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Darkness doesn’t always mean authenticity

David Peace’s Yorkshire thrillers make fantastic TV but dubious history

<strong>Red Riding</stron

I had been looking forward to Channel 4’s adaptation of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet (Thursday nights from 5 March, 9pm) with a peculiar intensity – with excitement, but also with dread. I am two years younger than Peace and, like him, I grew up in Yorkshire during the Ripper years (the novels are about the county in the years 1974 to 1983). Peace has said that he remembers the taunts in the playground: “Your dad is the Ripper! No, your dad is the Ripper!” Well, I can tell you now that this is no false memory. We were haunted. He was among us, and he was going to get us. But who was he? I remember exactly how I felt when the police issued an identikit picture of the killer: the flip of my stomach, the crazy pricking of fear on my scalp; my father and my stepfather both had inky black beards. That’s how deeply the idea of him had lodged itself in my brain. When they eventually caught him in my home town, in a lovers’ lane (ha!), no one needed to say who it was that had been caught. “Him” was enough. Him. That’s who he was.

Why then did these films leave me cold? (I’ve cheated this week; I’ve seen all three.) It’s not that I don’t admire them hugely as movies, because I do. They are superbly directed, magnificently acted, brilliantly designed, cunningly written. They fit together, puzzle-like, only truly making sense once you’ve watched to the end (trust me: in episode two, the fog will lift). In my notebook, I’ve written down only two criticisms, and these sound nitpicky now that I repeat them: Rebecca Hall’s Yorkshire accent, which was as intermittent as the 1970s electricity supply, and how one character – Eddie Dunford, cub reporter – went to live in a motel. A motel? With a neon sign? In 1970s Yorkshire? We did not know such glamour!

It is years since we’ve seen investment of this kind, emotional and financial, in a British TV series, and you feel it in every scene. Hard to know, sometimes, whose face to watch: the star (my belief that Andrew Garfield is some kind of young genius is rapidly turning into a religion), or the supporting cast (Sean Harris as Bob Craven, a bent copper, is so repulsively convincing, you start to dream of a hot shower the moment he sidles into frame).

So, I think my real beef must be with David Peace himself. It’s not that his portrayal of Yorkshire upsets me – although, when you think about it, his belief that it was a uniquely violent place is just daft. In Red Riding, the characters toast one another with the words: “To the north, where we do what we want!” as if Yorkshire were Dodge City. Stodge City, more like. Could there have been a Lancashire Ripper, or a Lincolnshire Ripper? Of course, there could. Fred West came from Gloucestershire. No, it’s more that these fictions of his, now replayed on our screens, are based on events so brutish that I simply cannot understand why he feels the need to make them any nastier. Women and children butchered; a man wrongfully convicted of murder (in addition to the Ripper killings, Peace uses the wrongful conviction of Stefan Kiszko for the murder of Lesley Molseed in 1975). Are these things not bad enough? Not for Peace, they’re not, so he wraps them in a dirty blanket of police corruption and malpractice for good measure.

Yet Peter Sutcliffe was able to continue his grim work not as a result of police corruption; at play was something far more straightforward, and so more insidious, and more hateful, too – incompetence, shot through with misogyny. The police only really started taking Sutcliffe seriously once “innocent” women (that is, non-prostitutes) were being killed because, let’s face it, no one was going to worry about a load of dead whores. Why does Peace twist this? Doubtless his childhood is at work here, the black cloud of doom that hung over one boy’s playground stretching and growing in the adult mind’s-eye until it covers every aspect of establishment life. But perhaps it is also that, like some of the excitable male critics I’ve read this week, he has made the grave error of mistaking darkness for authenticity.

Pick of the week

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
10 March, 9pm, Channel 5
Laurence Fishburne makes his debut in the hit US show.

Heston’s Medieval Feast
10 March, 9pm, Channel 4
Blumenthal, the whizz-kid chef, takes a step back into the past.

Horne and Corden
Starts 10 March, 10.30pm, BBC3
The lead men from Gavin and Stacey reunite for a sketch series.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload