The social work purists will lambast Kiri for its ‘unrealistic’ portrayal of social work and claim it is further damaging our already embattled profession, but accepting this is a drama and suspending our disbelief reveals a touching, relatable and well-acted opening episode.
Tonight saw the premiere of Kiri, the long-awaited new drama from Channel 4 that centres on the death of the titular character; a young girl who is just about to be adopted and has an unsupervised contact with her birth-grandfather set up by her social worker Miriam (played by Sarah Lancashire) before this is formalised.
Tonight’s episode opened with Miriam getting ready for the day ahead with coffee, a hip flask and walking her dog. During the walk she shows some typical social work dark humour by explaining to someone she meets on the way that if she had her dogs’ ailments she would be ‘sitting in the middle of the road’. This dark way of looking at the world telegraphs Miriam’s character as similarly close to the bone quips crop up throughout the episode; joining her ever-present dog and frequent reliance upon alcohol as hallmarks of her character.
On her way to work we see Miriam dropping in on an ex-service user and giving her a bag of sausages. The hands on approach of Miriam in this scene will likely be shouted down by the ‘holier than thou’ social work ivory tower brigade who will say nobody should act like this, but it goes some way towards humanising her character and showing that she prioritises people over processes.
We then catch up with Miriam visiting Kiri’s prospective adoptive parents to collect her for the ill-fated contact with her grandfather, with the father asking her for ‘any news on our court date?’ as soon as she walks in the door. This is an accurate view of the legitimate concerns of adoptive parents that hand over all aspects of their lives to processes that social workers often have total control over; increasingly frustrated and often left in the dark by the drawn-out processes that govern adoption.
On the drive to see her grandfather we see Kiri’s nose bleeding and I was left wondering if this was a chekov’s gun that might come to play in later episodes. Another telling aspect of this journey was how it was Kiri herself who first raises the issue of race, which will go on to be a pivotal theme throughout the series. Whilst we only see Kiri for minutes on screen, she is acted superbly and leaves an impression throughout.
At the start of the second act, having dropped Kiri off with a promise she’d be ‘back at four’ to collect her, Miriam receives a phone call in Court and is called to the police station. What starts out as a causal conversation, spurred by a belief that Kiri has run away herself, takes a dramatic turn when it dawns on her the child she was responsible for has gone missing.
The police interview is then followed up by an informal chat with her manager who shows little regard for Kiri but is greatly concerned about her and the rest of the council getting ‘fucked’ if the child isn’t found safe and sound.
“The scene where Kiri is found broke my heart”
In the next scene Kiri is found, but she isn’t found safe. Instead she is found dead in the long grass of a local park after Miriam has gone along to help join in the hunt for the missing child. The scene just before Kiri’s body is found is memorable for a conversation Miriam has with the birth-son of the couple who were to adopt Kiri. At one point the birth-son says how his parents ‘chose Kiri’ but didn’t ‘choose him’ and at another point Miriam explains how ‘I don’t take offence to flippancy, if I did I’d be in another job’ after the young man has made a jokey remark about Miriam’s son who died of cancer at thirteen. In an episode full of top class acting, these were some of the standout lines for me.
This casual conversation on a park bench soon changes to tragedy when the alarm is raised that Kiri has been found, dead not alive. The scene where Kiri is found broke my heart, with the slow motion cinematography and touching music adding to the shock of a child being found dead.
The second half of this opening episode goes on to follow two key strands that impact on Miriam as she comes to terms with what has happened- the human emotion of a child dying and the systematic response to such a tragedy. As Miriam’s life unravels and she increasingly turns to alcohol to cope, the tabloid and council machines ramp up their response to Kiri’s death. Miriam is summarily suspended from work by a manager who has turned her back and at the same time is left to face the baying hordes of press without any union representation.
The episode ends after a heart-rending scene where Kiri’s grandfather is asked to identify her body in a morgue and Miriam ends up taking refuge in the home of the ex service user she has seen earlier in the day; with the added revelation that the ex service-user is smoking crack.
“If we can stop being so easily offended, we’ll find there’s a lot of like about this”
As a practising social worker, it would be easy for me to sit here and tell you about all the factual inaccuracies in this programme and join in with the usual online lynch mob that screams ‘the media hate us’. Miriam drink drives, she crosses boundaries, she takes her dog to work and her decision to allow unsupervised contact is an unusual one. None of those things make social workers look good and I can’t argue with people who say that it’s practice which would lead to a one way ticket out of the profession.
BUT….. a true to life 100% factual portrayal of our profession would make for terribly boring television.
Do you want to sit and watch someone catch up on paperwork for 10 hours a day?
Fancy a drama all about the issues of filling your mileage claims in?
If we can stop being so easily offended, we’ll find there’s a lot of like about this. If we accept this as a drama and suspend our disbelief, we’ll also find there’s a lot we can relate to and that rings true with the issues many of us face in this line of work. The themes of baying tabloid press, social workers being thrown to the hounds and cold-hearted management have never been raised for social workers in this way before. Exposing these pressures is something we should value and embrace.
We should also welcome how this drama highlights just how close every one of us is to something like this happening. We are all treading deep water and the speed in which this episode progresses is a cold reminder of just what risks we face every single day we make an assessment about something in work, or put our faith in fellow human beings.
“If you accept this is fiction you’ll find plenty to love about it. Hope for an advert about how great social workers are and you’ll continue to be pissed off”
Overall, I found the first episode of Kiri to be really good. The soundtrack was great, the cinematography amazing, the acting was superb and it explored the challenges faced by my profession in a way I’ve never seen before on prime-time television.
I know others will have a different view and jump on the old ‘everyone hates us’ bandwagon, but if you accept this is fiction you’ll find plenty to love about it. Hope for an advert about how great social workers are and you’ll continue to be pissed off.
I’ve accepted this is fiction and I can’t wait for the next episode!