Kiri, the Channel 4 drama portraying a social worker at the centre of a child abduction, continues to encourage debate around the sensitivities surrounding social work and its role in child adoption and how the profession is portrayed in the media.
Ahead of the series’ premiere last week, Community Care spoke to the show’s writer, Jack Thorne, and the social services advisor on the project, Anna Gupta. Both told us how they approached Kiri and the prominence of the social worker role in the drama in what has been Channel 4’s most successful drama launch in two years, attracting more than three million viewers on its first episode.
Jack Thorne, writer of Kiri
Jack Thorne’s back catalogue includes dramas that focus around topical social issues, such as National Treasures and Don’t Take My Baby. The theme of social care is also apparent in his forthcoming work, The Virtues, due to air next year, so it is a subject close to his interest.
‘’I can’t remember the quote, but I read a beautiful thing once about how societies are shaped by how they behave for who they care for. When I was 18, a Labour Government was elected with the promise of changing the way we dealt with our vulnerable. I was made in a time of optimism. And this world now – it just feels so overwhelmingly dark,’’ Thorne said.
‘’I am not a politician, I’m very shy and stand at the back of every social event I ever attend but I’ve been given an opportunity to tell stories on an incredibly democratic device and it’s my duty and desire to tell those stories about our country and what we’ve made. I hope stronger people than I will then change this country for the better.’’
The underbelly of Kiri’s plot, the potential sensitivities of transracial adoption, originated from a discussion about how the team looked at the more complicated areas of social work. ‘’The idea of the cultural needs of a child struck us as something worth exploring,’’ Thorne said.
‘’We never worried about asking more questions than we can answer. I like drama that doesn’t know the answers to a problem because it leaves the viewer with power. What we did worry about was being true to the characters and the situation.’’
How we care for society’s vulnerable people was however, a core focus of the plot, said Thorne. It has been well publicised that his mother is a former care worker for adults with learning difficulties, first in a day centre up the road from the family home, and then in a care home.
‘’She was and is a very inclusive person so was constantly getting us involved in the centre, whether it be attending music events or drama events or just hanging out. She almost always volunteered to do Christmas Day in the home, so we’d go over there and spend time then too.
‘’She retired on £4.60 an hour and had tremendous amounts of responsibility for the people who needed her. We wanted to explore someone like my Mum being exposed for a problem and the way that blame culture operates in our society and the damage it does.
‘’As it went on, other characters appeared and we got excited about them and needed to make sure we told their story too.’’
Kiri unwinds from three different viewpoints. Central to this is social worker Miriam Grayson, played by Sarah Lancashire, but complex stories lie behind Kiri’s paternal grandfather Tobi (Lucian Msamti) and foster mother Alice (Lia Williams) who is about to adopt Kiri just before her apparent abduction by her birth father.
Thorne said this weaving of the viewpoints was ‘’Incredibly difficult to manage. All had competing needs that needed serving in all sorts of different ways’’.
‘’We would spend hours – from script, through filming, right up to the last cut of the edit discussing placement and how to explore these characters properly.’’
But it was his experience of his care worker mother that helped directly into the writing of Miriam’s character, how ‘’she doesn’t hold with barriers and the way she tries to make everyone her friend’’.
Professor Anna Gupta, social services advisor on Kiri
Anna Gupta was recommended by another social work academic to advise on Kiri. She said admiration of Thorne’s previous work and early discussions about the themes he wanted to explore drew her to get involved.
Gupta’s role on Kiri was to advise both quite broadly about some of the factual procedural issues within social work, but also discuss ‘’the complexities of the social work task: the difficult decisions social workers have to make for which there are no easy answers; the blame that is so easily attributed when things go wrong; and the complex identity issues, not just about race but also wider questions about belonging and relationships with birth families that many adopted and foster children face’’.
She added her decades of experience were instrumental in her involvement in what is a complex story. Her career includes work as a child protection social work practitioner, manager and expert witness in London family courts. She is also an established academic, currently professor of social work at Royal Holloway University of London, writing about and researching child protection, care and adoption systems from perspectives of practitioners and families experiencing social work services.
She is currently leading on the UK-wide adoption enquiry launched by the British Association of Social Workers, which publishes its findings today.
‘’My approach [on Kiri] was to respond to the questions and engage in discussion with the team about the issues and questions raised throughout the series,’’ Gupta said.
‘’What I very much appreciated when working with Jack and his colleagues was that they wanted to portray complex three-dimensional characters who have flaws but are also very human and have personal lives and histories. I also appreciated the aim that the programme should raise questions, stimulate debate and not simply provide easy answers for which there are none.’’
