Red Riding: themes and characters

Maxine Peake as DS Helen Marshall – one of only two women in the series to have a professional job, but even so her main function is to make a man vulnerable.

Maxine Peake as DS Helen Marshall – one of only two women in the series to have a professional job, but even so her main function is to make a man vulnerable.

Following last Saturday’s event in which I discussed the Red Riding Trilogy alongside The Damned United as adaptations of the novels of David Peace, I’ve learned a few things from colleagues.

I always stress to students that some of the most useful analyses of films and and other media texts start with stating the obvious and then trying to work out its significance. The obvious point to make about these five novels that became four films is that each of them has a central male character (actually two characters in 1977 and 1983). There is no corresponding female character in any of the stories. All the female characters are wives in the backgrounds, lovers/casual partners of the central character, prostitutes or other women who are the victims of male violence. Even the two women who do actually work for a living other than selling their bodies are both defined more by their relationship with the male protagonist than by their professional work.

The majority of the characters in the stories are racist and misogynistic in their use of language. West Yorkshire is a place of almost unremitting gloom in a moral sense (and often in terms of the weather!). In three of the films, the main protagonist arrives in the county by road, peering through the driving rain. David Peace is a Yorkshire novelist, but he seems to have adopted that well-known Lancashire saying, “the only good thing that comes out of Yorkshire is the road to Lancashire”.

So, going into the hell that was West Yorkshire from 1974 to 1983, the male protagonist, a vulnerable and corrupted man, compromised often by his relationships with women, finds enough vestiges of decency or moral fibre to redeem himself in some way and to help to make the world a marginally better place. All these men seem to me to be lower middle-class, grammar school boys in the days before mass university entrance. They have jobs that are not (yet) affected by the industrial decline beginning to take place in the region. They are policemen, journalists, a solicitor, a football manager. Their strengths and weaknesses are associated with sex, violence, alcohol and football – a stereotypical mix of the qualities of masculinity in the North of England. And for these men to succeed, many women have to be sacrificed. (I’m not suggesting that Brian Clough was a violent or promiscuous man, in Peace’s fictionalised version he uses violent language and alcohol to counter his despair about the potential waste of his football talent.)

My conclusion from this ‘obvious’ observation is that David Peace is more likely to have fans who are young and male and attracted by the the ‘hardness’ of the writing. However, my event attracted an audience with a fairly equal proportion of men and women and the person who had the most experience of Peace’s writing was a young woman. I’m not sure what I make of this. I find the books very hard going partly because of the sheer brutality and misogyny of the language, but I realise that I shouldn’t assume that this will necessarily deter female readers.

One aspect of this that I do find interesting, however, is that the two male characters who have to themselves be sacrificed in their attempt to uncover the truth are the two who are in some ways more ‘feminised’/less brutal in their behaviour and who return to Yorkshire from ‘outside’, ‘tainted’ by their experience of living in the South or, nearly as bad, in Lancashire. For some cinema/TV fans, the actor Paddy Considine has been something of a hero figure after his roles in two Shane Meadows films, A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and also in Last Resort (1999) and My Summer of Love (2004) for Pawel Pawlikowski. In all these films, Considine is at times charming but then disturbing and sometimes violent. I think this led to expectations about his role in Red Riding 1980 in which he plays an Assistant Chief Constable from Lancashire who is recruited by the Home Office and the Police Inspectorate to find out what has been happening in the West Yorkshire force. Once over the shock of Considine as a senior police officer (aged 40 in the book – Considine was born in 1974) I thought he played the role very well, but there have been complaints that he was miscast, since he doesn’t act the ‘hard man’ and is instead emotionally ‘weak’. In fact he’s probably the least corrupt and most honest of all of Peace’s male protagonists, despite his infidelity. In a starry cast across the mini-series, Considine is perhaps the best known actor for an international audience.

For whatever reason, 1980 had the lowest audience figures on Channel 4 out of the three films (1.9 million, compared to 2.03 million for 1983 and 3.00 million for 1974). Personally, I thought James Marsh’s film was the most coherent and most focused of the three films and the most consistent in style. In the range of responses that I have seen it is often named as the best or the worst.

