Red Riding: Yorkshire noir on TV

Channel 4's trilogy of films based on David Peace's 'Yorkshire noir' novels, will shock even seasoned viewers of crime drama, says Gerard Gilbert

British TV audiences are no strangers to the bad behaviour of fictional police officers, whether it's the off-duty copper slapping his wife in Z Cars (sensational in its day) or the Scotland Yard "bad apple" taking backhanders in G F Newman's drama Law and Order (equally sensational back in 1978). But nothing will have quite prepared us for Red Riding, a trilogy of fictional dramas set in Yorkshire in the Seventies and Eighties that suggests that West Yorkshire Police tortured and murdered people. As John Stalker, who was Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police in 1980 and headed the inquiry into the RUC's "shoot-to-kill" policy in Northern Ireland, told Radio Times: "It's the most shocking portrayal of a named force I've ever seen."

Indeed it is. Based on the acclaimed quartet of "Yorkshire noir" novels by David Peace, Red Riding is a febrile, almost hallucinatory account of police corruption and brutality set against a backdrop of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Peace, whose The Damned United, a fictionalised account of the football manager Brian Clough's 44-day reign at Leeds United, has also been turned into a forthcoming film, suggests further reading to those who feel he has been exaggerating. "I recommend The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain by Tony Bunyan, Error of Judgement: the Truth about the Birmingham Bombings by Chris Mullin or Bloody Valentine: a Killing in Cardiff by John Williams. Or anything by the late Paul Foot."

The three films that emerged out of Peace's four novels, have been adapted by Tony Grisoni, who has the screenplay of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas among his credits. Each film is named after a different year, starting with 1974 and continuing in successive weeks with 1980 and 1983. Some of the characters (played by a lip-smacking cast that includes Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, Maxine Peake, David Morrissey, Paddy Considine and Rebecca Hall) turn up in more than one of the films.

"I started reading 1974, and from the first unsettling parody of a fallen angel to the final Jacobean shoot-out, I did not stop to take breath,"says Grisoni. "I plunged into the other three novels... They read like an English James Ellroy cut with Stan Barstow and drenched in the occult sensibilities of an Iain Sinclair. We're talking eternal perdition and the possibility of redemption. Dickens on bad acid."

A heady brew, and Grisoni had a four-hour meeting with David Peace, who now lives in Tokyo, in a "seedy London hotel – his choice". Thereafter, their dialogue continued in cyberspace. "Looking back over our communication, I notice: 'For me, the books were about nature vs nurture: did the time, the place and the society of West Yorkshire give birth to Peter Sutcliffe or was West Yorkshire just unlucky..."

Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, appears (played by Joseph Mawle) in the middle film, 1980. And while Sutcliffe's malevolent shadow hangs over the trilogy, other real-life cases also inspired Peace's fiction. In Red Riding, a simple man, Michael Myshkin, is fitted up by the police for the abduction and killing of a child. In November 2007, a story broke that exonerated Stefan Kiszko, who had spent 16 years in prison for the murder of a young girl in 1976 and died months after his release.

"David Peace said the Kiszko case was a tragic source of inspiration," says Tony Grisoni. "Throughout the development of these scripts, we were haunted by reality that seemed to mirror the fiction: Stephen Lawrence, Madeleine McCann, Natascha Kampusch, Shannon Matthews, Josef Fritzl, the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer... Sometimes, it was difficult to tell the real world from the dark fictions we were weaving."

Which will no doubt be a criticism levelled at Red Riding. What should not be questioned is the artistic integrity of the work, which has been produced by Michael Winterbottom's Revolution Films. Each part of the trilogy is a startlingly original piece of work. And each is helmed by a different director: Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (director of the wonderful, Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire) and Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie). "I think we had one meeting where we sat down and tried to make sense of the whole thing," says Jarrold. "And then we said, 'Sod that – let's do our own thing.'"

And never before has it been quite so ravishingly grim up north. Anton Corbijn came pretty close in Control, his beautifully framed 2007 biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis.

"I wanted lots of modern, concrete buildings... lots of geometric shapes," says James Marsh, who directed 1980. "I wanted to offset the formality and coldness of these backdrops with lots of warm greens, browns and yellows."

Each director shot with different film stock, Marsh using 35mm ("more forgiving in low light") while Anand Tucker shot 1983 in anamorphic widescreen ("I wanted to make it as cinematic as possible"). Julian Jarrold opted for Super 16 film for 1974, which gave him "a grainy quality, which could dominate and imprison the characters", he says. "We went for a colour we all associate with the Seventies, which is slightly brownish and muted. What I didn't want to do was to go down the Life on Mars route and plaster it with pop songs of the periods."

Jarrold's film, 1974, opens the trilogy, telling of an ambitious young fictional Yorkshire Post journalist, Eddie Dunford, investigating the disappearance of a local schoolgirl. Dunford is played by Andrew Garfield, the Bafta-winning star of Channel 4's Boy A, who gives another magnetic performance here as a cocky reporter getting out of his depth amid civic and police corruption. "I wasn't born until 1983," he says. "It was great exploring the period – the cars, the clothes... It was fascinating – the clothes of the time make you move differently, they give you a real swagger."

Dunford's nemesis is a big-shot property developer, John Dawson, played by Sean Bean, who tells me he went all Method, deliberately gaining weight for the role. It's an unexpected and wonderfully menacing performance, more The Sopranos than Sharpe and very different from Bean's dashing heroes or stock Hollywood villains. "As soon as I read the scripts, I knew this was something different that I could really get my teeth into," he says.

The big-name cast were thrown together in a thoroughly democratic manner while on location in Leeds and Bradford. "We decided not to offer trailers or private dressing rooms to the cast," says Red Riding's producer, Wendy Brazington. "We know that if you can get it right, it can lead to a very convivial atmosphere."

"I thoroughly enjoyed it; we all did," says Sean Bean. "There was a lot of laughter, which permeated the set, because it was a case of if we didn't laugh, we'd cry."

'Red Riding' begins on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 9pm

Murder he wrote: The cast

John Dawson (Sean Bean)

The sadistic head of a construction and property firm, Dawson has a lot of important people in his pocket and may or may not be involved in the case of the missing schoolgirls.

Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield)

A cocky but determined young 'Yorkshire Post' reporter returned to his home turf after an unsuccessful stint on Fleet Street. Dunford's crusade to crack the story about three abducted schoolgirls leads to his undoing.

Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall)

The mother of one of the missing schoolgirls, Garland is a fragile divorcee who is instantly attracted to Eddie Dunford, the journalist who's asking too many questions. Unfortunately she's also a plaything of violent property magnate John Dawson.

Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake)

Marshall is chosen by Peter Hunter to work beside him on the secret inquiry into the West Yorkshire police's handling of the Ripper case. The two admire each other and share some history, but will they cross the line professionally?

Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine)

Reportedly based on the real-life John Stalker, Hunter is Assistant Chief Constable of the Manchester Police, who has been asked to head a secret Home Office inquiry into the Ripper investigation. Cooperation isn't forthcoming.

Detective Inspector Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey)

Aka "the owl" – the bespectacled Jobson hero-worships his boss, Bill Molloy, aka "the badger" – a deeply corrupt superintendent played by Warren Clarke. Only too late does Jobson realise that his hero has feet of clay.

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