Maxine Peake is at the peak of her powers. It seems that there is almost nothing she cannot do.
To reinforce the point, in 2014 she became the first actress since Frances de la Tour nearly 40 years ago to take on the role of Hamlet, when she played the part to great critical acclaim and full houses at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
She is terrifically versatile, having portrayed everyone from Rebekah Brooks in The Comic Strip’s Red Top and Stephen Hawking’s second wife Elaine in The Theory of Everything to Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders and the cyclist Beryl Burton in Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels (which, for good measure, Peake also wrote).
But the actress, who was also enjoyed starring roles in Dinnerladies, Shameless, Silk and The Village, has surely never tackled anything quite as emotionally draining as her latest drama.
Three Girls tells the harrowing story of three victims of the 2012 Rochdale grooming and sex trafficking case. The trial resulted in the conviction of nine men for sex trafficking crimes against at least 47 girls, between 2008 and 2012.
Written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) after three years of meticulous research, Three Girls focuses on a trio of youngsters, Holly (an astounding performance by Molly Williams), Amber (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Ruby (Liv Hill). They endure the most appalling abuse at the hands of a gang of British Asian men who have assiduously groomed them with vodka, cigarettes and takeaways.
The three-part drama is made with the full cooperation of the victims and their families. It is an urgent, astonishingly moving piece. It is also one of the most tear-jerking dramas you are ever likely to see.
Peake plays Sara Rowbotham, a real-life sexual health worker in Rochdale. After years of being ignored by the police, she is finally taken seriously by the new detective assigned to the case, DC Margaret Oliver (Lesley Sharp of Scott and Bailey). Rowbotham’s evidence proves crucial in the trial of the nine men.
Elegantly dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, 42-year-old Peake makes for tremendous company. Yes, she is passionate and serious about her work. But at the same time, she exudes that quality summed up by the name of her character in Dinnerladies: Twinkle. Audiences can relate to Peake. And therein lies the secret of her success – viewers see themselves in her. They feel they know her.
And whatever success she has enjoyed, she remains commendably down to earth. For instance, the Bolton-born actress laughs at the very idea of cosmetic surgery. “I’d never have it! As an actor, I find it ridiculous. You’ve got to still look like a human being!”
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Peake manifests the trait we Brits treasure above all others: self-deprecation. What a refreshing change from actors who in encounters with the press habitually turn the dial on their internal “look-at-me-ometers” up to 11.
There have been several dramas about real-life tragedies in recent times – think of The Moorside, Little Boy Blue and Damilola, Our Loved Boy (which won the Best Single Drama Bafta on Sunday night) – and they have all made a big impact. They might be tough to watch, but they are never prurient. They also play a vital role in alerting the public to stories that may otherwise have escaped their notice.
Peake begins by underscoring why she feels it is so important that these dramas continue to be produced. “Doing stories like this in a dramatised form engages a bigger audience. Sometimes people can be slightly cautious about documentaries. So it's getting it into more homes and getting the story to the widest possible audience for people to understand.”
She continues: “I thought this was a story that needed to be told. This is a story about a swathe of society that has constantly been ignored, bullied, and shipped off to one side. They've slipped off the scale, and we've forgotten about them - and that really spoke to me.”
You might have imagined that working on such a devastating true story would leave you feeling traumatised. But Peake says that, conversely, the cast and crew felt glad to have the opportunity to recount the girls’ stories.
“It empowers you in a way, because you feel you're doing something that you feel very rarely in acting – that you're part of something really important that might have an effect on people,” she says.
“Knowing that a lot of those young girls we've spoken to are now getting on with their lives, it was encouraging. It wasn't a depressing set to be on. It felt full of hope – for the next generation of girls that hopefully will be protected and for the girls who've been through it, who are now young women, being able to move on with their lives. It was a positive experience.”
But this tale has a sting. Even though evidence Rowbotham collected on hundreds of abused girls as long ago as 2003 is still being used to prosecute cases, she was made redundant in 2014.
Peake got to know unlike Rowbotham during the production. “We hit it off immediately,” she says. “As soon as I walked into the room to meet her for the first time, I thought, ‘This is someone I have to play.’”
The actress goes on to express her great admiration for this most courageous, and cruelly discarded, of whistleblowers. “Sara was frustrated and angry over the injustice that was happening to these young girls. You start to think you're going mad because the powers that be are not helping, they're shutting doors.
“No one seemed at all interested in helping these young girls who were in desperate situations. These were really vulnerable young women and the lack of care, I felt, was mind-blowing.”
Peake is absolutely right that these vulnerable teenagers were treated in the most callous and scandalous way by those in authority. They were dreadfully let down by the very people who should have been looking after them.
One positive we can take away from this may be the fact that millions more people will now know the story of the Three Girls, and perhaps that might help stop it happening ever again.
'Three Girls' is on BBC1 at 9pm on 16, 17 & 18 May
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