Writing Red Riding

By Tony Grisoni

red-riding-trilogy-julian-jarrold.jpgThe Red Ridding Trilogy, 2009

In early February 2006 Andrew Eaton made me an offer to which I could not say no. He asked me to take a look at The Red Riding Quartet of novels by David Peace with a view to adapting them. I started reading ‘1974’ and from the first unsettling parody of a fallen angel to the final Jacobean shoot-out I did not stop to take breath.

I plunged into the other three novels ‘1977’, ‘1980’ and ‘1983’. They read like an English James Ellroy cut with Stan Barstow and drenched in the occult sensibilities of an Iain Sinclair. Here were fictions torn from the facts. Each book was powerfully contextualised; 1974 against the background of a hung parliament and the IRA bombing campaign. 1977 – the year of the Jubilee and Punk. 1980 – Thatcher’s Tory majority and the Yorkshire Ripper. 1983 – The Falklands war and Thatcher’s re-election.

But the world of Red Riding is not purely material, it is a universe where the dreamed, the imagined, the supernatural is as alive as the natural world. We’re talking about people’s souls here. We’re talking about eternal perdition and the possibility of redemption. Yorkshire Noir. Dickens on bad acid. And that is what we planned to bring to the screen.

I had worked with Andrew and Revolution Films before. In This World was one of the best filmmaking experiences I have been fortunate enough to have been part of. I didn’t refuse Andrew’s offer. The bigger decision was whether to take on just the first novel, or to go for the whole quartet. I went for the whole set. It meant that I’d lose the next two and a half years to David Peace’s world. A dark place to go.

The plan was to make each drama both a stand-alone, full-length film, and at the same time link into the other three. Characters would develop and reappear in later films, events would be referred to and revisited in flashback. It meant that any change in the action, characters or sequence in one story would have consequences for the other tales.

red-riding-trilogy-julian-jarrold-2.jpgThe Red Ridding Trilogy, 2009

I subtitled each title by way of signposting an overall theme – a sort of sheet anchor:

1974: “This is the North where we do what we want.”

Eddie - film noir hero – lazy, libidinous. Becomes entangled with a damaged and dangerous woman. His need to know the truth about the connections linking a series of missing girls draws him into the dark web that will destroy him.

1977: “We're the flowers in the dustbin/We're the poison in your human machine/We're the future, your future”

A double-hander. A crazed journalist and a policeman, married to the boss’s daughter but in love with a prostitute. The policeman turns whistleblower and pays the price.

1980: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter investigates his own. A good man with a guilty conscience. Against the back ground of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

1983: “Everyman is guilty of all the good he did not do"

The child killings start again. A shabby solicitor investigates. A police detective revisits the past and all the good he did not do.

I was fortunate in that neither Revolution Films nor Channel Four ever demanded detailed outlines before I embarked on the screenplays. After relatively little discussion, I was given complete freedom to plough straight in and produce a first draft.

Hayley Williams came on board to disassemble each novel. She cross-referenced characters and events, drew up charts of who knew what, did what and to whom. It didn’t always add up…

red-riding-trilogy-james-marsh.jpgThe Red Ridding Trilogy, 2009

After a flurry of emails, I finally met David Peace face to face at a seedy London hotel – his choice. He was in London to promote his new novel, THE DAMNED UNITED. David lives in Tokyo, the Red Riding Quartet was written in exile. I had a long list of questions for him – exhuming the people and places and events of novels he thought he was finished and done with. We spent four hours picking over the broken narrative paths and buried motives. He helped the disinterment with equanimity, always generous and humorous. Later, while writing the screenplays, if I came across something that puzzled me, I knew David was always there in cyber space, willing to delve and postulate.

Looking back over our communication:

“…for me, the books were about Nature vs. Nurture – did the time, the place and the society of West Yorkshire give 'birth' to Peter Sutcliffe or was West Yorkshire just 'unlucky'…”

One email I sent asking for a Yorkshire colloquialism for ‘chippy’ as in resentful and grudge-bearing was met with a page long free association involving French and German word derivations, ruminations on the Yorkshire psyche and research phone calls to family and friends in God’s Own Country itself. “Right (reet) bitter cunt” was favourite.

