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'I felt full of hope making this film'

Three Girls is a new BBC One drama that examines the Rochdale sexual abuse ring. Susan Griffin hears the background to the shocking case

In 2012, nine men were jailed for up to 25 years each for sexually exploiting teenage girls in the Rochdale area between 2005 and 2013. Susan Hogg, executive producer of Three Girls, a new drama about three of the victims, remembers listening to one of the girls being interviewed after the trial.

"She was only 19 then and she was so dignified and so strong," Hogg says. "You start to ask questions that couldn't be answered in that interview. Why was this allowed to go on for so long? Why were the girls not listened to? And what was the nature of grooming? I really couldn't understand it."

She had already worked on Five Daughters, a drama about the victims of the Ipswich murders in 2006, with the director Philippa Lowthorpe and fellow producer Simon Lewis, and the trio began talking about this case and the questions it raised.

"We all decided we really wanted to find out the answers to those questions and then you start to go on that journey and discover what those are," says Hogg, who asked Nicole Taylor to write the script.

Taylor, who worked with Hogg on The C Word starring Sheridan Smith, accepted the project "because I had a burning question: how can it be that if the law says you can't consent to sex if you're under 16, there was a whole class of person to whom that didn't apply? How could that be, that there was a category of person in society who were exempt from protection?"

Taylor spent a lot of time travelling to Rochdale "getting to know the girls, getting to know the families, trying to understand in detail what happened from a multitude of points of view".

"I was just looking back at my notebook from the very first meeting I had with the girls and almost everything that's on the page is in there (the drama)," says the writer, who also studied court transcripts and spoke to the whistle blowers, the prosecutor Nazir Afzal and Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who broke the story.

"It took a long time to really understand this, so although it sounds like a really long time to work on something, it feels proportionate to the complexity of what was going on there.

"People were overwhelmingly keen to talk. I think there was the sense, certainly among the victims, of years of not being listened to, so that's been one of the major motivations for me, that they really wanted this story told."

In the three-part drama, we meet Holly (Molly Windsor). New to Rochdale and keen to make friends, she finds herself drawn into a world she can't escape, despite her pleas for help.

It's a world all too familiar to sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham, who had been recording and reporting cases of child abuse for years.

Sara ultimately lifted the lid on how the victims were being failed by authorities directly responsible for their protection.

Maxine Peake, who starred in Silk and The Village, portrays Sara.

"I wanted to become involved because I thought it was a story that needed to be told. This is a story about a swathe of society that has constantly been ignored and bullied," she says.

"I think Sara was frustrated and angry because of the injustice that was happening to these young girls. Sara said, 'You start to think you're losing your mind because the powers that be are not helping you'.

"They weren't encouraging her, they were shutting doors, people were telling her to be quiet. They weren't interested. She was doing this work on her own up to a point and nobody seemed at all interested in helping these young girls who were in desperate situations."

With the drama about to air after years of meticulous research and preparation, do the makers have a greater understanding of how this gross failure happened?

"We didn't find any concrete evidence that they (the police) were deliberately ignoring and not prosecuting these men because of race, but what we did find, absolutely, was that it was the attitude towards these young girls," says Hogg.

"We did find there was a lack of respect and the police felt these girls were going to do it anyway... that nobody could stop them. The terrible thing was when they came in to tell the police what was happening to them - and this wasn't just in Rochdale, this has been happening all over the country - the police ignored them. Because they didn't believe them, they didn't have respect for them, and they didn't believe the jury would believe them."

Of vital importance to everyone involved in making the drama is that "the public really understand how grooming works", adds Hogg.

"We're hoping the audience - parents, young girls and boys - will see the pattern; they'll recognise the pattern as it's happening to them and they'll know when to withdraw because they'll know where it can lead. That's one of the reasons for making this programme and I'm hoping that will have an effect."

Peake agrees: "It wasn't a depressing set to be on. It felt full of hope.

"It felt like you were doing something that had hope for the future, for the next generation of girls that hopefully will be protected from this. And the girls who've been through it, who are now young women, will be able to move on with their lives."

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