★★★★ KIRI, CHANNEL 4 - No easy answers in Jack Thorne's latest four-parter, starring Sarah Lancashire
“I’m black – I need to find out how black people live.” So reasoned Kiri, sitting in the back seat of the car driven by her social services case worker. She was on the way from her prospective adopters, a white middle-class couple who already had a teenage son, to pay a first unsupervised visit to her Nigerian-born grandparents. Kiri (Felicia Mukasa, pictured below) was mature beyond her years, open-minded and well-spoken, while her case worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire) brimmed with mumsy good cheer and sensible advice. The mood was Pollyannishly optimistic – the only dark cloud was the noisome farts of Miriam’s mongrel. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
This time last year Jack Thorne, who never seems to sleep, entered the labyrinth of historic sex abuse cases in the entertainment industry. National Treasure kept its audience guessing till the last moment. Kiri, a drama in the same slot on Channel 4, seems likely to do the same. At the moment it looks like an open-and-shut thinkpiece about the pitfalls of transracial adoption, but with three episodes to go it would be wise to expect Thorne’s knife to twist in unexpected ways.
Miriam’s brisk competence and dauntless empathy were swiftly established in the opening minutes. Then Kiri disappeared and her body was soon found, and Miriam's superiors circled the wagons. Coppers she knew intimately wanted to keep it formal, while at her temporary suspension hearing – the opening episode's most powerful scene – her line manager Julie (Claire Rushbrooke) primly pointed to Miriam's record of getting it right 99 percent of the time. “You like that percentage, don’t you?” said Miriam fierily. “Stick a flake in it before you try and sell it to the tabloids.”
Thorne has given Miriam plenty of such spirited zingers: “If we’re going to do this formally,” she says in an interview, “you’ve got to make biological not sound like washing powder.” As played by Lancashire, who seems entirely at home with a soft Bristolian burr, Miriam is a powerful symbol for all independent-minded pragmatists who fall foul of arse-covering, morale-sapping workplace protocols. No wonder a chaotic junior colleague yearned to believe the office gossip that Miriam had the hots for her.
Is Miriam’s selflessness a little too saintly? “That poor girl,” she said. “Poor us, poor you!” retorted her manager. The script has also lumbered her with a racist bedridden mother (Sue Johnston) and a tragic past, the loss of her daughter at the age of 13. To keep her halo from shining too brightly she self-medicated with alcohol from a flask and vomited on the carpet of a client.
Meanwhile the dignified carapace of Kiri’s grandfather Tobi Akindele (Lucian Msamati, pictured above) cracked when, as next of kin, he was asked to identify the body. The prime suspect is currently his estranged son Nate (Paapa Essiedu), and perhaps it will turn out to be him, but the strength of this series is it doesn’t seem possible to second-guess. It’s certainly no bullet-pointed editorial on the cultural implications of sending black children to be adopted by white parents (played by Lia Williams and Steven Mackintosh, who will move to the centre in later episodes). Instead it muddies the waters, uneasily shifting between heartrending tragedy and awkward comedy.
The one false note so far felt like the conversation Miriam had on a park bench with Kiri’s brother-to-be Si (Finn Bennett) while in front of them police and volunteers scoured for signs of the missing girl. It felt like dialogue that needed to happen rather than would have happened. The rest has the firm smack of conviction.