HELL UP NORTH
Red Riding Trilogy
In the late 90s Variety Europe reported the results of a survey that challenged regular small screen viewers from across the continent to rate and rank TV dramas from each European TV-producing nation best to worst by country of origin. English shows fared poorly overall—the consensus being, even among British viewers, that home grown straight-faced UK TV was too issue-driven, “dark” and “depressing” in comparison to presumably lighter fare from France, Spain, Germany, and the Scandinavian states.
I happened to be visiting a film festival in London at the time these poll results were published and as if to underscore this point, I set down Variety, snapped on the hotel room telly and randomly watched Hollow Reed, a 1996 domestic drama produced by England’s Channel Four that mixed child abuse, a violent homophobic stalker, on screen drug use, make-out scenes between Hal Hartley muse Martin Donovan and 90s big screen John Lennon impersonator Ian Hart and climactic courtroom breast-beating on behalf of two-dad households. Issue driven? Most assuredly. Dark? Quite. Depressing? Well, a bit rough going at times, but more a Lifetime melodrama reconfigured for a more worldly constituency than a kitchen sink wallow. The most depressing thing about Hollow Reed was the realization that no American broadcast network would likely have shown the film, let alone green-lit it.
British television’s bracing and—for Anglophile Yank baby boomers like myself—wickedly addictive bleak streak has been in place for more than thirty-five years. This is particularly true of the tendency for small screen UK crime dramas to willingly inhabit greyer moral real estate than of their made-in-USA counterparts. If one matches up vintage English TV policiers like Troy-Kennedy Martin’s 60s cop shows Z-Cars and Softly, Softly, his brother Ian’s 70s police procedural the Sweeney or writer-director Mike Hodges’ pre-Get Carter TV films Suspect and Rumour, against their contemporaneous American TV equivalent, Jack Webb, Quinn Martin and the other leading lights of American small screen crime drama seem realism-fatalism-phobic by comparison.
British TV crime stories achieved an apotheosis of sorts in the 80s and 90s with several short-form miniseries depicting the anti-heroic and sordid lives of British subjects on both sides of the law. Troy Kennedy-Martin’s six hour alternately hard boiled, melancholy, topical and batshit crazy 1985 police drama Edge of Darkness (a US feature remake starring Mel Gibson condensed 6 hours to 2, transplanted the action to present day New England, politically sanitized the original story, garnished it with bone-crunching violence absent in the original and opened here last month), Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect, Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker and Paul Abbott’s Touching Evil were each in their day the best thing on television. I’ve long suspected that HBO’s wheelhouse crime genre series The Sopranos and The Wire were to some degree aesthetically enabled by the similarly downbeat, doggedly character-driven abbreviated seasons (compared to broadcast network dramas) characteristic of these UK crime shows serials.
With all that in mind, the Red Riding trilogy currently onscreen at IFC Center, available on IFC On Demand, and already piped into homes in the UK and Europe via Channel 4 last year can be seen as the most recent unwrapping of the British gift for creating crime stories that mix pulpy fatalism with documentary detail and politics. Or, in deference to those late 90s European poll respondents, police dramas that combine dark, depressing, and issue-driven content.
Based upon a four-book series by David Peace, Red Riding covers a decade of municipal corruption, cover-ups and covert end games centered around the real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders that terrorized England’s East Riding region and stumped the local constabulary during the late 1970s. Frequent Terry Gilliam collaborator, screenwriter Tony Grisoni has pared Peace’s quartet down to a trio of feature length dramas dated 1974, 1980, and 1983.
Perhaps as a nod to Hodges’ Get Carter, the gold standard by which modern British crime films will likely always be measured, Red Riding 1974 begins with a native Northerner’s return from career-necessitated self-exile in London on the occasion of a death in the family. But unlike Jack Carter, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is a journalist, not a gangster, and tasked with reporting on an unrelated local murder, not avenging the death that’s grudgingly lured him home. This latest in a string of child killings (more precisely child/waterfowl killings—don’t ask) leads Eddie to Paula (Rebecca Hall) the bereaved and widowed mother of a previously murdered child. Though never quite parsed out to the point of complete lucidity, Eddie’s combination of professional ambition, familial guilt, and need to rescue Paula propel him deeply into a sordid cat’s cradle of police mendacity, real estate chicanery (represented by Sean Bean as a kind of super macho middle-aged Saxon reprobate version of Noah Cross in Polanski’s Chinatown), and journalistic ethics gone up the flue.
