WHEN the final volume of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet was published in 2002, the one thing that shell-shocked readers knew for sure was that his compelling saga of lost children, corrupt coppers and accidental heroes would never make it to the screen.
Peace’s thrilling, visceral, often unhinged prose seemed resolutely unfilmable, his grimly compulsive tales too complicated, too perverse, too downright ugly for the increasingly risk-averse and anodyne worlds of TV and film.
Telling a story of dirty deals and bloody murder in deepest, darkest Yorkshire which spans the best part of a decade, the blood-soaked quartet almost seems to imply that evil often triumphs whether good men do anything or not. Midsommer Murders, it isn’t.
Tony Grisoni was commissioned by Andrew Eaton and Michael Winterbottom’s Revolution Films to adapt 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 into a series of feature-length films for Channel 4. Far from being daunted by the variety of inner voices, the complex, fractured narrative and the stomach-churning sense of terrible things happening just outside your peripheral vision somehow conjured up by Peace, Grisoni fell for the books in a big way.
“That quartet is so full of experimentation,” he says over the phone from a café in East London. “The narrative jumps all over the place, at some points the voice-over almost goes into a stream of consciousness – all of that just makes it a real challenge.”
He was, he adds, given “a huge amount of freedom” on the project:
“No one was on my case saying, that’s a bit weird, a bit extreme,” says Grisoni, who also wrote the screenplays for Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Winterbottom’s In This World. “I had a free hand. It’s fantastic to wade into literature like that.”
Paddy Considine was tipped off about Red Riding by his long-time friend and collaborator Shane Meadows, who was keen to direct 1980. Reading an early script and then Peace’s “darkly poetic” books, Considine was immediately drawn to the character of senior cop Peter Hunter and actively lobbied for the role, even after Meadows moved onto other projects.
“I’m not one for pushing for roles but I asked my agent to keep on it because it was a great script based on a set of brilliant books,” says Considine from his home in Staffordshire. “Sometimes you get a feeling that there’s work that you just want to be a part of.
“People say they’re dark but I just think they’re amazing crime novels. They get under your skin. It was a bit like when I first read The Exorcist. It lived with me. They’re too good to not adapt them into movies.”
“A big part of the darkness of these novels is not necessarily to do with what’s literally happening – although that’s pretty dark,” says Grisoni. “Often it’s about the fact that you don’t know the whole truth. It leaves you unsettled, that you can’t know everything. It’s horribly close to real life, isn’t it?”
In fact, many of the events which take place in the Red Riding Quartet are drawn directly from reality.
In the 1970s, Leeds was a very different place to the chic shopping destination it is today, with soot and grime warping the remnants of the city’s Victorian past into a bleak, austere and unforgiving landscape.
“Nobody likes us and we don’t care!” sang the Yorkshire whites at Elland Road, which prided itself on being one of the least welcoming grounds in the league.
Peace himself has said that at the time, Yorkshire as a whole was “a hostile environment .. especially for women”.
Around this time, someone famously daubed the slogan “All women are bitches” on a wall opposite Leeds university. “Well, it’s a dog’s life” was written underneath in reply.
Growing up near Wakefield at the same time that Peter Sutcliffe was stalking the north of England, murdering 13 women and attacking many more during a five-year killing spree, Peace was “obsessed” with solving the case. At one point, he even feared that his father might be the killer.
In 1976, three young women implicated Stefan Kiszko in the murder of Rochdale schoolgirl Lesley Molseed “for a laugh”. Pressurised into a confession by some of the same West Yorkshire detectives who singularly failed to apprehend Sutcliffe, Kiszko was imprisoned for 17 years before being cleared by a judicial review. He died after less than a year of freedom while Lesley’s killer remained at large until 2006.
In 1986, Greater Manchester Police assistant chief constable John Stalker was suspended from duty and removed from an inquiry he was leading into the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s alleged shoot-to-kill policy after groundless rumours and gossip about his private life.
Terrible things happen in ordinary places like Hyde, Hattersley, Bacup, Bootle and Dewsbury. Knowing that there are families who “suffered horribly” because of the crimes referenced by Peace, Grisoni followed the author’s lead and approached this “fiction torn from fact” with enormous caution.
