Thursday, 2 April 2009
Lazyitis shall not prevail.
These are hardly the kind of times in which one can afford the luxury of being unproductive, and it's an accepted truth that, in order to be a writer, one needs to write. I mean, no shit, Sherlock? That said, part of the reason there aren't new entries on here every other day is because, for whatever reason, I hold on to this notion that, if you don't have anything to say, then you should probably keep it buttoned. I've resisted the urge to turn this blog into one long brainfart, as blogs can sometimes be, but it occurs to me that updating it as infrequently as I do is a bit like only doing the hoovering once a month, because, well, who else is going to notice? Not really the right attitude, is it? So, here's something that's been rolling around my head over the last week or so.
How did Channel 4 manage to fuck up Red Riding?
After reading David Peace's excellent The Damned Utd a couple of years back, I had to investigate his earlier novels, if only to discover whether or not his tale of Brian Clough's ill-starred 44-day reign at Elland Road was just an inspired one-off. It wasn't. The Red Riding Quartet, a series of densely-plotted, nerve-shredding nightmares set in South Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983, may be the best and most original examples of British crime fiction I've ever come across. Not that I'm especially widely-read in that area these days; I no longer eat up quite so much of the stuff since Mark Timlin stopped writing (if indeed he has stopped - anyone know?), but I feel fairly certain there can't be too much out there that's the equal of Peace's writing in terms of its relentless, horrifying intensity. It's a lazy comparison to make, but the Red Riding books do have a lot in common with James Ellroy's LA Quartet, certainly in terms of subject matter. Corrupt police forces, appalling miscarriages of justice, venal, self-serving public figures, unimaginable levels of violence and sexual depravity, hardly anything resembling a sympathetic character, and no happy endings. Much like Ellroy's books, they take some getting to grips with at first; the style and structure is a little unusual, but once you're used to the rhythm of the writing, you're not getting off until the last stop. By the time I'd finished Nineteen Eighty Three, I found myself wondering what incredible television the stories might make in the hands of someone with sufficient ambition and reach to take a proper run at it. Enter Channel 4...
One of the most widespread criticisms of Season 5 of The Wire was that it all seemed a little too rushed. Even a hopeless Wire junkie like myself will admit to having a bit of sympathy for this point of view; the show's characteristic measured pacing seemed to have been sacrificed in service of a need to pack in as much as possible, and new characters like Gutierrez, Haynes and Templeton were one-dimensional and underwritten in comparison with, say, the Sobotkas in Season 2. Since HBO would only give David Simon and Ed Burns enough money for ten episodes, rather than the twelve or thirteen of the earlier seasons, the relative dip in form of the final season is perhaps more understandable. I was reminded of all this when I watched Channel 4's adaptation of the Red Riding Quartet a few weeks back. Now, I have never worked in television at all, so I've neither experience nor understanding of whatever issues are involved in the production and financing of an ambitious, non-mainstream TV drama like Red Riding. But I do tend to think that, if you're going to tackle something on that kind of scale, you should at least set out with the intention of doing justice to the source material. I'm sure that the producers had every intention of doing just that, but, presumably at some point between the idea and the execution, something seemed to have gone missing. I'd imagine that adapting something as heavy on multiple narrators and complex internal dialogue as these particular stories wouldn't be an easy job in any case. But even taking into account the sort of scaling-down of plot that's unavoidable if you're to make the whole thing a decent fit for TV, there were far too many short cuts taken for Red Riding to come off, much less make enough dramatic sense for an audience that mightn't be familiar with the books. Often, the plot didn't seem compressed as much as pounded flat. To be fair, the cast was excellent on the whole; certainly, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Sean Bean, Saskia Reeves, David Morrissey and Peter Mullan all did as good a job as they could with what was in front of them, which wasn't bad by any stretch; just much, much less that I'd hoped it'd be. Moreover, more than one person of my acquaintance has observed that it all appeared a little too concerned with snagging a few BAFTAs than with snagging an audience. Personally, I began to have misgivings after I read that one of the books had been binned off completely, meaning the story arc had taken a 25% knock before anyone had seen a single frame. But still, I wasn't not going to watch it.
Given the sanctimonious relish with which those hateful puritans at The Daily Mail regularly lay into anything they perceive as representing an erosion of decent, wholesome Middle England values, I can well believe that the Channel 4 brass might have been a little uneasy about committing to a full-bore depiction of the Red Riding Quartet's manifold horrors, post-watershed or not. After all, they've done a bang-up job of fashioning a rod for their own backs on that front over the last few years. Still, I wish to God someone over there had taken a metaphorical glance in the direction of Derry Street (and Wapping, for that matter) and said, "You know what, you lot can go and fuck yourselves", because I can't help thinking Red Riding might have been infinitely better if someone had. Of course, not everyone is going to have the stomach for the levels of hideousness at the awful heart of David Peace's South Yorkshire, and that's fair enough - there's no shortage of brutal scenes in all three films anyway - but you have to wonder what point there is in half-measures when you're trying to tell a story that takes in police and local government corruption on a massive scale, pornography, child abduction and murder, paedophile rings, the failure of the justice system and the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror. You're never going to make it look like Midsomer Murders in a thousand lifetimes. That so many of these elements came across as underdeveloped, skimmed over or hastily tossed off seemed to betray a lack of nerve as much as a lack of budget, and the whole thing ended up going off at half-cock. Never did you get a tangible sense of the all-encompassing evil that Peace had so unflinchingly catalogued in his books. On the screen, you see a bunch of people who are, at best, comprehensively bent, and who are certainly involved in some pretty nasty business. In the books, you read about the same characters and (many of) the same goings-on, and you think, "These people are fucking monsters..."
Red Riding ought to have been utterly terrifying, but the sense of disappointment I felt over its failure to measure up to the books was far greater. Other than a few moments in the second film (by far the best), where the superb Paddy Considine nails his character's rising panic as he begins to see the level of corruption he's dealing with and realises he can no longer trust anybody, it never came close to hitting as hard as it should have, and ultimately it all felt like a wasted opportunity. The days of British TV drama with the depth and weight of Edge Of Darkness or Our Friends In The North, things which were capable of leaving a lasting, powerful impression on the viewer as well as telling you something about the kind of country Britain has become (and winning a sackful of awards in the process, it should be pointed out), now appear more distant than ever. You really do get what you pay for, it seems.