James plays Nelly Rowe, an unreliable drifter in London’s Towers Estate, and a regular in the close-knit friendship group at the estate’s Palm Tree pub. Nelly’s surrounded by mates played by an enviable cast including This is England’s Stephen Graham, Killing Eve’s Susan Lynch, and Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones as Nelly’s ex Claire. Oscar nominee and long-time Mike Leigh collaborator Lesley Manville has also joined for series two in a small but crucial role written for her.
Series one followed the abduction of Claire and Nelly’s 13-year-old daughter Jody (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness). Estranged from Jody but drawn into the search when it transpired that somebody close to him was involved in her disappearance, Nelly ended up on a redemptive journey. He took responsibility for the first time in his life and, as he might put it, started to take himself seriously.
The trail he was following to Jody in the series one finale led him to the discovery of another girl – Grace (Olive Grey), who becomes the focus of series two. Grey is a terrific addition to an already strong cast. The role is complex and demanding, requiring transitions from child-like vulnerability to spitting adult rage – Grey delivers it all and is an engaging, unpredictable screen presence. James, who’s rarely off-screen, is utterly convincing and compelling once again as Nelly, but properly, Grey is the second lead. Grace’s is the voice we start to hear behind the new title, begging Nelly to not just redeem himself and find Jody, but also to save her too.
In many ways, Save Me Too is the story of two victims, one ‘good’ (Jody, tricked into abduction from an upper middle-class home, with a family desperate to find her), and one ‘bad’ (Grace, angry, unreliable, uncared for, manipulated into the same abuse via different methods). Placing the two cases side by side makes an already uncomfortable story even more challenging by exposing class prejudice in the justice system. Similar territory was covered by Nicole Taylor’s powerful BBC drama Three Girls, which told the stories of survivors of the Rochdale child abuse ring.
It is uncomfortable viewing, as would be any story about child sexual exploitation, but the subject matter is given due weight here. Abuse victims aren’t simply a backdrop to the story of a heroic male saviour (see Baptiste), they’re the story itself. Grace’s relationship to her abusers, and to Nelly, is shown as complex and contradictory. Her emotional experience is central and thanks to Grey, we feel every step of it. Nothing is simplified or easy, everything is messy and honest and intense.