“David is writing something where he wants to make it clear the effect that violence has, but at the same time he’s aware of entertainment. And it’s a very uneasy relationship between those two things. It’s a tough call,” admits Grisoni. “But because it’s tough, it’s worth having a go at.”
“I started work at the BBC as a runner, back in the late Seventies, and there was still a lot of drama on television that was very, very challenging. It took risks, it asked difficult questions, it attempted to do all kinds of extraordinary things.
“I’m talking about films produced by people like Tony Garnett, Dennis Potter, all of these people, and in some ways trying to adapt these novels, I felt the same kind of excitement. It felt that the drama was very alive, that the drama was asking some very tough questions, rather than just, y’know, giving us a warm bath.”
“These films are inspired by fact but they are pieces of fiction – and with fiction you can go as far as you wish to go,” argues Considine. “Life is more grisly than fiction. And there are plenty of darker films with worse motives. The films we did have got depth to them, real characters, motivations and consequences.”
In order to get a clear idea of the events portrayed in the quartet, Grisoni employed two people to dissect Peace’s books in order to create a series of timelines, charts and Venn diagrams showing who did what and where. Even then, he found himself turning to the author for help with some detail of chronology or motivation.
“Sometimes David would know and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes we’d come to an answer together,” remembers Grisoni. “It’s a very different business, writing novels, compared to writing screenplays.”
How did you find David Peace? From his fiction you’d imagine he was just this raging torrent of anger and bile.
“He’s a very intense man,” agrees Grisoni. “But what I wasn’t prepared for was the humour. He’s a very, very funny man. The first time I met David, we sat down for about six hours, in this seedy little hotel he’d decided to stay at for some reason. I just asked him all of these questions I had and he was really helpful and really generous and really, really funny.
“One of the things that people don’t always realise, there’s a lot of humour in those books,” he adds. “It may be black humour, but they’re very funny. I was very keen to keep that kind of humour in the screenplay, because it’s that humour that gets you through tough things. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, no matter how dark you go, you’ll find people making jokes about the terrible things going on around them because it’s one way of dealing with it.”
How good was Peace at letting go and allowing you to do what you needed to do?
“David was completely open about this,” says Grisoni. “He was only trying to be helpful, he didn’t come back at me on anything, not once. I remember talking to Hunter S Thompson when Terry Gilliam was doing Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. I was adapting it for the film and Hunter said, Well, put it this way, if you do a good job on this, I wrote the book. And if you fuck it up, hey, I wrote the book. I win both times.
“David was only supportive. At every turn. He’d written these novels, he’d written them some time ago, they were a part of his life then, and he appreciated that we were doing a different job. He just made himself available.”
Unfortunately, it became clear that Red Riding’s budget wouldn’t stretch to adapting the entire quartet and Grisoni had to resign himself to somehow reducing Peace’s epic, interlocking saga into just three films.
“Tony Garnett once said to me, every creative decision is a financial decision,” says Grisoni. “And every financial decision is a creative decision. They’re inextricably bound up with each other. It’s capital intensive, making films, and we didn’t have enough money. It’s that simple.”
Grisoni felt truncating the four books would’ve been “a horrible mistake, because it would have become a cops and robbers series. It’s more than that. Those stories are not just about the narrative. They’re about atmosphere, they’re about character. They’re not just about plot”.
In the end, he decided to omit the more “self-contained” 1977 altogether and three directors were brought into the project, taking one book each.
Julian Jarold, who has just made the film version of Brideshead Revisited, tackled 1974, James Marsh, who was nominated for an Oscar for his documentary about highwire artist Philippe Petit, took on 1980, while Oscar-nominated Hilary And Jackie’s Anand Tucker directed 1983.
The trio assembled a similarly high-achieving cast for the trilogy.
Sean Bean is a boorish property tycoon investigated by a young journalist played by Bafta award-winning Boy A actor Andrew Garfield. Rebecca Hall, fresh from Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, is the damaged mother of a missing girl, looking for a way out.
