TV review: Red Riding: 1983 | Runaways

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Red Riding: 1983, Channel 4 Runaways, CBBC

WHY is the best TV drama often so bleak? The most critically acclaimed programmes, from Cathy Come Home to Edge Of Darkness and Our Friends In The North to The Wire and Mistresses (no, hang on, that just makes me feel bleak), the ones that stick out in memory are all grim, dark and depressing. Happy endings are for throwaway fluff or costume dramas; serious, intelligent fare must plunge into the underbelly of human misery.

It's nonsense, of course, as daft as Hollywood's insistence that any hokey sob-story is more worthy of an Oscar than a brilliant comedy. Still, Channel 4's Red Riding trilogy has been so relentlessly in the bleak camp that it was hard to watch, especially since the plot was so very ambiguous that nearly four hours had passed until a glimmer of understanding began to emerge about the machinations of the West Yorkshire police.

Yet I've hardly been sticking it out through duty: universally excellent performances and terrific photography, direction and soundtrack have made it dazzlingly watchable, if not actually enjoyable. There has been a certain sacrifice of substance to style, it's true, but what style!

It did, in the end, make sense (though I'm still not entirely clear on the involvement of Sean Bean). Peter Mullan's evil priest had been running a paedophile ring, kidnapping and killing the missing girls in a cellar which was uncomfortably reminiscent of the horrors being recounted in an Austrian court this week. Mark Addy, as a solicitor representing the hapless innocent framed for the deaths, uncovered the truth. And the police had ruthlessly tortured and murdered to protect their own vice ring sideline: as they kept saying, this was the North, they did what they wanted.

The mysterious Detective Chief Superintendent Jobson ('The Owl'), it turned out, had been the key all along – which might have come as more of a surprise if he hadn't been played by David Morrissey, who clearly wasn't cast to lurk in the background for ever. Morrissey was almost unrecognisable in unflattering glasses and moustache, but gave a typically great and intense performance as a man unable to carry the burden of his corruption any more, eventually killing the priest and helping the solicitor rescue the last little girl. It was still hardly a happy ending.

Like the first two, this last instalment (directed by Anand Tucker, who made the film Hilary And Jackie) also had its flaws: another unconvincing sexual relationship – the female characters have been weak ciphers throughout, which may be the nature of the original David Peace books – and some jarring camera effects representing Addy's flashbacks. The violence was brutally explicit and the 'message', if there was one, was despairing.

But ultimately none of that matters too much. At a time when so much cynically lazy trash is being broadcast at us, Red Riding had ambition to spare and a world-class cast and crew. Even with its flaws, it was one of those bleak, serious dramas that will lodge in the memory of those who saw it for a long time.

There was no light relief in Runaways, a children's drama about a young boy with a rotten life: bullied at school and made to eat worms, then bullied and exploited at home by his unpleasant mother (Kierston Wareing, from Ken Loach's It's A Free World…). There was a good performance from youngster William Miller and some vivid, realistic dialogue as the misery piled up: poor Sean fled in the night on his bike, which was promptly stolen. But as this is a CBBC series, hopefully it will end better – for all our sakes.