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.
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