Peter Mullan is a priest who seems to appear just when he’s needed most, while David Morrissey, Warren Clarke (both pictured), Jim Carter and Sean Harris are police officers of varying degrees of corruption and misanthropy – this lot make Life On Mars’s Gene Hunt look like Dixon of Dock Green.
Paddy Considine plays the Manchester assistant chief constable investigating the failure of his colleagues on the other side of the Pennines to stop a maniac murdering at will. He’s helped by Manchester detectives Maxine Peake and Tony Pitts.
Meanwhile, Mark Addy is a solicitor who reluctantly listens to falsely imprisoned innocent Daniel Mays (of Channel 4 comedy Plus One).
Each scene brings more familiar faces – Gerard Kearns as a lad who discovers a body, John Henshaw as the editor of the Yorkshire Post, Lesley Sharp as Hunter’s brittle wife, Anthony Flanagan as a doomed hack.
Individually, they’re impressive enough but as an ensemble it’s a pretty remarkable cast – and they deliver uniformly nuanced and powerful performances.
“It’s crazy,” agrees Andrew Garfield, who plays ambitious journalist Eddie Dunford. “But that’s David Peace for you. These books are so loved, and Tony Grisoni wrote such incredible adaptations, I just think that good writing attracts good souls.”
It’s a tribute to the craft of Peace, Grisoni and the individual directors that the films, like the original novels, work both individually and as whole. Jarold, Marsh and Tucker skilfully translate the eerily claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere of Peace’s books into a strange kind of Yorkshire noir, though each film has a distinct style of its own.
Twenty-six-year-old Andrew Garfield wasn’t even born in 1974 but, aware of the high regard in which Peace’s novels are held – and even slightly “scared” by the prospect – he wanted to make sure he did a good job in the role of “cocky, young son of a bitch” crime reporter Eddie Dunford in the first film of the trilogy.
“It was not just a question of wearing the clothes and growing the sideburns and hoping that people believe you,” he tells me over the phone from his publicist’s office.
“I spent some time at the Yorkshire Post, prior to filming, just to get a sense of what it is to be a journalist there. And I was lucky to talk to two or three people, reporters, who are still working there, who worked there in 1974. They’re still typing away at their desks. That was useful.”
Was one of them Pete Lazenby?
“Peter Lazenby! He was a true character and a real gentleman. He took time out to paint me a very detailed picture of life then, what it was like to live in Yorkshire at that time. He was an utter joy to talk to. I read a lot too and I found 1974, the book, to be a really useful way to understand the mood of the time, the atmosphere of that period, the feeling that David Peace wanted to create.”
Closer in age to author Peace than Garfield, Paddy Considine does have some memories of the era portrayed in 1980.
“I would’ve been seven in 1980,” he says. “I just remember having a vague idea that there was a serial killer going around and I asked my mum about it once, because I’d caught something on the news, and she just said, oh, he doesn’t come round here. There was a slight awareness of it.”
Considine got some useful pointers from director James Marsh but he tells me that was wary of doing too much research.
“It helps you to a point because it just sets the tone, but once you start making a film, it changes. I wasn’t making a film about the Yorkshire Ripper, it was about the characters. What it becomes after that, is whatever they cut together. But while you’re making it, you do the research, weeks before, and it’s just there, it’s present. You don’t think about it.
“With characters, once you’ve got their motivations down and you’re living in that world, with other actors, brilliant actors, that’s what it becomes about.”
How easy to switch off at weekends? You’d imagine the subject matter would make it quite an oppressive atmosphere on set.
“Yeah. It had its moments,” he admits. “But I stopped reading stuff after a while. It just plays on your mind. I just switch off then and don’t go any further.
“As an actor, I’ve just developed over the years. The first ever film I did I just crawled off it exhausted because I’d absolutely given them my heart,” explains Considine. “After a couple of them, you realise, I can’t keep going home and spending weeks trying to recover from this thing. I’ve just learned to switch it on and off, if you like. You get your head ready and give yourself a moment before takes and go in and nail it that way.
