Red Riding: is it that grim up north?

Channel 4’s dramatisation of David Peace’s novels was compelling TV, but its grimness bordered on caricature.

Neil Davenport

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Few TV dramas in recent years have polarised critical opinion as sharply as Channel 4’s trilogy, Red Riding. Amidst a morass of programmes on freaky eating habits and freaky parents, the series, based on David Peace’s crime novels set in Yorkshire, has been loudly hailed by some as a welcome return to quality British drama. There’s also been a huge sigh of relief that British TV producers are finally investing in TV programmes with the kind of ambition and narrative scope that made US dramas The Sopranos and The Wire so coolly riveting.

Yet Red Riding also has its detractors. It’s a pile of pretentious guff, its critics claim, and its cinematic sheen fails to mask a strained and unworkable plotline.

While it is true that Red Riding, which ran from 5 March to 19 March, had numerous flaws, it’s still worth asking: when was the last time a British drama could even be remotely called a watercooler moment?

The Red Riding trilogy was set in Leeds and around Yorkshire during the 1970s and early 1980s. In the first instalment, subtitled The Year of Our Lord: 1974, a journalist and detective constables tried to solve a spate of harrowing child murders. The events and characters in this episode were cross-referenced in the second instalment, 1980, which dwelt on the bungled investigation surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper murders. The final episode, 1983, again focused on a child’s disappearance and pulled together the puzzling loose ends from the previous two instalments.

Producer Andrew Eaton has obviously learnt from the multi-narrative, cross-referencing framework that David Simon pioneered on The Wire. And it is this dramatic device that made Red Riding compulsive, compelling viewing. The 1974 episode was, at times, so fragmented and hallucinatory that its mysterious twists and turns could only properly be understood in the final 10 minutes of the last episode. Few British programmes in recent years could claim to be this dense and demanding on viewers’ attention spans. And, in a sign of its quality and seriousness, Red Riding managed to tease out peak performances from an army of Britain’s most gifted, seasoned actors.

Warren Clarke was magnificent as grizzled police chief Bill Molloy, who turns almost catatonic as his squad fails to capture the Yorkshire Ripper. Paddy Considine – always a massive screen presence – played out-of-character-type as the smooth, über-professional Detective Inspector Peter Hunter. Elsewhere, David Morrissey did a fantastic job portraying DI Maurice Jobson, a man suppressing a tidal wave of guilt. And, most incredible of all, professional Yorkshire man Sean Bean came good as the sleazy, predatory property developer, John Dawson.

It is also pleasing that, finally, 1970s Britain is not being seen through the lens of kitsch and irony. For too long, memories of bri-nylon flares, rubbish light entertainment on TV and progressive rock have made many blind to how edgy, experimental and downright weird that decade was.

In this sense, Red Riding is following a new trend of Seventies Re-evaluation. In recent years documentaries have fondly looked back at the 1970s and early 1980s as a rough period, yes, but also one which nurtured some substantial, maverick individuals. The current hagiographies of football manager Brian Clough, kickstarted by, coincidentally enough, David Peace’s novel The Damned Utd and now Peter Morgan’s film of the same name, follow similar BBC4 deifications of period notables Ian Curtis and Tony Wilson, Ian Dury and Geoff Travis. Maybe this indicates, at some level, an awareness that today’s prevailing mood of therapeutic psychobabble and risk-averse shoulder pads is not producing individuals making much of a spectacular impact on the world. Will anybody be making films or documentaries about Chris Martin, David Cameron, Richard Curtis or Jamie Fucking Oliver in 30 years’ time?

Whether intentional or not, the menacing figure of the corrupt property developer in Red Riding is a useful reference point for unlocking the mindset of 1970s Britain. Indeed, in the 1971 film Get Carter, the seedy property developer is similarly at the centre of heinous wrongdoing; such a character was explored in the 1995 drama, Our Friends in the North. Why does the property developer become the social demon of that period? Surely they represented the ambition, drive and dynamism of modernity, and should thus be embraced rather than demonised?

In fact, the age of Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology (1964-1970) and the brutal modernist architecture of that period had the effect of bulldozing working-class participation in public life. Some believed the effects were even more devastating and destructive than the bombs of the Second World War. There was bitter, widespread resentment that important decisions were made from above without any consultation with those below. Architects might have believed in high-rise flats and grey concrete shopping centres, but what about the people who lived in and around them? In the rather lamentable film spin-off of the TV comedy The Likely Lads, Bob Ferris looks aghast at the demolition ball and soulless reconstruction of Newcastle. ‘I feel like my whole life is being torn apart’, he says angrily.

