‘A social worker oozing empathy from every pore’: a social worker’s view on Kiri

Nushra Mansuri says Kiri requires some suspensions of disbelief but could be a positive step in getting more social workers on TV

Social worker Miriam with her dog Jessie. Picture: Channel 4

by Nushra Mansuri

In October 2010 I was driving back home from work when I happened to switch on my radio and was absolutely gripped by the afternoon drama on Radio 4 called Every Child Matters.

It was about a social worker called Joanne, played by Sarah Lancashire, who found herself caught up in a scandal involving one of her cases where a mother had allowed her 10-year-old daughter to be exhibited over the internet to paedophiles.

The play focused on what happened to Joanne behind the scenes following her suspension, and as she awaited a disciplinary hearing while being subjected to a trial by media.

This is every social worker’s worst nightmare and I had never heard anything like it before being portrayed as a work of fiction. This was only two years after the death of Peter Connelly (Baby P) and the media furore that erupted towards the end of 2008, leading to a witch hunt which politicians also signed up to, was still very raw for the profession and a major focus in the work that I was doing with colleagues and members in BASW.

I was hugely impressed with Sarah Lancashire’s acting prowess back then and her ability to make this character plausible and I agonised with her at each twist of the plot.

Seven years later, Lancashire is playing the central character, an experienced social worker called Miriam, in the Channel 4 drama Kiri that aired on 10 January 2018.

Inevitably, a drama about social work on primetime TV is such a rarity that it becomes a focal point for so many of us and the weight of expectation within the profession is extraordinary.

‘A work of fiction’

During and after the programme I scanned social media to gauge reaction, which ranged from critical acclaim to total disgust about how the profession yet again was being stereotyped and misrepresented.

Interestingly, the positive comments were largely from non-social workers expressing their admiration for both Lancashire and social workers, whereas the more scathing comments came from the profession.

My thoughts were that this is a work of fiction, which will inevitably not represent real life but will instead be full-on, emotionally-charged television. We can make choices about how we want to digest it and I decided that rather than forensically examine it scene-by-scene I would find it more enjoyable if I allowed myself to simply suspend disbelief, watch how the plot unfolds and decide if it was something that I would tune in to in the following weeks.

Funnily enough, the first talking point on social media was an outcry about Miriam taking her dog with her to work; I agree that currently, in the age of health and safety that this is not the done thing.

However, it made me smile. When I was a student social worker in the 90s one of the social workers I shadowed often brought her dog with her in the car to some of her activities involving young people, who were quite taken with her pet.

There were many things in the first episode that Kiri did that I did not find particularly credible. However, this is not dissimilar to my reaction to other dramas I have watched concerning portrayals of all kinds of people – not just social workers. But as I said, I had decided to resist the temptation to pick the bones out of Kiri but to weigh up on the whole if this is likely to be a particularly good or bad thing for social work.

Sympathetic

My verdict thus far is I don’t think it’s ultimately going to bruise us (although of course, I say this without the benefit of seeing the next 3 episodes, so I may well live to rue the day!).

Firstly, I would say that casting Lancashire is an immediate win as she is one of the nation’s best-loved and adored actors, which means that rather than viewers taking an instant dislike to Miriam they are likely to be sympathetic to her character from the off and be rooting for her during the series (I admit that there were points in the first episode where I was definitely not rooting for her, but instead taking issue with much of what she did).

Secondly, the programme brought to life the complexity around risk and risk taking in terms of the decisions that social workers have to make, which in this case carried dire consequences, although we don’t yet know the full story.

I think that on a number of levels, this is all quite clever as rather than getting the sterile, wooden version of a social worker that many of the soaps faithfully churn out, Channel 4 have gone completely the other way depicting Miriam as oozing empathy from every pore. The opening scenes in my view are very much an unashamed charm offensive to endear the audience to Miriam, who is portrayed as an animal lover, relatable, warm, quirky and vulnerable, for at least the first quarter of an hour before tragedy strikes.

There were bits where I definitely cringed at some of Miriam’s lines and reactions to events. Social work is a tough job and social workers may find themselves having a stiff drink or two at the end of a particularly trying day as a coping mechanism, and who wouldn’t go to pieces if they were suspended?

But not many of us go around with a hip flask and end up projectile vomiting in a service user’s kitchen. The HCPC would have a field day!

More social work stories to come?

Nevertheless, I get the feeling that not everything is quite as it seems and there will be plenty more twists and turns to come in the remaining three episodes.

So yes, I will watch it again as I want to see how things turn out, but I have to say, it has not had nearly anything like the impact the Radio 4 play had on me in 2010.

I don’t suppose that the biggest fans of Casualty or the Bill are either medics or the police but if this is the public’s first taste of a drama about social work, with a strong human-interest story where the central character is on full display, and she still manages to keep the vast majority of viewers in her corner then that is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to the profession.