“It’s not just acting, things bother me. You know when they get in your mind? I’m that kind of person, things plague me. So I don’t turn a blind eye, but when I’m doing something about the Yorkshire Ripper I come to a point where I’ve had my fill. I’m like, I don’t really want to digest any more of this.”
Red Riding is an extraordinary piece of work that feels like television from another era – and not just because of the massive sideburns and battered Cortinas. It feels like TV from an age when filmmakers were given the time and space to tell their stories properly. The filmmakers’ sucess in adapting such complex and opaque subject matter bodes well for the film of Peace’s book about Brian Clough’s 44-day tenure at Elland Road, The Damned United, which is released later this month.
Although he hasn’t seen any films in the trilogy when I speak to him, Considine has enough faith in his fellow-filmmakers to be confident that Red Riding works as a serious, adult piece of TV drama.
“This is the best job I’ve done in ages,” he decides through his baby daughter’s gurgles. “When I was a kid, TV was fantastic. It was topical, it was the talk of the playground, stuff like Scum, Made In Britain and Ladybird, Ladybird. It was solid, quality TV.
“TV now isn’t of the same arena. Now, in a TV series, so many pages in they want a plot point, so many pages in they want a hanger so they can cut to the break, there’s rules. And that’s frustrating. These films certainly seem different to all that.
“The point is, I’m trying to raise money for a feature film off the back of a short film I made. Making it as a film for a theatrical release is an absolute nightmare. It’s in the same vein as Ladybird, Ladybird, Nil By Mouth, Dead Man’s Shoes, London To Brighton, all those films, and people don’t want to touch it. They want comedies.
“I think the doors are closing on film at the minute. You can’t get the money to make these films. People might love your films, it might be a good kudos piece, but at the end of the day they say, we haven’t got the money to have one of them on our slate this year. Tough.
“I’d gladly make my film for TV. I think it would belong in that realm of great TV, alongside with Red Riding. It’s just a shame that we’re not challenged anymore. We really are brainwashed. It’s like bubblegum for the brain. It’s disheartening.”
Red Riding is about as far away from ‘bubblegum for the brain’ as it gets.
“It haunted me for a while after,” reveals Andrew Garfield (pictured). “There were days where I couldn’t sleep. I was waking up in cold sweats because of the stuff I’d been through during the physically violent scenes.”
In fact, as soon as filming had finished, Garfield left Yorkshire as fast as he could.
“To be frank, I got straight on a plane to Los Angeles and saw my girlfriend. I needed to get as far away as possible. It was definitely a case of life imitating art at the end, where I drive off. I was thinking, this is the end of a journey that I’m very happy to see the back of.
“Then of course, after a few weeks later, I look back on it and think, Jesus, that was brilliant and intense.”
“It’s not often you get a gig like this, it’s a rare opportunity,” says Tony Grisoni. “But I haven’t left the Red Riding. It hangs onto you. You can’t walk out of the end of those novels, they’re too strong and they’re too close to the reality around you. They will linger with me for a long, long while.
“I think the experience of trying to adapt David’s novels is affecting and is going to affect the work I do in the future, in a very major way. Quite how, I’m not sure yet, but I know that they will.”
“There was no big cheer when I left Hunter behind,” says Paddy Considine. “It was more of a sadness. I’d had a really challenging time on this film, it was interesting, and the work was great. So I was actually quite sad to leave it all behind, to be perfectly honest with you.”
There’s one last thing I’d like to hear about from Tony Grisoni, who is about to start work on a rewrite of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for Terry Gilliam (“We’re gonna put the Don back in the saddle again, whether he likes it or not ..”): Would you like to tackle 1977 yourself? Or is that a silly question?
“It’s a silly question. We will make 1977, it will happen,” says Grisoni, confidently. “If for no other reason than the soundtrack – can you imagine the soundtrack? We will make 1977.”
And what about GB84?
“Yeah, what about that ..” muses Grisoni. “But I think I’ll have to take a little break from David Peace. As good company as he is, I’ve got to take a little break from him.
“Just a little break. Please.”
[A shorter version of this piece was published by the Big Issue in the North last week]