Adrian Dunbar, one of the stars of the BBC hit police anti-corruption series Line of Duty, has got his own show on ITV in the UK. It has been pre-sold to the US and other territories so it’s worth noting some of the points about the show and how it has been received. First it’s worth pointing out that Dunbar, now in his early sixties, has had a long and distinguished career as an actor with significant appearances in several well-known British and Irish films as well as a long list of television drama credits. His first major film success was Hear My Song (UK 1991) which he co-wrote with director Peter Chelsom and starred in as the young man who tries to bring the legendary Irish tenor Josef Locke back to perform in the UK (and who himself sings in his own club). I mention this background because many TV viewers seem surprised that Dunbar can sing (well) as he does in this new series.
Ridley is written by Paul Thompson and it is similar in terms of setting to the long running series Vera (UK 2011-2022) which Thompson has worked on as a writer for several episodes. Alex Ridley is a retired detective who is brought back to act as a consultant on a new murder case. Apparently this has been an innovation in UK policing since cuts in funding have stretched resources. Ridley in his first case is soon aware that there may be a link between this current case and one of his earlier investigations some 14 years ago. Where Vera is set in Northumberland, Ridley is set in Pennine Lancashire with filming in the first episode taking place in Rossendale and somewhere on the Irish Sea coast. The actual location is not named (fictitious towns are named instead) and confusingly there is a reference at one point to an earlier case being dealt with by ‘West Riding Police’. The West Riding of Yorkshire disappeared after the 1974 Local Government Act, though perhaps this is meant to be a nod towards the boundary changes that moved some parts of the Western Pennines from Yorkshire to Lancashire and vice versa. It this region and its landscapes that prompted me to watch the series.
Each episode of Ridley is meant to focus on a single case, but the set-up has one continuing feature in that Ridley has retired after his wife and teenage daughter were killed in a house fire which he believed to be arson. He suffered a breakdown and now lives on his own in an isolated house overlooking a lake or reservoir on the moors. This first episode divided audiences with Dunbar’s fans happy to see him heading a series and others seeing this new show as clichéd and predictable. It’s a crime genre series, a police procedural. It’s difficult to be completely original in the writing and like most similar series, the ‘difference’ in the show is in the characterisation of the central characters. Ridley ‘sees’ his dead wife and daughter and he has working relationships with both the DI who is responsible for calling him in and with another ex-colleague who seems to have some baggage from her time in CID. In addition, Ridley is the co-owner of a pub music venue with an old friend of his wife. Yes, he drinks too much, hasn’t unpacked for his new home and can be curmudgeonly but this goes with the location – this episode is filmed in winter and the locals can be a little dour – too close to Yorkshire perhaps? The real challenge for Dunbar is whether he can command the narrative in the same kind of show as Brenda Blethyn in Vera or Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley (set not too far away in the Calder Valley and back for a third series soon). It’s a big ask.
The negative responses are either because the narrative is thought to be ‘too slow’ or ‘too predictable’. I’m not sure it is either but I can see why the complaint is made. The setting is for me the most important element and it does affect what kinds of narrative are possible. There are aren’t going to be car chases along busy streets or crowds in shopping centres. Instead there are isolated houses, windswept moors and small communities. The second episode sees a body found on the moor in the mist by a small wind farm. I’m not sure the second episode worked as well as the first but there is a secondary narrative developing around the home situation of DI Carol Farman (Bronagh Waugh) and I’m hopeful that the series will ‘bed in’ with the final two episodes. I think if the characters ‘fit’ the setting I will enjoy the rest of the series. I’m reminded of the earlier crime fiction filmed in East Lancashire (but mainly in the towns), the rather different Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, in which the 60 year-old Hetty (Patricia Routledge) is an amateur sleuth. This was played as comedy drama and proved popular, arguably because of Routledge and the other regular characters. The series ran for four seasons (1996-8) and was exported to the US and shown on PBS (which has also taken Ridley). It was a 75 minute show on BBC without ads. Ridley is listed as 120 minutes on ITV, but is actually not much more than 90 minutes without ads. The Bay, a real ITV success, has worked over three seasons of six episodes of around 45 minutes. It is set in Morecambe, North Lancashire, with a more urban edge and certainly feels pacier. The opening episode of Ridley did actually attract a bigger audience than the BBC competition, The Capture, starting a second season with Holliday Grainger as a DCI in London in a ‘crime mystery’ with international characters. I don’t know what happened to Ridley‘s audience in Week 2 but ITV does seem wedded to its 2 hour Sunday night slots. I think that the shows could be tightened up if the programming was re-organised. I will watch the final two episodes of Ridley and I’m intrigued to see whether it gets a second series.