A novel is not a screenplay. We show, we don’t tell. I amalgamated characters; in 1974 the sadistic property tycoon, John Dawson, is a combination of three characters from the novel. I compressed and simplified events – trying to find clean lines of narrative energy. At the same time part of the innate darkness of the novels is the serpentine nature of the tales, that feeling something terrible is happening on your peripheral vision. The balancing act was how to retain the sweaty anxiety without tipping into confusion.

Kate Ogborn was heading up Revolution Films’ TV development at the time. I’d spend the first hour or two of most mornings at her family breakfast table, competing for space, chewing over the latest plot convolutions or mysterious death or barbaric torture. Then to Stoke Newington public library where I virtually lived 6 days a week. Halcyon days.

That rare freedom and trust afforded me by both Andrew Eaton at Revolution Films and Liza Marshall and her team at Channel Four went a long way. By the end of 2006 we had two drafts each of 1974, 1977 and 1980.

These dark scripts stayed true to the spirit of the novels; they were unfettered by sentimentality and avoided simplistic notions of good and bad. The anti-heroes descend into a world riven with corruption and uncertainty. The damaged journalists and policemen may strive to combat evil and uncover the truth, but their involvement in the world always compromised them. In early 2007 I began adapting 1983.

Finding an email I sent to David Peace:

“…between us – like hunter i am obsessed with trying to save one child. just one. have you read that article on natascha kampusch who was found wandering vienna 8 years after she was kidnapped as a child?...”

red-riding-trilogy-julian-jarrold-3.jpgThe Red Ridding Trilogy, 2009

The action in 1983 revisits 1974, shining a light in some of the darkest corners. It is a collage of events and years bound by a rent boy’s stream of consciousness. And with the conclusion of the novel, David doesn’t spare us. No future. And so it became a kind of mission of mine to save a child and to turn this into a redemptive story. Nothing stays buried. Truth will out. Truth hurts. The challenge was how to do this without destroying the essential nature of David’s novels. All through the process I’d held onto his words as a guide through the process. I hope against hope he does not feel betrayed. But I had to save that one child.

In March 2008 we got the news that the game was on. Channel Four would fund Red Riding. Sadly, the hard reality of financial imperatives meant producing a trilogy not the entire quartet. We decided to drop 1977 clean out of the equation rather than to disassemble and recycle. So 1980 – Peter Hunter’s story against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper capture – would be sandwiched between 1974 and the hunt for missing children, and 1983 which revisited the events nine years later. The effect of collapsing Red Riding into a trilogy meant some characters emerged more strongly, while others receded. It was a matter of delicate surgery.

I worked with each of the three directors in a different way. James Marsh, I already knew as he had been tracking Red Riding and 1980 in particular almost since I had started work on them. Julian Jarrold and Anand Tucker completed a powerful triumvirate; the Chinatown inspired 1974 for Julian and Anand flying with the redemptive 1983. Each director brought something unique to their particular film, but each also made an act of faith the world we’d created. We’d pour over the screenplays – looking for places to tighten up – playing that deft game of matching ambition to budget, trying to avoid merely cutting or minimising, looking always to reinvent. Then responding to the shifts in tone as cast, locations and personnel fell into place. Some actors contacted me, wanting to grill me as I had grilled David; questions about motive and event, trying on their character like a glove. Then later, responding to the rushes and early assemblies. It’s the kind of writing job I like best; where my responsibility only ends with the final cut. Both God and the devil are in the detail.

red-riding-trilogy-annand-tucker.jpgThe Red Ridding Trilogy, 2009

In Red Riding, a simple man, Michael Myshkin, is fitted up by the police for the abduction and killing of a child. In November 2007 a news story broke which finally completely exonerated Stefan Kiszko who had spent 16 years in prison and died months after his release. As David said, the Kiszko case was “a source of inspiration and a tragic one”.

Throughout the development of these scripts we were haunted by reality that seemed to mirror the fiction; Stephen Lawrence, Madelein McCaan, Natascha Kampusch, Shannon Matthews, Joseph Fritzl, Haut de la Garenne, Michael Todd, Jean Charles de Menezes, John Humble, the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer… Sometimes it was difficult to tell the real world from the dark fictions we were weaving.

“We are a nation at war. Everything run-down, closed, obsolete. A wounded land without heroes where bad men do bad things and get away with it. An age of darkness and witch trials.”

Watching a final cut of 1983, I found myself intensely moved in the film’s closing moments. Because I believed what I was watching. Because I believed we really had managed to save one child. But then that’s fiction for you.

Tony Grisoni is a screenwriter.