Kiri to visit Tobi unsupervised. It’s Miriam’s call, and one she pays dearly for. Kiri is abducted, apparently by Nathaniel who turns up at his father’s house as soon as Miriam drops Kiri off. What begins as a hunt for Kiri quickly turns into a murder investigation when the young girl’s body is found by a community-wide search party. Nathaniel (Paapa Essiedu) is the prime suspect, but as the series progresses it becomes clear that the case isn’t as cut-and-dried as initially thought.
Kiri unfolds over four episodes using different points of view.
Miriam Grayson becomes the subject of national outrage. Accused of gross negligence, Miriam soon realises that her co-workers and supervisors are more concerned about negative coverage than they are about Kiri and her family. She is understandably suspended from her job, one she loves dearly, and finds herself isolated, with only her former charges sticking up for her. Sarah Lancashire mesmerises with her performance and not once does she miss a beat. You may not agree with how she went about things at the beginning, but you never get the sense that Miriam is anything but a decent person with problems of her own. She has a mother in a nursing home and she struggles with their relationship as well as the financial aspect of her mother’s continual care. She’s let down by bureaucracy but at the end is not beaten by it. She retains her humanity throughout.
The Akindeles are at the forefront of the investigation. Tobi and his second wife Rochelle (Andi Oshu) are devastated by Kiri’s death. It was at Rochelle’s insistence that Kiri got to meet Nathaniel on the day of her disappearance. Tobi hunts down his son, unsure of his guilt or innocence, and turns down help from his local church when it wants to turn Nathaniel’s case in a cry against racial inequality. When Nathaniel does come above ground, he declares his innocence. The police investigation, led by Det. Insp. Vanessa Mercer (a marvellous Wunmi Mosaku), subsequently verifies his claim, but he’s arrested for Kiri’s abduction anyway. Things go from bad to worse when lies are told and Nathaniel is once again charged with Kiri’s murder. The Akindeles’ plight highlights racial disharmony within the UK childcare system. While Kiri quite rightly wants to get to know her family and culture, the system seems to disregard this and put Kiri’s safety ahead of her culture. There is no obvious balance to be found: it’s one way and that’s it. Miriam tried to see things from Kiri’s point of view and it all ended horribly, with the press having a field day.
The Warners hoped to formally adopt Kiri. Jim and Alice fostered Kiri from the time she was four. They have a son of their own, Simon (Finn Bennett), who adored her. But they are a family divided. Alice is having an affair with a man she meets at the local swimming pool. Jim has had affairs of his own. They both desperately want to adopt Kiri, but not for the right reasons. They are looking for a way to put their family back together again, and Kiri is the “glue” they need to do just that. Simon is intelligent but has a side to him that is both menacing and pathetic. Each member of this family is suspicious of the other and by the time Kiri ends, the Warners’ fate is left in Simon’s hands.
Kiri herself appears at the beginning of the show, and then in precisely placed flashbacks, which reveal in a deliberate manner what she was like as a child, how she really got on with her family, and the events leading up to her disappearance and death. Felicia Mukasa delights in this small but very important role. She has a smile and a presence that brings joy to the screen. What eventually happens to her is heart-breaking.
This is not an easy show to watch. To anyone involved in childcare, it will outrage you. It outraged me, but Kiri is compelling and necessary viewing. Each of the performances more than match the quality of Jack Thorne’s script. There are no easy answers, and while the conclusion is satisfactory enough, it is by no means pat or definitive. You will be left to make up your own mind about who was guilty and who should bear most of the blame.
When Kiri first aired on Channel 4 in the UK in January, social workers complained about how their profession was portrayed. Taking nothing away from Sarah Lancashire’s performance, one tweet described the show as depicting a social worker as an “eccentric rebellious alcoholic whose poor judgement led to the death of a child she was responsible for,” adding that the show’s plot added to the media’s denigration of the profession. Channel 4 subsequently claimed that extensive background research was carried out and that social workers were consulted.