This is the North – and we do what we want!
RED RIDING TRILOGY (RED RIDING: THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1974, RED RIDING: THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1980, RED RIDING: THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1983)
UK channel: Channel 4
Cast: Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine
A touch over 10 years since it first aired, Red Riding remains as one of the most searing crime dramas committed to celluloid. As ambitious as it was flawed – and as grim as it was prescient – the story framed a very particular strain of British noir that found prominence at the turn of the last decade; a strand of common DNA that could be extracted from similar offerings at the time like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List or Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.
All these draw a similar line through an alternate, hidden history of this country, one that pivots and forks from the traditional narrative into something approaching a dark and untold folklore.
Red Riding has parallels in the 1970s folk horror of The Wicker Man or The Witchfinder General in its tale of lawless citizens and the animal nature of violence that simmers just a gossamer touch below the surface of society.
The Red Riding trilogy was derived from David Peace’s incendiary quartet of books under the same name (comprised of Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-Three) – a bleak tour through the same haunted psychological landscapes of that era where the Yorkshire Ripper callously stalked his prey – a direct and deliberate analogue to the killer represented in the books, whose shadowy presence dominates the minds of its ever-increasing cast of desperate and broken people.
There’s a definite comparison to be made between Peace’s style and that of James Ellroy, whose Underworld USA series mines a similar vein, both writing at an almost fever-dream level while exploring the way unseen protagonists can shift the locus of real-world events. It’s a conceit that isn’t theirs alone, but the breadth of each author’s work feels like it wouldn’t translate comfortably to the screen due to that daunting scope – and that might be just the case with Red Riding.
The job of deciphering the nuance of Peace’s work fell to three different directors, Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker. As such, each feature-length episode has its own unique aesthetic despite sharing a pool of actors who traverse the years 1974, 1980, and 1983 in the hunt for a child killer among a vast, all-consuming conspiracy. The minutiae of that era are lovingly re-created throughout, on a par with the period design of True Detective, which remains perhaps the show’s most direct descendant. And like that modern American noir, Red Riding steadfastly refused to help guide you through it’s more obtuse passages – an element that may have led to its commercial failure, despite critical acclaim.
“Each individual part of The Red Riding Trilogy has its overwrought moments—in particular the aerial-shot- and flashback-heavy third film…but the achievements of the series as a whole are really impressive: It’s an intriguingly distended procedural (not unlike David Fincher’s Zodiac), a sort of layered whodunit, and, last but not least, an alarming portrait of systemic corruption taking root.”
Benjamin Mercer, The Atlantic
Why we loved it:
The first thing that seems incredible now in retrospect is the sheer depth of the cast that was gathered for the project, a veritable petri dish teeming with the UK’s best acting talent. Sean Bean, David Morrisey, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rebecca Hall, Lesley Sharp, Maxine Peake, Shaun Dooley, Warren Clarke, Michelle Dockery, and a then-unknown Andrew Garfield fill out an impressively deep roster of actors – and while some shine more than others, overall there is a clear commitment to the source material in how it’s played.
And it’s played grim. Pitch black grim. Something that is an acquired taste for some maybe, but the sheer bleakness of it’s topics and narratives might turn the nose of even the hardiest soul. While the story’s connective tissue of bringing a rampant sadist to justice might be dark enough, the real devil here is in the details – and it’s the overwhelming dread that permeates every frame of footage which is the most terrifying aspect of the series. There’s an atmosphere of abject hopelessness that is captured throughout, the sense that nobody can escape this strange and disturbing reality.
The concept of justice is portrayed as a folly that only fools could believe in, not least because the arbiters of law in this series are the ones who master corruption the most – but that everyone involved is complicit in some way, everyone is compromised by their own demons – and that the burden of guilt is shared by all. It’s an abhorrent unification that forges a sort of cult-like tribalism – something that is referenced time and again throughout the series in the way the North is perceived as its own feudal state, with its own impenetrable laws and practices. It’s a conceit that leaves an indelible mark on the viewer, that there is a darkness that festers in the heart of this land which is wholly ambivalent to your continued existence.
It’s here where those parallels with horror feel most prescient – but also the show’s greatest weakness. Its power resides in you suspending your disbelief toward some of its more awkward elements, not least that so few could cast terror over so many and not be undone. Towards its conclusion, events tend to become somewhat overwrought and it flirts dangerously close to parody. Likewise, the show’s treatment of its female characters is comically stereotypical, but everyone featured is so thoroughly unredeemable regardless of gender that the issue becomes almost unnoticeable. Putting these aspects aside, Red Riding remains one of the highest watermarks in British crime drama history – for those with the constitution to stomach its contents.
What they said:
“Red Riding never pauses to gaze at itself and it sure as hell never winks. It might be the darkest five hours in the history of television; I can’t think of anything else that comes close. The body count is considerable but its violence resides more in life than death, in the offhanded beatings by sadistic cops, the physical and psychological torture of interrogation rooms, the moral rot that gnaws at everything and everyone. The North is a place for the terrified or the terrifying, and anyone in between becomes collateral damage. The murdered bodies are those of women, children, the downtrodden and doomed do-gooders, but the survivors are bereft of extemporaneous philosophizing or supernatural intuition: Nobody knows anything until they know too much, and then it’s much too late.” Jack Hamilton, Slate
Did you know?
The wrongful prosecution and imprisonment of the character Michael Myshkin is a clear parallel to the real-life case of Stefan Kiszko, falsely accused of and convicted for the killing of 11-year-old Lesley Molseed in 1975. He was later proved innocent.
Red Riding is available to watch on All4