As this year’s Oscars clearly show, in terms of quality, television is no longer cinema’s poor relation. From the 2009 Emmy winner Mad Men to the great HBO shows of the past few years (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood) television has reached heights not often matched by contemporary mainstream cinema. Such Oscar fare as Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, seems by contrast just a mild diversion arbitrarily confined to what Alfred Hitchcock called the endurance time-limit of the human bladder (2 hours)or as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, severly testing that limit. Stretching over 10 hours or more, especially when watched en bloc on DVD and often on equipment nearly as good as that of the local multiplex, shows such as The Sopranos or The Wire offer an epic experience far superior to the average feature film.
With Red Riding, Channel 4 seems to have made a determined attempt to join these ranks. Where once we had great adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens Red Riding illustrates a shift in what is considered ‘quality programming’: violence, convoluted plots, stylish direction and mild controversy (HBO-ness in short) are now the order of the day. It features the greatest assembly of British acting talent since I Claudius, all sporting impeccable Yorkshire accents with the likes of Saskia Reeves matching Sean Bean and Mark Addy flattened vowel for vowel. Each episode of the trilogy (adapted from David Peace’s quartet of crime novels) is directed by a ‘real film director’ – Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker. In contrast to the HBO shows, there is no overall style to the series, but each director was given a free hand with very little (if any) consultation between them. Although all three episodes are scripted by Tony Grisoni all have different cinematographers, editors, lead actors and music composers.
The first episode, set in 1974 and shot on grainy 16mm film, is directed by Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited). Depending on your point of view, its style is either eerie and dreamlike or slightly annoying and heavy-handed. With its surreal violence (mostly aimed at swans) crossed with kitchen-sink mundane it falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and Prime Suspect, but is drenched in enough 70s period detail (36p a pint we are even informed) to seem like a nastier trans-Pennine Life on Mars. The period detail is so all pervasive even Erich von Stroheim would be impressed – yes, even the underwear is authentically 1970s. It is a world full of old-school coppers, with Warren Clarke’s Bill Molloy taking his gruff-voiced no-nonsense to the extremes he often seems almost capable of in Dalziel and Pascoe, and the whole thing is clouded in enough smoke to fill a pub pre-2007. With the film reprising David Peace’s unreliable narrator there is much that we are not told – there is very little back story and strange holes puncture the plot (although most of these are filled in the final episode). The main protagonist, ambitious self-centred journalist Edward Dunford (Andrew Garfield), is at first as much concerned with losing the story to his rival as he is in covering the inquiry into the murder of a little girl. But as his colleague explains to him, with a wonderful Yorkshire take on Edmund Burke’s maxim, ‘Devil triumphs when good men do nowt’. There is no CSI-style evidence gathering, nor even old-school investigative work, and Dunford finds his man after being subjected to a combination of threats, beatings and mysterious tip-offs. In many ways, what is finally revealed in the last episode is pretty standard crime-serial stuff, and after three 2-hour episodes of ‘whodunit’ we are left with a Cluedo-style conclusion – it was the butler with the candlestick. But it is the way in which the series gets to that conclusion that makes Red Riding different.
The second episode is by far the best. Directed by James Marsh who made the excellent Man on Wire (the best film at the Oscars this year), it is held together by a typically great performance from Paddy Considine treading the line between authority and vulnerability with great skill. It is set in 1980 as the Yorkshire police (more or less deliberately) blunder through the real-life Ripper enquiry. This blurring of fact and fiction is something that Peace has virtually made his own (to the annoyance of Barbara Clough amongst others). There is even a strange appearance by Peter Sutcliffe (spookily played by Joseph Mawle), after he is almost accidentally caught red-handed (excuse the pun), confessing the details of his crime in a flat monotone Leeds accent. The style is less showy, the characters more developed and human, and Sean Harris as the slimy Bob Craven almost steals the show (the prize for the best Yorkshire accent also going to the Londoner). The great shot compositions and the melancholy score by Dickon Hinchliffe of the Tindersticks certainly make the most of wide-screen surround-sound televisions.
The final episode directed by Anand Tucker (Hillary and Jackie) is my least favourite, in particular because it looks for the poetic and metaphoric where it doesn’t seem appropriate. Back-lit smoke-filled interrogation rooms and a snowstorm of feathers in an allotment shed seem laboured and ill-fitting with the general grittiness of the story. Some fine performances, particularly Mark Addy and David Morrissey, are not given enough space to really develop and the narration in rhyme seems misjudged. It is reminiscent of how well Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper worked in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), but in contrast here the same device just seems annoyingly contrived.
Overall, Red Riding is somewhat uneven and not quite the ground-breaking television opus it is so obviously trying to be. Perhaps the mistake is in trying to be too cinematic. The mix of crime show clichés, TV commercial style and visual metaphors is awkward. But perhaps the hype has led us to expect too much. Comparing any TV show to The Sopranos is surely unfair, and if I’d ventured out to the local cinema Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button were my only options. So perhaps we should be grateful for Red Riding and happier still to have Mad Men. And as The Wire is coming to BBC2 shortly, maybe staying in is the new going out.