A defining characteristic of English dramatic television is that UK actors travel more freely and frequently between big and small screen, stage and radio mic than their American counterparts. The three Red Riding films’ combined canvas involves dozens of supporting parts and the big cast assembled to realize them proves the series’ greatest asset. Nearly everyone involved does yeoman work with what they’re given. Amidst the bell-bottoms, belted leather jackets, Ford Granadas and other period fetish items photographed in smudgy shallow focus Super 16mm by director Julian Jarrold, here perhaps seeking aesthetic atonement for his moribund, antiseptic big screen Brideshead Revisited from 2008, Garfield and the rest of the players in Red Riding 1974 work overtime to breathe convincing life into their characters. Eddie may not be easy to like (or hear—the entire episode is subtitled), but he’s relentlessly watchable whether gulping whiskey while listening to King Crimson and looking through clues on his bedroom floor or enduring the rubber hose and worse at the hands of the West Yorkshire police.
1980 holds the distinct advantage of being the most firmly based in historical reality of the three films. Oscar® winning documentary director James Marsh takes full advantage of this grounding context and sets his episode up with a picture and sound montage that dovetails fictional character’s voices and story details into actual vintage talking head interviews with terrified West Yorkshire daughters, wives, and mothers, shots of newspaper clippings and photos of the real ripper’s victims.
With the Ripper case at investigative deadlock, and West Yorkshire top cop Bill “The Badger” Molloy (Warren Clarke—Dim from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange) coming unraveled, cabinet level higher ups bring Manchester Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) and handpicked subordinates Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) and John Nolan (Tony Pitts) in to re-examine evidence and face the indignant Leeds press. But the hostility Hunter and his comrades encounter from reporters pales in comparison to the treatment they receive from their local police allies. Liaison officer Bob Craven (Sean Harris somehow evoking Warren Oates, Lee Van Cleef and a psychotic Ratty from The Wind in the Willows), the permanently addled survivor of a shootout depicted in 1974, scales back a flair for sadism generously demonstrated in the previous episode into workplace unction and sabotage. Hunter is able enough an investigator to get to the sodden bottom of a murder dubiously credited to the ripper but flawed enough a human being to inadvertently offer his badge-wearing enemies in Leeds a handle with which to throw him to the administrative wolves.
Shooting in widescreen 35mm Marsh takes full advantage of the vertically challenged ‘scope frame to jam up characters in close-up and herd them together uncomfortably with shadows and astutely cluttered shallow focus foregrounds. More than any of the other episodes 1980 achieves the mix of intimacy and realistic, emotionally bruising intrigue that are the strength of vintage UK TV policiers like Edge Of Darkness and Prime Suspect.
Alas, the series reaches a perfunctory conclusion in 1983. The final episode begins promisingly enough with Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a West Yorkshire copper that has spent much of the previous nine years ignoring corruption, resolving to investigate a new child abduction regardless of the potential collateral damage to his colleagues. Aided by an ambulance chasing attorney (an excellent Mark Addy) representing the innocent man jailed for the murders in 1974, Jobson inches closer to a conclusion that unfortunately doesn’t really bear the weight of three films worth of build up.
Handicapped by smeary digital photography and a script that seeks to promote side-light characters from the previous films to front and center plot-bearers when we hardly know or care about them, director Anand Taylor opts for gobs of cliché sinister religious imagery and the kinds of convenient back story-illuminating flashbacks his fellow Red Riding helmers didn’t stoop to. Reveling in flashy portent, cartoonish villainy, and a predictable violent balancing of the scales of justice, the series concludes on a note that would not have been out of place in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City. After four hours of able and evocative storytelling Red Riding 1983 abandons the prior films’ stylistic convictions and story logic in favor of irrelevant sentiment and sensationalism. Now that’s depressing.