Red Riding, Channel 4,
Heston's Victorian Feast, Channel 4
Our murderous friends in the North
Sunday 08 March 2009
It has become easy to laugh off "noir". As a supremely successful genre, it has been stylised into impotence, the knowing pastiche LA Confidential seeming to mark a point of no return. But just when you thought it was safe to smirk, a terrifying new strain of the genre has emerged. Fermented in the novels of David Peace, and filmed with huge aplomb for Channel 4, the Red Riding trilogy is deep, dark Yorkshire Noir.
It does not concern the heist of half a dozen whippets. It lodges real crimes committed in West Yorkshire in 1974, 1980 and 1983 in the context of a sprawling landscape of violence, from close up (smugly negligent policemen toasting "This is the North ... where we do what we want") to far away (a glimpsed wall, sprayed with the graffito "Fuck the Argies"). At the centre of this web sits the spider: the Yorkshire Ripper. David Peace calls his work "occult", in that it traces out hidden connections, and these films have picked up his sense of psychogeography. With their thoughtful pace and their patterns (feathers, ash), they attempt to map the circulatory system of evil, how a place can become poisoned in its bloodstream.
Taken separately the three films are much reduced in power. It would be possible to watch the first, 1974, and switch off feeling queasy, angered by the hideous police corruption depicted – either because you believe it could have happened, or because you don't. Both are bad. We've come a long way since Z Cars took out the shot of an officer slapping his wife because Lancaster Police objected. Generally, though, after 1974 you could clean your teeth and switch out the landing light with barely a shiver, except when you recall the mad, ageing imprisoned ingénue – a classic noir grotesque – toying come-hitherishly with her turquoise Crimplene nightie. Shudder.
The second film, 1980, rivets you with its account of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. (All names, including his, have been changed out of respect for the bereaved. "Real people died, brutally and tragically," David Peace has said. "Their families don't have the luxury of whether to forget or remember, and I do.") Some of the characters from the first film recur, such as Sean Bean, turning in a rather too enthusiastically evil performance. Still, making his face sag like a bag of giblets was good character work – we know he can look Sharpe as well – or could until last week, when that show was, not unfairly, axed. But the star of 1980 is Paddy Considine, a wonderfully glum yet obscurely heroic detective, as soul-sick as a character in Dostoevsky. In fact, is a link with Dostoevsky suggested by the fact that the wrongly imprisoned Stefan Kiszko's name has been changed to Myshkin, the name of the Prince in The Idiot? You can't overlook any clues in this haut-noir production.
It's only with the final instalment, however, that the full force of the work becomes clear. I'm not spoiling any cliffhangers if I say that the first and last episodes are roughly symmetrical, which makes the three films together feel less a trilogy than a triptych, with all its motifs balanced around the profane totem of the Ripper. In the end, all the chickens come home to roost – and I mean that literally: the story winds up in a hen house. Feathers fly, and the (neighbour) hood of Red Riding catches its wolf. Tacky is the word for these nursery symbols, and calling each year "The Year of Our Lord" is a cheap gothic effect. Personally I don't like crime fiction; I don't want its mutilated women and callous coppers in my life as I feel instinctively that evil begets evil. The only reason I can see for people to want to consume crime fiction must be as a kind of inoculation: a shot of your worst imaginings to protect you against the world. But even I can tell that Red Riding is genre drama at its most powerful.
It's a great achievement for Channel 4 and the audacity of hiring three top film directors to direct each subtly different instalment – Julian Jarrold (who made the recent Brideshead Revisited) the first, James Marsh (Man on Wire) the second, and Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) the third – will pay off in the long term; cinema releases are planned internationally. Despite its bleak content, Red Riding gives cause for optimism.
Channel 4 and the maverick chef Heston Blumenthal have had a long, slow courtship. First he made his super-nerdy series, in which he spent 40 minutes making the perfect chip.
Then he made his difficult social enterprise series, in which he tried to put Little Chef – and the world – to rights. Now, finally, he has given up and gone mad in the kitchen, which is exactly what we wanted all along.
In Heston's Victorian Feast he served up a "Drink Me" potion containing the ingredients: toffee, buttered toast, cherry tart and turkey (indigestion courtesy of Lewis Carroll); a turtle soup (stringy and a bit distressing) and a mock turtle soup (basically posh Bovril). He made a garden complete with edible earth (black olive tapenade), pebbles (new potatoes) and locusts injected with tomato concentrate so they "ooze in the mouth". At last, a cookery show that gives you some really inspirational recipes for home entertaining.
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