The Red Riding trilogy, based on novels by David Peace, Channel 4

The Red Riding trilogy, based on novels by David Peace, Channel 4

Tom Jennings detects much of the hellish intensity of David Peace’s ‘Yorkshire noir’ in Red Riding[’s television adaptations, but with its most subversive elements lost

This Septic Isle. Television review – Tom Jennings
Scriptwriter Tony Grisoni’s three Red Riding films (based on the novels 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983) paint a compelling picture of time and place. Screening in March and representing a substantial wedge of Channel 4’s drama budget, the superb design, filming and acting drip with grey-brown authenticity, showing 1970s/80s decay, depression and desperation in Northern England’s rapidly postindustrialising pit villages, rotten boroughs and collapsing communities breeding the sociopathic barbarism neoliberalism would soon legitimise. But its seeds were sown long before, exemplified in the period’s notorious sexual violence sagas, and in each of these intricately-linked stories a deeply-flawed protagonist gets to the bottom of botched cases of abducted schoolgirls and butchered prostitutes. A naive Yorkshire Post hack, supercilious Manchester DI and wretchedly ineffectual local solicitor dig into stalled police investigations – including the Ripper hunt – convinced of incompetence, stitch-ups and cover-ups, their faltering progress hindered at every turn by out-of-control coppers whose obstruction quickly shades into outright intimidation. Recurring thoughout unremitting menace and brutality are seedy property developers, vengeance-seeking rent-boys, creepily ubiquitous priests, paedophile rings, and disintegrating detectives trying belatedly to do the right thing surrounded by unredeemable W. Yorks Constabulary colleagues. The latter’s endemic corruption extends beyond collusion and parasitism to running vice and pornography operations as well as enforcing for local Big Money, underlining their thorough integration into ‘polite’ society and establishment hierarchies. And the deeeper we get, the worse the nightmare becomes as torture and death-squad tactics paper over the cracks.
Unfortunately the missing story (cut when the money wouldn’t stretch) emphasised the author’s primary concern to represent the struggle to understand the horrors that surrounded him while growing up in the area – helping to orientate confused readers, but not now available to viewers. Thus the controversial fictionalisation around real events (with names and details changed) given the most nightmarish spin is developed in 1977’s loose theme of collusion between cynically-bent journalists and marginally well-meaning and slightly less-compromised cops – representing the cream of professional ‘truth-seekers’ – during the punk era’s crystallisation of hopeless fury. Peace’s own feverishly obsessional boyhood fears and imaginings around the Ripper were later supplemented by sources such as the ‘parapolitics’ of Lobster magazine which – however outlandish in respectable discourse – made what happened potentially intelligible. Nevertheless he insists that his ‘occult history’ doesn’t in principle exaggerate the scale of official wrongdoing – recommending doubters read high-profile accounts of police foul-play such as Tony Bunyan’s The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, Chris Mullin’s Error of Judgement, John Williams’ Bloody Valentine, or books by Paul Foot (we might add Stuart Christie and Robin Ramsay, among others). So it’s not as if he’s ploughing a lonely furrow here – and his masterpiece about the miners’ strike, GB84 (Faber, 2004), required less psychotic hyperbole because the political machinations were themselves sufficiently monstrous. Meanwhile the Red Riding quartet ties together in literary form the philosophical, psychosexual, visceral and political corollaries of wading into such morasses – hoping to emerge with sanity intact.
Peace’s fractured hyper-modernist writing juxtaposes styles from expressionist exposition to pared-down pulp prose and noirish dialogue, diary entries, mental lists, streams of consciousness and incoherent ravings, with different kinds of texts breaking any naturalistic flow. Inspired by science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s paranoid existentialism, the effect is precisely to blur times gone by into now, actuality into distorted perception, downright hallucination and fantasy. In the Red Riding novels, apprehension of the awful situations dealt with then evokes and resonates with repressed sexual and violent impulses – with neither characters nor readers sure of distinctions – which then circulate and materialise in exaggerated figures and actions in the narrative. We are not necessarily meant to interpret the results as objective reality, but are at least obliged to ponder what framework of knowledge could account for the facts such as they are. Crucially, the complete – and continuing – failure of official accounts to give satisfactory explanations of these most appalling events brings into question conventional disavowals placing such ‘inhumanity’ outside the purview of both normal society and official structures. Ultimately the TV version timidly shirks this final imaginative leap in favour of exactly those recognisable crime-procedural and conspiracy-thriller genre cliches that the author transcended – its grubby specificity then generating scarcely more explanatory power than a Da Vinci Code or James Bond.
Reducing to offscreen allusion the body counts and actual depictions of the heinous crimes further censors the voices of victims previously given due weight. Instead, the narrative arcs are “made more distinct than those in the novels”, privileging minor heroic gestures which otherwise drown in the implacably malevolent logic and interchangeably vicious complicity of serial killers and erstwhile pursuers. Wanting “to be released from that hell by the end”, and stressing that Peace “doesn’t save anyone. Whereas I needed to”,* Grisoni gropes for what the books refused – an overall solution, redemption, and an identifiable locus of organised evil pulling the strings to excuse the State from ultimate culpability (if only its guardians lived up to ideals). So the story’s salience no longer radiates from past to present throughout the land, merely envisaging bad apples infecting this particular barrel of northernness. Mainstream critical responses eagerly followed suit, working overtime to refuse any wider persistent real-world relevance, able to blame the author’s intransigent interpretive idiosyncracies on his own maniacal genius/perversion – just as the general prevalence of socialised and sexualised abuse is peremptorily dismissed as so much personalised sickness with none of the intimate relationship to respectable patterns of power we might suspect. The net effect here is to consign Red Riding’s ‘dark Satanic’ costume drama to pretty much as conservatively remote a terrain as Life On Mars.
* cited by Nick James in ‘Bloody Yorkshire’, Sight & Sound, March 2009.
The Red Riding trilogy is now available on DVD, as are new editions of the novels.
Review first published in
Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 8, May 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

Posted By

Tom Jennings
May 10 2009 19:13


Attached files


May 11 2009 00:54

Ive read GB84 and Damned United, I still cant understand Peaces need to dramatise actual events...for example I would much rather see a film based on the actual events of Cloughs time at Leeds, rather than a film based on an imagined fiction...