Kiri: ‘I hope social workers will feel we’ve reflected the concerns of their profession in a meaningful way’

Channel 4 drama writer and social services advisor tells Community Care about the forming of the plot and its central social worker character

Miriam (Sarah Lancashire)
Miriam (Sarah Lancashire) faces the press. Photo: Channel 4

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.’’

Blame culture

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.

Easy answers

‘’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.

18 Responses to Kiri: ‘I hope social workers will feel we’ve reflected the concerns of their profession in a meaningful way’

  1. Kate Hurley January 18, 2018 at 4:51 pm #

    After watching the first episode of Kiri, I could not bring myself to watch anymore. I cannot believe how this programme has portrayed the Social worker as a total incompetent who takes her dog to work, drinks alcohol at work and drives drunk!!

    This programme will again tarnish the reputation of Social workers all over the country, damaging the public perception of Social workers even further. It is totally factually inaccurate and it is criminal that this has been aired as a factual drama.

    Very very disappointed in the lengths this programme went to portray Social workers in such a bad light.

  2. carys January 18, 2018 at 4:53 pm #

    I get that its a drama. But why show that the Social Worker takes her dog into work? I realise that Social Workers are humans (I am one). But its not realistic. You don’t see Police Officers or NHS Staff in dramas bringing their own pets into work. Also, why make Social Workers look frumpy? This is always the case and this pepetates the myth that Social Workers are just frumpy and clueless. Which is also a continuous stereotype. Love it I think.

  3. Jenny Eckersley January 18, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

    I’m not sure how Anna Gupta can make such a sweeping generalisation about social workers not drinking at work, or bring their dogs to the office. I can give her factual evidence that this happened fairly regularly in the early days.

  4. VHCC January 18, 2018 at 7:44 pm #

    Okay so my understanding of kiri is that it’s saying birth parents don’t just harm children, so do the children of foster carers. This representation is exactly what the public think – thanks channel 4.

    Best and only good representation of social worker is J.KRowlings The Casual Vacancy – which is ironic as due to depictions such as Kiri that’s all we seem to have is casual vacancies.

  5. HPC January 19, 2018 at 12:53 pm #

    Very disappointing that Kiri has slipped straight into a stereotypical depiction of social workers which is so wrong. I do wonder about the research which went into this programme, similarly to the episodes in Eastenders where a child is removed from his parent with a Police escort following concerns over bruises etc.

    It feeds in nicely to media misrepresentation and negative comment on Social Care, which is unjustified. It is very difficult to find articles in the media which are accurate re process and legislation, the stresses and caseloads and which illustrate accurately the good work which social workers do. Such a shame.

  6. Hajo seiku January 19, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    I do not think that the general public will be so naive to judge social work as a profession full of people who get drunk on duty and take their pets to work.
    I feel that it shows that social worker are also human and we have have our ups and downs just like any one else.

    This is an opportunity for managers to pay attentions to the emotional wellbeing of their staff.
    We can’t deny the fact that it’s a very challenging profession and front line social workers need support to release the stress and emotional burdens that they face in their day to day practice.

  7. Jacqueline Mahoney January 19, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

    I certainly get the themes, difficulties being portrayed but I still don’t get and am concerned had guidance from someone working in social care for some time the need for portraying the Social Worker as an alcoholic, hippy type who has some underlying anxiety issue enough to need to bring her dog to work and appears to have anxieties over the health of her dog!!

    The profession could have and should have been portrayed in a better manner, moving away from what is society normal stereotype if those traits not recognised in the real professional world why put them in??

    To be fair I have just found it frustrating and irritating

  8. Cass January 19, 2018 at 5:23 pm #

    Social work are exactly how this portrays them and worse
    Ss was a place people and family’s could turn to for help, now children are in danger cause no one trusts them, they do nothing to fix the problems
    They cause the problem it’s the biggest risk of ur life to go near them a done a pole of 10,000 and 8.761 one said they would never go near ss if there child’s life depended on them, what a sad sick world when people in place to help fAmily won’t let family near the kids, ss is a bigger risk to children than any family could ever be thy ilegaly remove children for profit, then ban any contact by living, befriend you then betray you never go near ss never let them in ur front door

    • TC January 20, 2018 at 11:52 am #

      Unfortunately, after 10 years of working in the Family Court; I have to ALMOST 100% agree with Cass.

