Let’s face it; we‘re obsessed with cops and bad guys. Ever since Baird invented the television it didn’t take long for crime, specifically in the form of cop shows to become a staple diet of the viewing public and to this day shows no sign of letting up, as the phenomenal longevity of shows like The Bill, Columbo and A Touch of Frost demonstrate.
As is usually the case with most things in life however; less is more. That’s why one of the finest crime shows ever filmed lasted a mere three episodes, 6 thrilling hours of high octane drama and masterful storytelling. Based on the novels by author David Peace, Channel 4’s adaption of the Red Riding Quartet packed more punch than a 90mph truncheon blow and left just as much impact.
Taking place over three episodes, Red Riding is a fictionalised expose of the dark underbelly of West Yorkshire from 1974 to 1983. Set against a backdrop of brutal murders irrevocably interlinked with the real-life Yorkshire Ripper slayings, Red Riding focuses mainly on the cops, some whiter-than-white, some blacker than hell, but also on the civilians who feel the impact; the investigating journalists, grieving relatives, all ultimately victims in a truly nightmarish vortex of sin and corruption.
Kicking off with ‘1974’, we follow newly installed Yorkshire Post Crime Correspondent Eddie Dunford as he investigates the murder of a young girl, whose horrifically mutilated body is found on ground owned by John Dawson, a shady local businessmen who has long held members of the West Yorkshire Constabulary in his overflowing pocket. The sickening nature of the girl’s injuries piques Dunford’s interest, as he notices several similarities with other missing youngsters in the district whose disappearances have never been explained.
Cocky, reckless and eager to impress, Dunford begins digging greedily in places he certainly isn’t welcome. Ignoring threats from the fuzz and becoming involved with Paula Garland, mother of one of the missing girls, ‘Scoop’ as he is mockingly nicknamed, delves far too deep and it soon becomes apparent that a missed deadline will be the least of his worries.
‘1974’ introduces most of the primary cast, one that would be the envy of any Hollywood cop show worth its salt. Andrew Garfield portrays Eddie Dunford with just the right mix of obnoxiousness, naivety and old-school Journo determination to make you believe that he can solve the case, in a similar performance to Jake Gyllenhall in Zodiac. Smiling, yet sinister John Dawson is one of Sean Bean’s finest roles in years, a reminder that the Yorkshire Everyman really can act when he’s given the right part. Rebecca Hall wears her heart on her sleeve as the tragic Paula Garland who having nearly given up hope on her daughter is briefly made to feel alive again by Dunford’s fervent desire to discover the truth.
After a blood-soaked, bittersweet climax involving some stomach-churning torture and an indication of how deep the rot at the heart of the WYC really is, the story jumps forward to ‘1980’ where Inspector Peter Hunter is brought in to take over the bungled investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper whose reign of terror is in full swing. An un-trusted outsider who also investigated the massacre at the end of the previous episode, Hunter comes up against the same wall of obstruction that Dunford encountered, chiefly in the form of the odious Bob Craven(Sean Harris doing that creepy thing he does so well), an Officer with no qualms about getting his hands very dirty indeed.
As the killings escalate, Hunter becomes convinced that one of the murders is not the work of the Ripper, but very viciously made to appear as one. The shadow of 1974 lengthens grotesquely over the investigation and the honest cop becomes a target, as Dunford was, for an increasingly hostile campaign of intimidation.
Paddy Considine once again proves that he is quite possibly Britain’s finest actor, his measured performance as a good man slowly unravelling in the face of a remorseless enemy fully establishes him as a leading man who Studio Execs should be falling over themselves to sign up. He holds every scene together; from a bittersweet Christmas drinks party to a gritty confrontation in a filthy garage, Considine’s commanding presence is an anchor in a sea of fear and uncertainty; a true hero to root for.
The final episode; ‘1983’ draws together several supporting characters whose roles in the miserable business had yet to be revealed. The understated David Morrissey is Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson, a man suffering greatly from innumerable pangs of conscience over his years of (coerced, we learn) participation in the corruption imbedded deep within the WYC. Through flashbacks we learn that Jobson’s role was of note; it was he behind an anonymous phone call in 1974, he who could have saved an innocent man from being convicted of the murder which first alerted Dunford to the criminal goings-on.
We also follow broken, downhearted Solicitor John Piggott, who decides to investigate the latest child disappearance in an attempt to lay his demons to rest, confront his past failings and ultimately put a stop to the decades of evil which have afflicted the Yorkshire that is all he knows. Mark Addy demonstrates that despite being a big guy, it’s the little things that make him such a good actor; witness the tenderness he shows as he attempts to coax information from the mentally-challenged convict now rotting in an asylum and marvel at his portrayal of a man who believes he can make a difference in the face of insurmountable odds.
The true nature of the ominous Reverend Laws (Peter Mullan dripping charm and menace in equal torrents) is revealed, as well as how involved male prostitute B.J. (Robert Sheehan hiding hideous abuse beneath guyliner and cryptic messages) really is. The surviving characters converge in a climax that fully justifies the over-used term ‘gut-wrenching’ as themes of loss, abuse, failure, evil and ultimately redemption fully justify the rollercoaster of emotions experienced on this 6-hour thrill-ride.
Red Riding achieves greatness on so many levels. The period detail is spot on; from the smoke-filled press conferences chock-full of sideburns and cheap leather jackets, to the references to Lord Lucan and the miners’ strike, the viewer is never left in any doubt that they are witnessing the real deal. This was a time when the filth hit first then asked questions later, as Britain’s proud history of police brutality is laid bare in grim, unflinching detail. It’s about as far removed from the modern obsessions with health-and-safety and paperwork as it’s possible to get.
As previously mentioned, the cast has to be one of the finest ever assembled on a UK TV production. The leads are all impressive and believable inhabiting the characters they portray, but it’s the strength of the supporting actors who really give Red Riding the sense of grandeur it possesses. Few productions could cast the likes of Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Robert Sheehan and Maxine Peak in secondary roles and get the returns demonstrated on screen without administering in some serious dodgy dealings.
The biggest character however has to be the ever-looming presence of Yorkshire itself. The heart and menace of its windswept moors, rain-lashed hard towns and the hard men who live there is a central facet to the story. An iconic scene at the beginning of ‘1983’ shows the main conspirators drinking to their success and uttering a stark and uncompromising toast; “To the North, where we do what we want!” Rumours of a Hollywood remake, directed by Ridley Scott, set in America are too horrible to contemplate, for despite Scott being a very safe pair of hands, transporting the story into another setting would discard its very heart and soul. As the opening line of the 1974 novel emphatically states; “Yorkshire Wants Me.”
One of the ironies inherent in this amazing production is that while the story may revel in displaying the darkest of men’s hearts at a time when British ‘justice’ did little to merit its name, the native viewer is left with a strong feeling of national pride in recognising the achievements of everyone involved. Witnessing up-and-and comers like Garland and Hall and seasoned pros such as Considine and Bean acting their socks off in roles that genuinely mean something to them is a joy to behold.
If you’ve made it to the end of this article then congratulations, but the question remains; why aren’t you watching Red Riding right this very instant?