Several other ideas came up in our discussion. I introduced the concept of ‘British noir‘ by screening the opening to Get Carter (1971) in which Michael Caine travels North to Newcastle from London to attend his brother’s funeral. We then used our discussion of this well-known film in relation to the opening of Red Riding 1974. I confess that I hadn’t chosen Get Carter for any other reason than it was ‘to hand’ and it represented an interesting attempt to make a noirish crime film in the early 1970s. However, one of the audience pointed out that 1974 has a very similar opening – a young man returns to West Yorkshire from the South in order to attend his father’s funeral and to start work as a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post. Like Michael Caine/Jack Carter he is dressed in more modern clothes and has developed a sophisticated swagger which makes him stand out in the newsroom, the press club bar and the family funeral. We also noted that the same cooling towers, often visible in Red Riding, were passed by Jack Carter’s train going North.

One of the reasons for showing Get Carter was also to make the point that it is now very difficult to recreate the landscape of the 1970s in the cities of the North of England. The docks and the cranes and often the vista of back-to-back houses has gone from Newcastle and Liverpool and Salford, along with the mills, the mines and the manufacturing plants and the Victorian town centre buildings. Control was a good example of a British film set in the 1970s that was unable to use ‘authentic’ locations, because they simply aren’t there any more. How much is this a factor in Red Riding‘s locations and its stylised, expressionistic camerawork and production design? I’m not sure, because in the three novels used Peace restricts himself to fairly generic locations/buildings in the area around Wakefield and the Leeds scenes can be kept inside the Post building, a police station etc. However, the restriction to interiors and fairly anonymous locations allows the expressionist presentation to create an overall sense of the ‘hell’ that is West Yorkshire. Locations in The Damned United are more problematic since Elland Road and the Baseball Ground, the homes in 1974 of Leeds United and Derby County, have been re-built and demolished respectively. Again the number of locations is restricted. Budgetary considerations also mean that Scarborough stands in for Brighton and Saddleworth for wherever the Cloughs had their house in the 1970s (I’m assuming Derby/Notts). (The novel of 1977 would also have caused problems since it has scenes in Bradford and Manchester.)

Overall, Peace creates a world of his own imagination that he presents as West Yorkshire in the 1970s. Although his novels are pitted with news events and appropriate pop songs on the radio, there is no attempt to represent the ‘real’ West Yorkshire of the period – in which as some local residents have pointed out, journalists and others were still dependent on buses rather than driving their own cars. This isn’t the ‘authenticity’ of costume drama, but it may in some way represent how people felt during the dreadful years of the Ripper and violence on the football terraces.


  1. omar ahmed

    The ‘Get Carter’ influences are striking when one takes a closer look at 1980 especially if you position the character of the Chief Constable played by Paddy Considine within the context of the traditional doomed noir protagonist. Jack Carter’s death is inevitable and the same can be said for Paddy Considine in 1980 – but they are unable to grasp the larger forces at work around them because their desire for justice is momentary. However, unlike Jack who never gets to meet the assassin hired to kill him, Considine’s character seems even more tragic given the fact that he is murdered by one of his own and is powerless to respond in any significant way other than appear dumbfounded. The shotgun is perhaps another inadvertent nod to ‘Get Carter’ and it becomes symbolically important towards the end of 1983. Note also how the image of the sea becomes very important at the end of 1983, another intertextual link to Jack Carter’s dead body on the beach of Hartlepool. But once again, unlike the unremettingly bleak ending to ‘Get Carter’, ‘Red Riding’ finishes a more optimistic note?


    • venicelion

      This is good stuff Omar — I can see I’ll have to go back to Get Carter and look again at 1983. I’m nearly at the end of reading 1980 now with 1983 still to come. The point you make about Peter Hunter’s nemesis is much more powerful in the film version. In the book, the same character is not ‘one of his own’. But in the book the investigation by the top brass into Hunter’s past does have much more of a Manchester connection. I’ll try to post something on the changes book to film and what they might mean in the next week or so.


  2. Linden

    As I recall in 1980 Hunter is shot and killed by Dick Alderman, and John Murphy. The latter is one of his own, being a colleague from Greater Manchester.i.e. essentially the same character as in the TV film but with a change of surname.


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