The central focus of how Kiri goes missing, unsupervised contact with her paternal grandparents soon before her adoption, had caused controversy around the social work community before Kiri premiered. Gupta acknowledges the rarity of such a situation but ‘’she is a child whose placement is moving from one of foster care to adoption with the same family. She has been having contact with her grandparents who were considered safe’’.
‘’Social work involvement will lessen with the adoption and so will the on-going supervision of contact. At these times difficult decisions need to be made about terminating direct contact or moving to more informal arrangements that enable positive relationships to be maintained in settings deemed to be safe.’’
Gupta is clear that Kiri is ‘’a drama, not a documentary’’, and that while Miriam is a social worker, the fictional character, with complexities and flaws is not meant to be representative of the social work profession.
‘’There are aspects [of Miriam] that are included which are part of the story and character development that do not reflect social workers’ experiences. Social workers don’t drink at work or bring their dogs to the office.
‘’Miriam also has some great qualities that people who use social work services really appreciate. She is compassionate, kind and really cares about the people she works with. She is also spiralling into despair at the end of the first episode because a child she cares about has been killed, she is suspended, hounded by the press and blamed for doing what she thought was right.’’
Real challenges facing social workers
She acknowledged that criticism and differing viewpoints about social work, and sensitive subjects central to Kiri such as adoption, race and contact, will exist.
‘’From discussions with Jack and others I felt this would be a drama that highlighted the real challenges facing social workers making complex, nuanced decisions and judgements that inevitably involve elements of risk, and it would also highlight the blame culture and role of the media that so easily scapegoats and demonises those constructed as the ‘baddies’.’’
‘’Jack created the story, character and her coping mechanisms. I am not sure what my influence was on that other than to talk through what she may be experiencing in terms of being a caring, committed and experienced social worker, who made a judgement that she thought right, but with tragic unforeseen consequences that she has to live with and is blamed for,’’ she said.
It is this finger-pointing at Miriam, which has continued to escalate as the drama runs, that Gupta said speaks to ‘’the tendency to attribute blame when things go wrong, demand scapegoats and ‘solutions’, often without the full facts or consideration of the implications for the various people involved’’.
‘’We have seen this many times before in social work.’’
Gupta is proud of Kiri, citing it as ‘’an excellent programme, a thought-provoking script, brilliant acting and a very gripping drama’’, adding that she does feel her advice was taken on board and ‘’reflected appropriately’’.
‘’Jack’s aim is not to answer questions but to stimulate thinking and debate amongst wider audiences about these difficult questions.’’
Jack Thorne on how Miriam was created and the social work themes in Kiri
1) There’s a focus of Miriam’s motivations around allowing the visit so Kiri gets to know her cultural heritage, and the importance of this. What experience was drawn on to highlight this?
We did a lot of reading and lot of talking and tried to make sure we were as educated as possible.
2) The inference that the case is being used as an example to ‘tighten adoption rules’ is interesting, as is her reaction about shouldering that ‘responsibility’. What were the challenges around handling this?
That’s the bit that’s terrifying about this current news culture – and the way twitter works – the way a small ball, can turn into a boulder, can turn into a mighty weapon. I think Miriam in that moment is disgusted she’s being used in such a way.
3) There has in the past been a history of TV programmes getting the portrayal of social work/social workers ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the profession, how would you respond to potential concerns of dramatisation?
There is a distinction, I think, between replication and truth in drama – replication sometimes is impossible. As a dramatist you twist or sometimes simplify to provoke or challenge. This becomes particularly difficult when dealing with professions or ethnicities or disabilities that don’t get much airtime on television because you can’t just write what’s best for a situation; you have to represent the unrepresented.
Miriam is not an angel. If she was, I don’t think the drama would function. Her alcoholism (which comes way before any of the events of this show) is particularly problematic. But I hope social workers will feel at the end of four episodes that we’ve reflected the concerns of their profession in a meaningful way.
4) What was the decision surrounding the choice of Miriam as an experienced social worker rather than someone less experienced?
It was not something I ever considered – making her younger – she came out of my head the way she is. My Mum’s probably to blame.
5) How did Anna Gupta influence the development of the character and the portrayal of the fallout?
We had lots of amazing help on this show, but Anna was invaluable, helping us with accuracy but also helping us keep our moral core. I went to a talk David Simon (creator of The Wire) did once where he talked about having people around him who’d ask not just ‘do you want to say that’ but ‘why do you want to say that’. Anna kept us on our toes throughout.