Jack Thorne is responsible for the sell-out Harry Potter play in the West End, he co-wrote all three television series of This Is England and in 2016 he wrote the BAFTA award-winning Channel 4 drama National Treasure and now he’s back with the follow-up, Kiri.
Kiri stars Sarah Lancashire as Miriam, an experienced, no-nonsense social worker who is responsible for Kiri, a young black girl who is soon-to-be-adopted by her white foster family. During an unsupervised visit with her biological grandparents, Kiri disappears and the fingers of suspicion and blame from the police, the press, and even her colleagues, point firmly at Miriam.
As the media spotlight around the story intensifies, Miriam, as well as both sets of families, are forced to ask the toughest questions, not just of themselves, but of each other.
Towards the end of 2017, I was invited along to the press screening for Kiri, where I was one of the first to watch the first episode of what is a fantastic new drama that’s a necessary, but definitely not easy watch. After the screening, I along with a number of other journalists spoke to Jack Thorne about his latest TV series.
Here’s what he had to say about Kiri…
How did Kiri come about?
My mum was a carer for adults with learning difficulties and I used to hang out with her when she used to spend Christmas in a home and I’ve always wanted to write about the caring professions. Toby and I were talking at the end of National Treasure about something we might want to work on together again.
We started talking about social work, form there we got into adoption, from there we started to investigate issues around adoption and this very contentious area of transracial adoption came up and it’s one where I don’t think there are many easy answers to how we deal with those vulnerable kids. I always like things where I don’t know the answer. So it kind of grew from there.
Has your mother seen the series?
No. She’ll see it when she’s on the telly! I’ve written about her quite a lot actually and she’ll always watch it twice. The first time she gets more nervous for me than I do, so she watches it the next night and then we’ll have a chat.
Did you do a lot of research into cases such as Baby P and Victoria Climbié?
Absolutely. But also a lot of research about social workers. We thought about those cases but actually they’re happing in small ways all the time. We had a consultant that worked with who was a social worker who constantly fed into the script and helped us think about things.
Talking to Sarah Lancashire she mentioned how Kiri is “extraordinarily structured”. Could you talk more about the structure of the piece?
The way the show works is like a relay race. The second episode is Tobi’s story, her birth grandfather and the third episode is Alice’s story.
All the other characters play significant roles and that grows more democratic the longer the show goes on. But that was the idea of it, that you slowly get windows into these different worlds.
Do you write with cast in mind?
We’ve got a ridiculously exceptional cast in Kiri, but no I don’t. I can’t do it. If I do it, the writing becomes really bad. I just write the characters and then desperately desperately hope and we got incredibly lucky on this show
What do you think Sarah Lancashire brings to the role of Miriam that perhaps someone else couldn’t?
So much. Her ability to, in the blink of an eye, switch between humour and pathos. But just her truth. She’s just so truthful all of the time. She’s amazing.
I don’t go to set much. I get quite shy. But there’s a scene later on between Lia (Williams) and Sarah where I just had to be there, because I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that they were going to do it and face off against each other. It was very exciting.
What message are you trying to send about transracial adoption and are you expecting any backlash?
I don’t know about backlash. I hope we’ve done a sensitive exploration of a really complicated issue. I don’t like drama where I know the answer. I don’t like writing stuff where I know the answer. And I still don’t know the answer as to what the correct amount of access Kiri should have been given was. I still don’t have a clear opinion on it. I’m still working it out.
I’m still doing the same with National Treasure actually. I still don’t know what the right things were in that either. You try and ask as many questions as you can and you try and ask them in an intelligent way. You hope people are empowered to investigate it themselves. we have a very complicated relationship with race in this country and I don’t think we’ve worked it out. I’m just trying to pose questions. That’s all.
Does that make writing the ending to a drama like National Treasure or Kiri quite difficult?
Yes. It makes the whole thing very difficult to write. Which is why I had to bring Rachel De-Lahay on board, because I’d write myself in to a hole. I couldn’t write the second episode. Tobi’s episode. I tried and tried and tried and it just didn’t feel right to me and I think it’s because I was scared.
But Rachel very kindly agreed to come in and co-write with me to try and give it the authenticity and truth that I felt it deserved.
For example, when Tobi’s on the way to the Morgue to see his granddaughter’s body, it’s important that he’s not just drawn as this great big hero. Even in the car, he’s like “No, Rochelle is going to wait outside.”
Would you ever read a review or look at Twitter?
I read everything. I read every tweet. I’m a masochist. I try and learn from it. It’s really exciting to live in an age where you can find out what everyone thinks, not just a selection of critics. I enjoy that.
There are times when I get a bit overwhelmed by it and start damaging my brain slightly. But most of the time I go “OK, that’s interesting. It’s interesting you feel that way. I’ll try and do it better next time.”
What is it about TV drama as an art form that allows you to explore these stories in greater detail?
I love telly. I find it the easiest thing to write and I don’t know why. I try and write in other mediums but find it a lot harder. That’s not to say I find this easy, but I think it’s because I’ve grown up watching so much of it.
The thing we tried to do with National Treasure was to make everyone the jury on a really complicated case. When you’re dealing with a historical sex crime where the evidence is so slight, how can you judge these people? We tried to tell that story as democratically and openly as possible.
With Kiri we are investigating one of the most complicated things I’ve come across, in terms of race and class and how we parent our vulnerable kids. You hope as a dramatist that at the end of it, people will talk. You hope that people will sit on the sofa afterwards and just have a chat for ten minutes about how they feel about it.
There’s something about seeing someone’s face, going through something which news can’t replicate. If you can tell a story that allows those faces to communicate something to the living then you’re in a really privileged position and you should use that privilege really carefully and well. And that’s what we’re hoping to do with this.
Are you already planing your next TV drama?
We’ve always had it in our heads that there are going to be perhaps three of these, if we’re lucky. National Treasure, then Kiri and then another drama that are inter-linked in that they’re dramas about the media and the way the media tells a story.
If we were lucky enough to do a third one, journalism would have to play a role because I haven’t told a journalist’s story in this yet. They have been there and they have been present throughout the whole thing, but there hasn’t been a journalist story in it.
That would be the next challenge.
Would you consider writing a drama about Grenfell?
Maybe. Or I’m interested in someone else tackling it. It’s certainly something we should be working out how to dramatise. It’s really complicated and the longer you spend on it, the more complicated you realise it is.
The reason why that cladding was put on there was for environmental reasons. And you kind of go, so something that was put on there for such positive reasons, but the industry was supervised by people that were in the plastics industry, and you realise how much trouble we’re in.
It overwhelms me that it’s not being spoken about as much as it should be, because I still can’t believe this happened in our country. In a country that’s supposed to have money, I can’t believe that we inflicted that on people.
I can’t believe that they were screaming out for help and no one listened.
What else are you working on?
I’m doing the adaptation of His Dark Materials for telly. It’s a long process. Getting that right is very hard.
Read my interview with Sarah Lancashire here.
Kiri starts Wednesday 10th January at 9pm on Channel 4