Red Riding shows brutality in Yorkshire 'hood'

Source: The Sunday Times
Date : 22 Feb 2009
By : Benji Wilson

Red Riding shows brutality in Yorkshire 'hood'
David Peace's novels, noir fictions set at time of Ripper murders, are Tony Grisoni-adapted TV series with Andrew Garfield

David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet of crime novels is not the sort of thing you would put forward for your book club. At least, not if your book club is a sprightly, glass-of-pinot-grigio affair. That’s not to say the novels, published between 1999 and 2002, are anything other than superlative literature, but those who have read them will confirm that the experience is something like a full-frontal sandblasting.

Set in Yorkshire around the time of the Ripper murders, they are singularly brutal noir fictions, whose stark titles — 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 — sit in ironic contrast to the dense horrors within. Through stories of missing schoolgirls, mutilated prostitutes, cancerously corrupt police and epidemic brutality, they conjure up a cumulative stench that is not easily forgotten. Peace’s Yorkshire, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is hell.

Starting next month, it will be the turn of television viewers to make the descent. Channel 4 has spent four years adapting Peace’s quartet for the screen, and the result is three two-hour films (the quartet has become a trilogy, of which more later), made by a cast and crew straight from Bafta’s A-list Rolodex. Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) has adapted the screenplays, and three directors also better known for their recent work in cinema have made a film each: Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Anand Tucker (And When Did You Last See Your Father?).

The acting talent is equally of the moment. In the first film, 1974, Andrew Garfield, who won a Bafta last year for his role in Boy A, stars as a cocksure young crime journalist on the case of a group of missing schoolgirls. In the second, 1980, Paddy Considine plays a Manchester detective conducting an internal investigation into the squad working the Ripper case. And in the last, 1983, Mark Addy is a local solicitor representing a young man with extreme learning difficulties (Danny Mays) who was imprisoned for the child murders in the first film. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is as strong an ensemble as television can muster: Sean Bean, Lesley Sharp, David Morrissey, Warren Clarke, Rebecca Hall, Maxine Peake, Ron Cook, Jim Carter and Peter Mullan, for starters.

Actors follow scripts, however, and it was Grisoni’s adaptations that provided the lure. Grisoni was originally set to adapt just one of the novels. He read Peace’s quartet and asked to do them all. “I had to do it. But at the same time I was hesitant, because I knew what it meant. They were going to be full-length films. The big ask was to try to make each one stand-alone, but also to link them in with one another.”

Peace’s novels employ a fractured narrative. Characters and storylines appear, only to disappear in among the murk and then resurface later, or not at all. In the books, this is a conscious effect to create anxiety, but for a scriptwriter, it was a perpetual snag — audiences (and, just as important, broadcasting executives) like to know who did what to whom, and when. Grisoni’s assistants cross-referenced, deconstructed and anatomised the novels. Meanwhile, he contacted Peace, who lives in Tokyo; they exchanged e-mails and eventually met in London in 2006. “We had a meeting, which went on for six hours. I just sat there with my notebook asking him question after question after question.”

As a result, the films’ narrative arcs are more distinct than those in the novel. But although this approach reduces the novels’ sinewy complexity, Grisoni’s achievement in his adaptation is to retain their power.

The other adjustment to Peace’s opus is, in fact, a wholesale omission. Grisoni wrote a complete screenplay for the second novel, 1977, but blunt economics did for that — there wasn’t the money to make all four.

“When we knew that we wouldn’t be able to afford to make four full-length films, we thought about making four, but making them shorter,” he says. “But by doing that, we would have lost so much of the atmosphere, and it would have turned into more of a cop shop. In the end, I decided to drop 1977 out cleanly. Not least because I still want to do it. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s there waiting.”

Should it ever get made, a fourth film will be something to relish: the Red Riding trilogy is as grimly powerful a piece of television as has ever been made. The writing is magnificent, the vision sustained, the performances indelible.

The standout among them is Garfield as Eddie Dunford, in 1974. Garfield has become something of a go-to guy for playing young men fast-tracked through the various circles of hell: Boy A saw him as a child murderer attempting rehabilitation in his twenties after serving a sentence. In Chatroom at the National in 2006, one of several stage performances that marked him out as an outstanding prospect, he played a suicidal teenager.

In person, Garfield, 25, is winningly wide-eyed. He wants to pay for his own coffee, in stark contrast to the hallowed showbiz commandment, and he calls things he likes “rad”. But make no mistake, he is interested in the sinister side of the soul. “We spend time trying to avoid sadness, trying to avoid dark thoughts and dark intentions,” he says. “We try and suppress that. I think I probably use this job to enjoy exploring the parts of myself that I’m scared of.”

Actors often hold forth about what they have had to endure for their art, when what they really mean is they had to leave London for a day or two, grow some stubble and fire a pretend gun. But stories of Garfield’s time on set in Yorkshire filming 1974 have already begun to percolate. His most bruising scenes as Dunford are at the hands of the police, who, when they realise he may be a threat, put him through a series of ferocious ordeals. The lead police interrogator is played by an actor called Sean Harris, who is method by training. So is Garfield. He took such a battering at Harris’s hands in several improvised encounters that, in one instance, the two of them had to be kept apart.

“I want everything I do to be real and genuine and from the heart, the gut, and all that. But those scenes were some of the worst moments of my life. It felt utterly real, genuinely frightening. I said some horrible things to him. He said some horrible things to me. The line was blurred. It was kind of invigorating in a horrible way, but also depressing. We didn’t hug each other afterwards. We probably should have.”

Depending on your world-view, and what you think television exists to do, all of this might be a bit too much. Liza Marshall, Channel 4’s head of drama, says: “For Channel 4 it was a very risky commission — these books are incredibly dark.”

Some things, she argues, viewers simply don’t want to see — she cites the number of women that are killed or mutilated in Peace’s quartet. The films have a lower body count of female corpses, and fewer depictions of their demise. “There is an audience for dark crime, but I think we needed to pull back a little bit from some of the extreme darkness. I just couldn’t countenance watching that many hours of television and then, in the end, it’s all really bleak.”

Grisoni reached the same conclusion via a different process. Throughout, his screenplays pick out a few small acts of individual heroism from the pervading gloom, and his final film has a coda that Peace’s novel does not — a striking shard of light. “It was an emotional reaction to the material,” he says, with a sigh. “An emotional reaction to two and a half years of being in this inferno that David Peace had constructed. David doesn’t save anyone. Whereas I needed to.”

Red Riding starts on C4 on March 5


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