In the real world of 1970s Britain, there was within working-class communities a widespread anger and resentment at being forced out of public decisionmaking. A compensatory response was to act out a sort of pantomime version of hard-man, working-class identity – hence the skinhead cult amongst young working-class men. That sense of anger at being marginalised by the authorities spilled over into football hooliganism, too, the culture of random violence on the streets and militant trade unionism. Of course, Red Riding doesn’t touch upon these areas specifically, but it captures the period’s oppressive and ominous mood very well.

One unfortunate development in this era was a fairly nasty and degrading attitude towards women. Red Riding dwelt heavily on the rampant misogyny of the period and implies that the rape and murder of young girls, as well as Peter Sutcliffe’s murdering spree, was its logical conclusion. Indeed, Clarke’s police chief is forced off the Ripper case after giving a TV interview in which he says he sympathises with the Ripper’s motivations – that is, his hatred for ‘sluttish’ women.

Today the authorities are quick to suggest that working-class men are singularly abusive to women. The strength of Red Riding is that it reminds us of a time when elite figures would routinely encourage disrespect and even hatred towards women, especially as a way of distracting ordinary men from the real source of their frustrations. Back then newspaper editorials, politicians, church figures and leading police officers blamed ‘loose women’ for country’s apparent moral decline. This was a period when high court judges believed that raped and battered women were probably ‘asking for it’. Little wonder that when Peter Sutcliffe started his murdering campaign, the authorities’ response was at first: ‘Who cares? They’re only prostitutes.’

As an impressionistic, dramatic retelling of this forgotten aspect of 1970s Britain, Red Riding scored highly. Employing different directors for each episode signals a commitment to experimenting with the medium of TV – and the gamble undoubtedly paid off. The Sunday Times TV critic AA Gill was wrong to complain that TV suffers when it apes cinema. In fact, Red Riding showed that TV can, by dint of broadcasting frequency, go beyond the limitations of cinema. This is one of the reasons why The Sopranos is superior to its big-screen equivalent, The Godfather.

Against all this positive cheer, however, Red Riding certainly had glaring flaws. The portrayal of the corrupt, venal and violent police force was undoubtedly a nod to that era’s fit-ups, frame-ups and forced confessions. But the message is so easily and casually anti-police as to be barely credible. In fact, the drama’s obsession with widespread corruption in high places seemed more in keeping with today’s conspiratorial outlook and sometimes unhealthy cynicism towards authority. The message often seems to be that if corruption amongst our leaders and representatives is so endemic, then we’re all better off ignoring public life and retreating even further into our bunkers.

Elsewhere, the police officers in Red Riding didn’t act like police officers in any believable way. Given that this is an institution informed, back then at least, by old elite values and codes, there was a unbelievable lack of formality in much of their conduct in Red Riding. Would a high-ranking detective inspector really have his muddy boots perched on a desk? How come subordinate police officers never to refer to their superiors as ‘Sir’? Why does no one make routine diary entries to keep track of their investigations? And although beatings by the police undoubtedly happened, having them stub cigarettes out on suspects’ hands or dangle rats in front of their faces was unconvincingly dystopian; this was Yorkshire, not Northern Ireland. As a diatribe against the police, much of Red Riding was relentlessly crass and thus, ironically, it often lacked real critical bite.

There seems to be a belief in the current TV and film world that showing scenes of unremitting darkness and bleakness is somehow more ‘real’, ‘insightful’ and, of course, ‘boundary breaking’. It isn’t. Moments of levity and farce can shed more insight into plot and character than depictions of torture by trepanning. And surely 1970s Britain was as much about the affluent worker and raised aspirations as it was a rancid underbelly of cheap porn, casual violence and top-brass corruption. In this sense, Red Riding sometimes ended up as the inverse to the afro-hair, shades-and-flares cringeworthiness of a ‘Seventies Nite’ stag-do. A period this rich in incident and drama deserved more than one-eyed re-interpretations.

To be scrupulously fair, however, Red Riding did fall squarely into the crime-thriller genre and, by this yardstick alone, it largely triumphed. Yes, it had moments of portentous absurdity, but the final episode’s gripping, sustained tension made for fantastic TV drama. In the same way Our Friends in the North is indelibly linked to 1995, and This Life to 1997, the television year of 2009 will more than likely belong to Red Riding, the moment British drama finally came good again. Will anyone really remember Freaky Eaters or Deal or No Deal in 20 years’ time?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Patrick West is away.

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