1974 was a historic year around the world. The Watergate scandal had been simmering below the surface before a Supreme Court judgement ruled that President Richard Nixon would have to surrender the tapes. A day before his resignation in July, Philippe Petit walked across a high wire slung across the Twin Towers in New York. Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the 8th round in momentous bout now known as ‘The Rumble in The Jungle’. In Britain, a thankfully unfatal bomb exploded in Westminster Hall, an event sandwiched between two General Elections in the same year. Sadly, fatal bombings occured at pubs in Guildford and Birmingham, which would lead to the wrongful convictions of ten men.
In West Yorkshire, in the world of Red Riding, an enthusiastic, cocky crime journalist by the name of Eddie Dunford is excited at the prospect of working on the case of a girl who disappeared shortly before Christmas that year. The self-centred curiosity he purveys here ultimately leads him down a rabbit hole of epic proportions, with no route back.
I have not read the Red Riding books by David Peace. My only acquaintance with his work was The Damned Utd, his account of Brian Clough’s disastorous 44 day reign at Leeds United. I loved that book, a portrayal of a brash, confident and egotistical man who would eventually become torn apart by his line of work. This tenuous line runs in part through this, the first of Peace’s novels to be adapted for this trilogy. Yet it is far more than this. Spreading its roots from the humble offices of the Yorkshire Post to the Dales, the suburbs, the police and construction companies, this is indeed a rare thing. A thing of masochistic beauty, an epic tale which will linger long in the memory and leave you eagerly anticipating the next installment (Set in 1980, screened next Thursday on channel 4).
Where was I? Oh yes, cocky journo, missing girl. He digs around. This digging leads to consequences involving the police. He digs some more. With every door he knocks, with every illegally-obtained interview he conducts, the consequences become heavier, wider, more brutal. Yet he keeps digging. The people around him are swatted away like flies the more he knows, the more he understands what is happening. Yet this is getting beyond the abduction of a little girl, and the possible link to previous murders.
At first cynical, Dunford becomes obsessed with conspiracy, aided at first by a truth-seeking, crusading colleague. As he grasps this baton, we see the story of a formerly self-assured professional turn into a man solely motivated by separating fact and fiction. Right from wrong. Who died, for what and why? And who is responsible?
It would be remiss of me to give out any more of the plot – it would also take me a good few hours to jot every detail, every Yorkshire drawl, every fine-tailored suit which makes this show so good, and such a benchmark for the next two to follow. Andrew Garfield is superb as Dunford; the young actor showing the form which won him a BAFTA for Boy A last year. From the cocky swagger at the beginning, no doubt brought on by Eddie’s stint at Fleet Street, to his blood-soaked, hand trembling finale with John Dawson, he is utterly breathtaking.
In fact, the whole show is littered with fine performances. Sean Bean as Dawson is excellent. Gaining weight especially from the part, he revels in the role as construction magnate. Berating the country, the 25 per cent inflation rate, ‘the niggers, the paddies, the jocks, the gyppos’, Dawson can afford to offend who he wishes – his power allows him. Yet he switches from ball-crunching anger to dinner party camaraderie with such ease, you imagine this as a more refined Dawson – a younger version of which would be dishing out the dirt to anyone who crossed his path. His scenes with Dunford are some of the most intense and explosive. No angel, indeed.
Rebecca Hall is also excellent. Fresh from Woody Allen’s new film Vicky Christina Barcelona, she plays the mother of the original missing girl Dunfield is investigating. Originally dismissing him as a callous, obnoxious and uncaring reporter, the two strike up an unlikely relationship as the show progresses. Thankfully, all cliches are avoided as both characters do not hide their inner demons. A scene where Hall sings a nursery rhyme to her long-gone daughter is particularly heart breaking, whereas the painful looking bruises and bandages which cover Dunfield speak for themselves. Both lovers showing the different kind of scars you get when one swims with sharks like Dawson.
Yet there is one man in this film whos image won’t leave my head for a long time. Sean Harris, portraying policeman Bob Craven, is as sinister and devlish a character as I have ever encountered on a TV screen. His eyes cold, he seems to strike fear into the heart whenever he appears. A lawless man, ironically tasked with upholding the law, he represents the brutal face of the institutions faced by Dunford. ‘THIS IS THE NORTH, AND WE DO WHAT WE FUCKING LIKE’ as he puts it, before tossing a battered Dunford onto a road carving through the Moors.
It isn’t an easy watch, by anymeans. The violence, which is frequent, is often brutal and bloody. The storyline at times, akin to the novel, often blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and the viewer is advised to keep their wits about them when watching. Facts from the real life cases are lifted and touched up with extra, excruciating detail (let’s say you won’t look at a swan the same way soon), whilst the dominant fictional narrative driving the story goes on in the foreground. This narrative is broken up by periods of brutality, most notably by Harris’s Craven. During these, the wolf-like howls from Dunfield notably add to the aural as well as the visual tension.
Yet not everything is as visceral and visible as that. When Craven ‘adminsters’ handcuffs to Dunfield, you get the sense of 1984 coming into your head. A battered, naked, dishelved man sitting on a concrete floor, whilst a police officer bellows at him ‘YOU DID THIS, YOU’RE ALL OVER HER, YOUR FINGERS EVERYWHERE!’ whilst a meek reply comes in the form of a shaking head and a whispered, ‘no…’. It was the institution showing their power, their hold over life and death, and showing that no one, not even a fucking crime journalist from the Yorkshire fucking Post could do anything about it, even if they tried. Also, the time-setting of this piece means that mentions of ‘The Ripper’ or Peter Sutcliffe equate to zero. Thus, the lingering backdrop of disappearing girls to the corruption investigations and goings on twists and tauts the air even further.
Beautifully directed by Julian Jarrold, and awash with scenes set in the foggy air of Malboro Lights and gypsy camp fires, 1974 packs a punch and then some. Helped by a fantastic script (adapted by Tony Grisoni of ‘Fear and Loathing…’ fame), superb acting and a mesmerising, if at times demanding, blur between what is real and what is not, it is a show that deserves to be seen, if only for its bravery.
Recently, I have heard people moaning about how we cannot compete with our American cousins who are able to produce masterpieces such as The Wire. With Red Riding, for the short term at least, we may have just found our answer.