Cinema/TV, Film Notes

TV reviews – the Red Riding Trilogy

My notes on the three TV films adapted from David Peace’s Red Riding novels

NB: spoilers

Red Riding: 1974

David Peace’s Yorshire noir quartet of date-titled novels has come to television shorn of its second part (1977) – evidently a budget-conscious decision which fits in sadly with Channel 4’s tendency to select outstanding literary series (Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour) for adaptation and then give them the sort of short shrift practically guaranteed to tick off devotees of the books and mystify newcomers.

It remains to be seen how this will affect the trilogy when it’s considered as a whole, but this straightish adaptation by Tony Grisoni of the first of the books, directed in hallucinatory style by Julian Jarrold, had period atmos and grim-oop-North murk to spare but stumbles over the slightly reductive revelation (spoiler!) that property developing bastard John Dawson (Sean Bean) who is the Mr Big with crooked fingers in every pie and payoffs in every police pocket is also the paedophile torturing killer who abducts little girls and sews swan-wings on their backs (!) when he’s done with them. The crooked politics – which include burning out an entire gypsy camp ‘like Vietnam or something’, an incident shown impressively by a visit to a literally blasted heath aftermath – ring true for 1974, but the psychopathology is post-Thomas Harris, Se7enish stuff. The whole notion of the fairly irredeemable flawed hero, ambitious journo Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), going after a top dog who is both tycoon and sex killer seems to be a transplant from Cutter’s Way, which (as novel and film) was more interestingly plotted.

The smarmy, self-hating wideboy hero, who suffers greatly for his initial callowness as he loses loved ones and is repeatedly beaten up by the police, is practically a caricature of the sort of scumbag protagonist found in James Ellroyish noir novels and, as in the films of Ellroy’s stories, a hard sell in the adaptation. Garfield isn’t bad but keeps being upstaged by characters whose deaths serve to stiffen his resolve to do something right: investigative reporter Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), who is a jittery paranoid (talking about Yorkshire Death Squads) but canny enough to get some right answers, and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), enigmatic mother of one of the missing kids who has an affair with Garfield and projects a cross between traumatised kitchen sink martyr and doomed femme fatale (Hall, as is becoming customary, does another unique, haunting performance unlike anything she’s done before). The starry line-up (Warren Clarke, Eddie Marsan, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan) of characters (coppers, senior journo, priest) with little to do here plants seeds for later in the saga. Sean Harris, already typecast as modern British quality drama’s resident feral loon, is in uniform here as a Yorkshire copper who acts like a goon working for some South American junta – but is also used by shadowy powers to brainwash Garfield into becoming a tool to shut down a monster who’s gone too far.  Berwick Kaler, whose career spans Andy Milligan horrors and a long-time pamtomime dame residency, also appears.

I happened to see this the same week I watched the 1972 film All Coppers Are and the 1975 Play for Today Gangsters – they only had to go outside the studio and point a camera, buy clothes off the peg and approve the cast’s pre-existing haircuts to show an era 1974 has to go to great lengths to create. The contrast is obvious: the 2009 vision is infernal, but picturesque, with every seedy detail carefully in place and nothing left to chance – when a scrap of graffiti is glimpsed on a wall or a period car drives by, it’s a deliberate piece of the mosaic, but there’s never a moment where reality highlights or cuts against the story as it does in the 1970s dramas. With a fug of fag-smoke in every scene, name-drops of clothes brands (‘Lord John of Carnaby Street’), interior décor that ranges from faded front parlours to Dawson’s Bond villain-as-imagined-by Mike Leigh moderne refuge, and shaggy hairdos which look like fancy dress, 1974 isn’t entirely free of the nostalgia for the awful found in Life on Mars. It contrasts with 1970s crime dramas the way the 1975 remake of Farewell, My Lovely did with the 1944 film – in working so hard to recapture a sleazy, bygone era, it can’t help but make it somehow beautiful, where the contemporary version is more direct and horrific for it.

Red Riding: 1980

‘Ripper 12 – Police 0’

The second of the Red Riding trilogy, directed (in widescreen) by James Marsh, is less flamboyant than 1974 but seems to be spinning the wheels as the plot goes through another investigation which winds up intersecting with what we learned last week but still has to leave much unsaid for the finale.  The Yorkshire Ripper is at large and honest copper Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is brought in after the public breakdown and sacking of the senior officer on the case (Warren Clarke) to investigate the investigation.  Unspoken but obvious is the fact that he’s supposed to crucify other cops for failing to stop the murders – which means he’s hardly guaranteed the support of the local force, and has to live with the nickname ‘Saint Cunt’.  The plot hangs on a murder ascribed to the Ripper, eventually caught almost by accident by a cop on the beat, which Hunter comes to believe was committed by others in part of an ongoing conspiracy to cover up the semi-massacre that ended the earlier movie.  Hunter is a more credible protagonist than the journo of 1974, but David Peace has saddled him with a couple of overly predictable subplots, a fizzled affair with a colleague (Maxine Peake) and a neurotic wife (Lesley Sharp).  The investigative team includes one solid, dependable nice guy (Tony Pitts) guaranteed to turn traitor and be involved in the killings at the end.  Man of the match is Sean Harris, returning as an aggressive, ratlike, ever-pushing, insensitive policeman who is out to obstruct the course of justice and has one great, forehead-to-forehead confrontation with the hero.

