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Kiri review: beautifully observed drama, and not as grim as expected

Sarah Lancashire in Kiri
Sarah Lancashire plays social worker Miriam who serves as the four-parter’s moral compass. Photograph: Channel 4

Of all the caring professions, social workers probably have the blackest humour. And need it the most. So it feels appropriate that the beautifully observed and not-as-grim-as-expected Kiri (Channel 4) opens with a small dark laugh. The kind that tugs at the corners of the mouth where sadness also resides.

Senior social worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), whose day begins with a nip of vodka in her cuppa and a visit to a young drug addict to drop off a packet of sausages (“remember to cook ‘em this time!”), is shooting the breeze with a fellow dog walker about cancer, death and her nightmares. “Which always involve blood … never a nice clean soft death,” she notes chirpily. (Lancashire is superb at grim chirpiness.)

She reels off her dog’s illnesses, which include gout, testicular cancer and depression. “He’s got a lovely coat though, hasn’t he?” the hapless dog walker replies. It’s a very British moment, drenched in pathos and ­pollution from a circumambient fly­over, ­perfectly setting the tone for this nuanced four-parter.

The Kiri of the title is one of Miriam’s cases: a nine-year-old black girl on the brink of being adopted by her middle-class white foster family. We meet her as her foster mother brushes her hair in the morning, comparing her (black) slender neck to Audrey Hepburn’s iconic (white) one; the complexities of transracial adoption quietly playing out in a small private moment. Kiri is full of clever scenes that gently tease out the knotty tangle of intersectional themes – race, class, social care – without threatening to strangle.

Miriam makes the decision to allow Kiri an unsupervised visit with her grandparents before the adoption goes through. “I’m black,” Kiri says pointedly in Miriam’s car on the way there. “I need to find out how black people live. I get it.” During the visit, Kiri is abducted by her birth father. By the end of the engrossing first episode, her body has been found on the Bristol Downs.

Kiri, though, is less a murder mystery and more a forensic examination of the ­fallout. The impact of the death on everyone from her grand­parents to the social work department is the story.

Also, the way in which cases like this – and writer Jack Thorne has said he intends to pen a drama about Grenfell Tower – feast on, exploit and distort attitudes to race and social class. “Did you allow unsupervised contact because she was black?” a reporter shouts at Miriam. One of the difficult questions raised is whether she prioritised Kiri’s cultural needs over her safety.

Really, though, this is about the forthright, passionate and criminally undervalued social worker who, years into the job and despite being scapegoated by everyone, hasn’t burnt out. For once, we get to occupy the point of view so rarely considered (or empathised with) in real-life cases. Miriam is the drama’s moral compass. “Poor girl,” she whispers, stunned with grief and guilt, to her boss after Kiri’s body is found. “Poor us,” is her manager’s terrified response.

Lancashire has a Sheridan Smith-like ability to disappear into her characters (and Kiri reminds me of last year’s excellent BBC drama The Moorside, starring Smith). Her Miriam has a dishevelled, weary-eyed gravitas that will be familiar to Happy Valley fans. She is an isolated figure, the carer in need of care, ­usually accompanied by nothing more than her gouty dog and a hip flask. And in a rare reference to her personal life, we discover that Miriam harbours a terrible grief of her own. “You remind me of my son,” she says to the teenage birth child of Kiri’s foster parents. “Cancer. He was 13. Please don’t think any more about it.” Which, with writing as good as this, means that of course we will.

The next episode of the four-part drama Kiri is on Wednesday at 9pm

This article titled "Kiri review: beautifully observed drama, and not as grim as expected" was written by Chitra Ramaswamy, for on Wednesday 10 January 2018 10.00pm

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