It may well open the doors for more (hopefully accurate and realistic) dramas about social work with story lines that capture the public’s imagination.

I for one would not be averse to Kiri paving the way and hope that it won’t just be remembered as a one off work off piece of fiction about social work but is the catalyst for many others.

Nushra Mansuri is a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, she tweets @NushraMansuri

9 Responses to ‘A social worker oozing empathy from every pore’: a social worker’s view on Kiri

  1. Ian Merry January 12, 2018 at 5:48 pm #

    The blurring of lines between fantasy and reality continues unabated with this latest work of fiction. May I say that the actor does not possess the empathy that CC says she does….in fact the only quality that the actor can be ascribed to possess is her ability to follow a script designed by others to get high ratings.

    It is not social work but acting and has no relevance to the reality of genuine social work practitioners.

    These dramatic attempts to provide insights into social work fail because it is entertainment for the masses first and foremost and anyone who promotes this type of drama is promoting mental illness in their target audiences by blurring the lines between the reality of social workers experience and the dramatic licence the entertainment industry pursues in search of ratings .

    I have come to the conclusion that the entertainment industry has become all consuming and by presenting this type of drama to an uneducated audience not only undermines the seriousness of the social work task but diminishes it for the purposes of entertainment.

    • Graham January 18, 2018 at 11:47 am #

      Well Ian, I have worked in mental health for many years now but I have yet to come across a mental illness caused by the blurred lines between fiction and reality in a TV drama. If that were true we would all be mad!

  2. Sue Moore-Holmes January 12, 2018 at 8:08 pm #

    I was disappointed that Miriam is portrayed as SO flawed,
    Social work as a profession, like the health service, the police and other public services provide a rich seam of drama which can serve to entertain and inform, but social workers seem to be the scourge of the nation. This is sad and unnecessary. There is an opportunity for really good drama from social work, but it needs a leap of faith from financial investors, courage from a producer, writers with integrity and a mainstream TV station to take a risk. Such a series could rival The Bill and Casualty and be equally informative and engaging. Come on BBC, take a risk. I would happily contribute to the writing.

    • Ian Merry January 15, 2018 at 10:48 am #

      If you’re old enough you may remember an American series called “East Side West Side which aired over here in the early 60’s with George C. Scott as a social worker in New York. This series inspired me to want to help people and if you scan the internet you might find some of the episodes on YouTube. The episodes are in grainy black and white.

      Go Seek

  3. Anna January 12, 2018 at 9:21 pm #

    There is a lot more to unfold in the next 4 episodes and hopefully the series will portray the many challenges and complexities social workers face on a daily basis. Lets not forget this would just be one case and the social worker may have 20 more to manage just as complex. Already it has given a good sense of the isolation and blame culture in which many social workers work. And maybe behind closed doors the drink problem is not so unbelievable after all social workers are dealing with a lot of stress and are only human at the end of the day! Not sure about bringing it to a service users door though! However she obviously had a good relationship with her so that counts for something. As for HCPC they don’t have a clue!

  4. Laura Carnell January 13, 2018 at 11:05 am #

    Once I stopped scrutinising the program and just sat back and watched it as a drama I actually find the first episode incredibly moving.

  5. JACQUELINE MAHONEY January 13, 2018 at 3:46 pm #

    I watched the first episode on catch up and will look at viewing the others. My only despair is how the character is portrayed and how this impacts on the perception of the profession.

    The drinking habit, dress sense, quirky pet thing, over familiarity with a person she had worked with and generally how she came across annoyed me if totally honest as I did not think it was a true reflection of the people who work within the profession and I agree the HCPC would have a field day.

    I would hope that there would be more drama’s but put together in a way that is closer to the truth about the professionals who work hard only a daily basis with the most vulnerable in our society

  6. Toyin Adenugba January 13, 2018 at 7:40 pm #

    Totally agree with you Nushra, waiting to see how the drama unfolds before I offer opinions on the impact of this on the profession. It was good to see Miriam portrayed as an emphatic professional but it is quite hard to believe some of her actions will be displayed by a professional! I wait to see but quite taken aback by some of the reactions this has generated!

  7. Julia January 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm #

    I enjoyed the first episode. I don’t understand the excessive scrutiny of this drama by SW’s [and I am one]. It seems to me that at the moment, that the character is being played differently to how we usually see SW’s portrayed and I welcome this if nothing else. I would be very surprised if Holby City or Casualty represent the reality of working in a hospital or police dramas reflect the reality of their work. It’s a drama not a documentary and I welcome any potentially positive imagery of Social work on TV that reflect in some way, the dilemmas and challenges of the role. I’m also pleased that such a well respected actor was chosen for the role, it can only be a good thing.

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