The Red Riding trilogy: David Peace’s Northern England nightmare

Seldom does the nuance and grit of hard-boiled and noir crime fiction translate to the screen. A brilliant exception is the movie adaptations of English writer David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet of books.

Tony Crisoni – who has very few credits of note under his belt with the exception of the screenplay for the 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – has taken Peace’s dense, multi-layered alternative history of murder and police corruption in northern England in the seventies and early eighties, and delivered three disturbing and gripping movies. A feat that is all the more amazing given they were made for TV in the UK.

The first film, 1974, follows cocky young reporter Eddie Dunford as he attempts to prize open the mystery surrounding the unsolved murders of a number of young girls, the latest of whom has just been found sexually abused and with swan’s wings stitched to her back.

In the course of his investigation he comes into contact with John Dawson, a local businessman embroiled in a corrupt relationship with the police, and BJ, an elusive male prostitute. He also becomes sexually involved with the despondent mother of one of the missing girls. In the face of escalating threats, Dunford continues his efforts to find the truth with horrendous consequences.

1980, the second instalment fast forwards to the last month of the real-life investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper. Assistant Constable Peter Hunter, or ‘Saint Cunt’ as his enemies in the force dub him, is recruited to lead an internal inquiry into the police’s handling of the Ripper murders. The public and media are baying for an outcome and police morale is at rock bottom. Reviewing the cases, Hunter discovers one of the killings is not related to the Ripper but to the aftermath of a particularly brutal shoot-out involving crooked cops.

The last film, 1983, focuses on Maurice Jobson, a policeman featured only in the background of the previous two instalments, who is now deeply regretful of his role in past police abuses. The lives of Jobson, BJ, and a washed up lawyer whose father was himself an infamous member of West Yorkshire’s finest, all collide towards the series’ conclusion.

The three films work on virtually every level I can think of.

The attention to period detail is meticulous. Supplementing this, each film has a distinctive look due to each being shot using different techniques. The first one is on grainy 16mm, giving it a boxed in, shadowy feeling, which gradually gets lighter with each installment.

There are some fine performances, many of them from among the cast of actors only familiar to Australian viewers as the mainstays of the UK police procedurals that dominate our TV screens every Friday and Saturday night. These include Warren Clarke (Andy Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe) and Jim Carter who are chilling as corrupt senior police, and Paddy Considine as Assistant Chief Constable Hunter. Sean Bean is also excellent as the repellent Dawson.

Much of the power of all three films flows from their depiction of the bleak coal mining towns of the north of England. The characters traverse a landscape of rundown housing estates in the shadow of massive power plants, endless rain and sullen workingmen’s clubs.

It feels like an alien country and the locals are merciless in enforcing their own code of conduct. In one particularly memorable scene towards the end of 1974, Dunford, northern born but having only recently returned from a stint working as a journalist further south, is tortured by corrupt cops. Beaten and bloody he is thrown into the back of a van. One of the cops flings open the rear door to reveal a two lane black top in the middle of an endless flat stretch of rain beaten nowhere. “See this?” the cop says. “This is the north and we do what we want.”

It works so well, because Peace was West Yorkshire born and raised. Obsessed by the Ripper case as a boy, he has recalled wagging school to go rubber necking outside the court when the real Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was finally apprehended in 1983.

Peace’s northern England is terrorised first by a mass murderer, second by the police who are supposed to protect it, and finally by conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her quest to smash the miners’ union.

The Red Riding Trilogy is available in dvd by Studio Canal and Madman


6 Responses

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your comments on my blog. I have added your blog to my list of those that I enjoy. I would be more than happy for you to do the same for mine.

    “To The North”. I am glad that you are such a big fan of the Red Riding Trilogy that was put out on TV in the UK. It really was must watch stuff and I thought it was excellent. I had never read any of Peace’s stuff before and now having read the first three of Red Riding I have to say that the screen writers, directors, and actors all did an amazing job turning his work into a viable filmic version.

    Reading his books it would easy to think that it is essentially unfilmable due to its strange narrative threads and confusing intenal/external monologues but they certainly succeed. They captured the place and “feel” of his work brilliantly and managed to condense the four books in a way that did not alter its magic. I loved the way that 1974 was shot and Andrew Garfield was an excellent lead but I think I enjoyed 1980 the most. I really rate Considine and thought his investigations into corruption where delightfully dark and confusing. I think that 1980 was shot as if it was to be released as a stand alone cinema piece, which I think shows.

    Yes it is different to the book. And yes that is definately acceptable when the outcome was this wonderful. I remember watching though and thinking…could the four books have been better served by a long running American style TV series a la The Sopranos? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Peace has said that he has tried to combine the rawness of American crime writers like Ellroy and connect that with northern english social commentary and I think that in some ways the setting and period detail brings that vision to life in a way that is much more inclusive than the books.

    Also, and sorry for such a long post, I would be very interested in reading your manuscript and perhaps reviewing it on my blog. Contact me at dtkmolise (a) hot mail . com if you would like to discuss further. Out of interest where did you find my blog?



  2. i always thought the trilogy consisted of 1977, 1980 and 1983 leaving 1974 out?

  3. Nope. 1977 was the book left out of the films.

  4. Okay. Any reason for that?

    I’ve not read it but it’s a matter of days until i will. 1974 needs to be finished first.

  5. @do not mention the war

    The four books were condensed into three films. Story threads and characters are changed/condensed from the books into the films, so the main thread of 1977 (a copper and journo running around with whores in Chapeltown, Leeds) is written out of the films mainly because it is not vital to the overarching plot of Red Riding and possibly because of budgetary concerns.

    I hope that helps!

  6. Thanks for the comment and for the info.

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