      Most are scruffy and frumpy; and that includes the men.
      Their level of education is poor; I have met social workers who turned up to court looking like they had been dragged through a hedge and slept in the same clothes for days.

      I have met social workers who actually say ‘Can you use smaller words because I don’t understand them and can’t spell them.’

      I have had social workers tell me ‘I don’t think there is a case, but my manager says I have to re-write my report to create a concern.’

      • DG January 22, 2018 at 10:57 pm #

        TC
        This is a complete generalisation and quite offence to say we are all like this. I’m a court SW and I am certainly not frumpy and scruffy. I take pride in my appearance and my work.

        • TC January 23, 2018 at 3:50 pm #

          You clearly didn’t note the word ‘MOST’.

          You also didn’t reply to the other examples I gave. And no reply to Cass.

  9. Hugh Roberton January 19, 2018 at 7:11 pm #

    The dog, the drink and the perceived frumpiness should be side issues to what the drama truly presents; the need to blame and the role of what I term modern management (beautifully portrayed in episode 1)and the media in scapegoating individuals. However unfortunately many viewers will stop at the first three images and this may immediately reinforce a stereotype that the profession genuinely does not deserve. The genuine attempt at looking at the complexity of such cases may be subverted by the dog, the drink and the perceived frumpiness. I hope not.

  10. M j January 21, 2018 at 7:33 pm #

    it sounds like a kitchen sink drama- all thrown into one!. The director should’ve stuck to a story that echoes his experience rather than being too ambitious. The development and characterisation of a social worker takes time.

  11. DG January 22, 2018 at 11:03 pm #

    They were never going to win over Social Workers or breakdown the media’s poor perception of SW’s with this character. The drink/dog/frumpy clothing aspect of the story dominates. There was no need, it is an insult to social workers.

  12. Michelle January 24, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

    At the risk of disagreeing with most comments above, I think the story and portrayal are excellent ( and yes I am a very experienced Social Worker!). What Sarah Lancashire does with great integrity is to portray Miriam as a human being going through an awful professional experience and experiencing the blame culture that is all so familiar.

    I have been with social workers who at times bring dogs to work…largely because of the stupidly long hours that many social workers endure!

    In regard to the alcohol, anyone faced with the “responsibility” of a death is likely to act in ways that ordinarily they would not…..including abusing alcohol.

    Our profession views integrity and honest reflection very highly, but lets not pretend that we are super human, devoid of any emotion!! If I needed a social worker I would like to think that there are still some Miriams around as she has passion and humanity; she has shown just how tricky it is to navigate being an Agent of the State, with the ethics and values that we sign up to professionally, and the complications of being human!!

    I for one congratulate the writers for such a brave story line and am thankful for the portrayal being delivered with such humanity!

  13. AC January 24, 2018 at 3:09 pm #

    There are very few representations of social workers in drama, especially compared with nurses, police officers, doctors and other public service professionals. So why oh why do the creators of Kiri have to reach for the easy, tired, stereotype of the personally dysfunctional, needy, boundary crossing, alcoholic social worker with a tragic back story and sad, empty private life? Her representation overshadows and distracts from the otherwise laudable effort to show the difficult situations social workers work in, the tough decisions they have to make and the scapegoating culture they operate in. Ironically, this tarnished series only serves to reinforce the stereotype and the very blame culture it is portraying by creating the central character to the story as someone who is manifestly, despite some of her personal qualities, unprofessional in so many areas of her public and private life – even if she is vindicated in the end.

  14. Jenny Eckersley January 25, 2018 at 2:17 pm #

    I was a social worker with children, families and people with mental health issues for forty years.
    Yes, sometimes I wore jeans and tee shirts to work. I did smarten up for court, and was told by a parents barrister in care proceedings that I gave the best and clearest evidence he had heard
    When stressed, which happened, I had a couple of drinks after work, and one of my colleagues brought her Borzoi ? dog into work every day. It didn’t distract in the least.
    We are all human, as is Miriam.

  15. Ben slater January 28, 2018 at 11:47 am #

    How there was an advisor on this I don’t know. Social workers are modern forward thinking compassionate proffesional. Whilst this is just a drama, they didn’t need to portray the proffesion as a stereotypical cardigan wearing haggard middle aged alcoholic, it’s disrespectful to the proffesion. Social Work is way cooler. Next time they need an advisor they might want to speak to someone else.