A return journey to Yorkshire's Ripper era of darkness

The TV adaptation of David Peace's bleak Red Riding novels will hit our screens next week. Chris Bond met members of its stellar cast.

A dimly-lit, anonymous doorway in the middle of a dingy street in East London is a seemingly incongruous setting for the launch party of a long-awaited TV drama. Yet sitting in the swanky bar upstairs are some of Britain's most talented actors, including Warren Clarke, Mark Addy, Maxine Peake, David Morrissey and Sean Bean.

It's not often you find such a celebrated cast appearing together, but they, along with a host of other instantly recognisable names and faces, were drawn to Tony Grisoni's powerful Red Riding scripts.

The three-part Channel 4 crime drama is based on David Peace's disturbing cult novels, The Red Riding Quartet, set in Yorkshire during the 1970s and '80s in a paranoid world haunted by the Ripper case and mired in police corruption.

Although the screen adaptation is a lavish affair – as well as the ensemble cast a high-profile director was brought in for each film – budget constraints meant there was only enough money in the pot to adapt three of the four books.

Despite this apparent shortcoming, Red Riding makes for compelling viewing. The language, along with some of the violence, is pretty near-the-knuckle and the trilogy won't be everyone's cup of tea. But it attempts to tell the truth in a way that TV drama rarely has the courage to do, lifting the lid on a murky world of police corruption, child abuse and immorality in a series of interlinking stories.

The first film, 1974, follows rookie journalist Eddie Dunford as he attempts to unravel the complex maze of lies and deceit surrounding a police investigation into a string of child abductions. The subsequent two films, 1980 and 1983, pick up these strands, stretching them to their dramatic denouement.

David Morrissey's character, Detective Inspector Maurice Jobson, is among the police officers who find themselves embroiled in this Machiavellian world.

Morrissey says his character is an old-school cop who finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. "There's a quote at the beginning of one of the episodes that says 'bad things happen when good men do nothing' and I think he is a good man who does nothing.

"You want him to do something, but what I like about him is he's not that vigilante cop that we see on the telly, he's a man with all these flaws and fears. He has a family to support and he's surrounded by all these brutal, cruel men and the burden he carries is he's not the person he would like to be."

Morrissey jumped at the chance when he was offered the role. "I knew the directors involved and then I read the screenplays and thought they were brilliant, although very dark and bleak. Then I found out about this brilliant cast which included either actors I'd worked with before and admired, or people I really wanted to work with."

He calls Red Riding a "demanding piece of work" which he admits was upsetting at times, even for such an experienced actor as himself. "The work was very intense, this is crime writing at its most guttural. Sometimes great books don't make great TV, but the screenplay has the right pace and some fantastic dialogue," he says.

"There's a sense that you're either corrupt, or you aren't, you can't just be a little bit corrupt. In the same way you can't be a little bit pregnant."

But is such a dark drama still relevant today? "The characters don't have mobile phones or computers but you can see references to how we live all the time," he says. "I came to London in the early '80s and I've not seen the West End like this for years with shops closing down everywhere. There's a sense of people battening down the hatches and the last time it was like that was during this period."

Screen Yorkshire helped produce the trilogy and eagle-eyed viewers will recognise many familiar landmarks in Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield.

For Sean Bean, who plays conniving businessman John Dawson, filming Red Riding took him back to his youth growing up in Yorkshire.

Not that he sees it through rose-tinted glasses. "I remember the Ripper story being on the news and people being scared to go out at night. It went on for years and it always seemed to be winter. People often have great memories of the '70s, the great clothes and great music, but it was set against a backdrop of troubled and unsettled times."

He calls the trilogy "twisted and disturbing" but says it captures an essence of what life was like during this period. "There's an almost ethereal quality to it. I like the fact that it's set very firmly in Yorkshire. It's not apologetic about that, it's not politically correct, it doesn't pander to what we think the public should see on television. I hope it provokes some emotion, whether that's pathos or anger, because that's what good television should be about."

Andrew Garfield, who plays fictional Yorkshire Post reporter Eddie Dunford, is too young to remember the Ripper case or the "winter of discontent", but he, too, was drawn to the script. "It's very rare that you read something and think 'I really want to be part of this'," he says. "There's a social and political background which elevates it beyond your average crime thriller."

Garfield says playing Eddie pushed his acting skills to the limit. "I tried to find the bits I didn't know I had in me, like his utter self-centredness at the beginning. I like to think I have bravery, but if I was put in a situation as extreme as Eddie is put in I don't know what I'd do, so finding the truth of myself within that was really tough and interesting."

The role wasn't just emotionally challenging, it took its toll physically, too. "I suffered a few injuries. I got thrown through a glass window which wasn't planned, I had a couple of black eyes and a bruised neck." This was despite the fact that he took some boxing lessons to help toughen up for therole. "I needed to get into the fighting spirit because I'd never thrown a punch in my life and I had to know that I could, and that I could take one."

He also spent a couple of weeks shadowing newspaper reporters in order to get into character. "It seemed like being a journalist was nine-tenths waiting around and one-tenth utter chaos and excitement. But I have huge respect for what you do. Journalists have their finger on the pulse, they're defining what people read every morning and what they talk about, and that's admirable."

Red Riding starts on Channel 4 on Thursday, March 5.