Plenty of detail about the era of the Yorkhsire Ripper is layered in, from take-back-the-streets demos to the time-wastage over a misleading recorded message with a geordie accent sent in by a hoaxer, and Joseph Mawle is creepily credible in an interrogation scene as a politely helpful Peter Sutcliffe.  In this context, the actual Ripper is among the most truthful characters in view.  The Ellroyesque sleaze, corruption and shock tactics continue – it’s not enough that an ex-cop be tortured to death with power-tools, and an audio cassette of the murder left shoved in his mouth as a warning, but his emblematic-of-innocence little girl has to be casually whacked too.  The dead innocents include Hunter’s two babies, the one his mistress aborts and the one his wife still-births.

Red Riding: 1983

The third of the trilogy splits the focus between fat lawyer John Piggott (Mark Addy), who’s new to the story, and Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a copper who has been a glum presence in the earlier movies – like the doomed reporter and policeman of 1974 and 1980, they are drawn into investigating a Yorkshire web of corruption which takes in the major crimes and villains of the previous entries and solves some mysteries which have been developing, revealing that another continuing background character was involved in the child murders seemingly committed by the monstrous developer (Sean Bean) in 1974 and is a prime mover in a shadowy ring of locals who abduct, abuse and kill kids from the community.  Piggott gets roped in to mount an appeal for a simpleminded man (Daniel Mays) who has officially been convicted of the crimes and left to rot, while Maurice works an active missing child case and can no longer stomach the frame-ups managed by brutal police interrogation methods and implicated bogus defence lawyers which mean the crimes are officially solved but continue as untouchable creeps mix their private perversions with more above-ground crookedness.

Again, it seems a stretch to go the route of, say, Law & Order in a realistic, shocking depiction of actual police practices of the time and the inner circle-like manner local bigwigs handle their wealth creation schemes (‘this is the North, we do what we like’) but also include guignol-like horror aspects (‘he’s tried to sew fucking swan wings on her’) that run nearly to the supernatural (Maurice has an affair with a psychic played by Saskia Reeves) and a wildly sentimental streak with regards to the little angelic victims.  A rent boy (Robert Sheehan) who has threaded through the other two films turns up more prominently, as a wounded but alive early victim of the killers who returns for revenge and precipitates the climax.  A problem of the conspiracy angle is that it means we’ve had a succession of leading men who are trying to get to the bottom of mysteries almost everyone else in the stories already know the answer to – and exposition often means these supporting types taking pity on the heroes and doling out plot points.  Performances are all fine, though as in the previous films there’s an earnest sense of trying too hard.  Directed by Anand Tucker.


One thought on “TV reviews – the Red Riding Trilogy

  1. 7 comments
    Damon Wise
    It’s fair to say that it won’t all make sense until the very end; there’s a big plot point at the end of 1980 but it’s a largely tangential story and most of the main issues are only resolved in 1983, notably why Dunford was roughed up and given a gun.

    Simon Kurt Unsworth
    I posted on this a bit the other day, but I was really disappointed with the dream sequence stuff and the ending, which felt like they’d been cobbled in from another, more ‘Hollywood’, movie. I’d been enjoying it a lot, and will watch the others but am hoping it stiffens its resolve and has the courage of its convictions in future episodes and avoids betraying its own realist notions (or at least, as realist as TV drama allows itself to get these days). it was good to hear Sean Bean speaking in a northern accent again, though!

    Sarah Pinborough
    I though it was obvious, slow and over-brown…meh…although Sean Bean is always nice to look at..

    Simon Kurt Unsworth
    The 70s ‘look’ of the camera work was a bit irritating, wasn’t it?

    Sarah Pinborough
    yep -Life on mars got it right -this was too much.

    Roger Keen
    Party Sevens, yes – when you finally got the penknife in, they squirted froth all over your jeans. They don’t make decades like the 70s anymore. I enjoyed this, partly because it made a change from standard TV crime fare. The progressive loss of naturalism reminded me a little of In Bruges, and like that film it worked well within the terms it set itself. Plus the performances were really good – Sean Bean made an excellent villan.

    Posted by kimnewman | March 7, 2022, 8:05 am

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