Director: Marcus Mortimer
Screenplay: Malcolm Bradbury
Based on the novel by: Mark Tavener
Producers: Sarah Smith
Starring: Warren Clarke, Alun Armstrong, Stephen Fry, John Bird, Rebecca Front, Sally Phillips
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 178 mins
Take a moment and look at this list of names: Warren Clarke, Alun Armstrong, Stephen Fry, John Bird, Richard Griffiths, Rik Mayall, Keith Barron, Richard Wilson, Sally Phillips, Rebecca Front, John Sessions. If there is a reason that the BBC’s 1998 comedy-drama In the Red sank without a trace after its first broadcast, it certainly wasn’t its cast. Its credentials behind the camera read just as impressively, with veteran comedy director Marcus Mortimer and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury on board. So why did this three part series based on the novel by Mark Tavener fall through the cracks? There are reasons but there are also plenty of reasons to be happy that Simply Media have finally decided to make In the Red widely available on DVD.
In the Red focuses on a series of grisly murders of bank managers which have thrown London into a state of mild hysteria. Radio reporter George Cragg (Warren Clarke), about to be fired for perpetual drunkenness on the job, finds himself thrust into the middle of the tempest when the murderer selects him as his regular contact. Cragg is now crucial to the BBC’s coverage of the crimes and also to DCI Frank Jefferson’s (Alun Armstrong) attempts to solve the mystery. Elsewhere, the tiny Reform party are using the murder spree as a chance to boost their own image, while at the BBC the Controllers of Radio 2 and Radio 4 (Stephen Fry and John Bird) are plotting to bring about a regime change through devious means.
That’s the basis of In the Red’s major plot threads but there are many other subplots and characters crammed into its three hour runtime. Ultimately, the script throws more balls in the air than it can cope with but you can’t fault it for ambition or pace. If you don’t like one strand, the action flits rapidly (occasionally too rapidly) between its various angles, all of which relate to the central plot although some in an extremely tangential fashion. This bulging-at-the-seams structure is beautifully complemented by In the Red’s gallery of famous faces, which make it seem like a pleasingly bizarre hybrid of a cop show and Friday Night at the London Palladium. Standouts include the ever reliable duo of Warren Clarke (in the central role of George Cragg, the sort of boozy but intelligent slob role he always excels in) and Alun Armstrong, David Ryall as George’s colleague and drinking buddy Max and Sally Phillips, who is fantastic as the constantly stoned radio presenter who can switch from spaced-out lunatic to velvet-voiced professional at the tweak of a dial. Also entertaining are Stephen Fry and John Bird who wrap their eloquent tongues round a series of dialogue-heavy exchanges which provide a fine juxtaposition with the more action-packed central plot. In fact, Fry and Bird’s characters were spun off into a series of their own, Absolute Power, which is better-remembered than its source.
Not every cast member is as well-used. Fans of Richard Wilson, Keith Barron and Rik Mayall may be disappointed to discover that their roles amount to little more than cameos (although Mayall is particularly good in his brief appearances). Also, Sally Phillips’ small but memorable role aside, the female cast of In the Red are not blessed with especially strong material. Siobhan Redmond is lumbered with the part of dominatrix Madame Sin, that underwritten, oxymoronic figure of female power and exploitation that only ever appears in scripts written by men. Although she is good in the role, Redmond’s dialogue essentially amounts to a lot of crap jokes about the double meaning of the verb ‘come’ and mundane household items being mistaken for sex toys. Rachel Fielding, as a newly arrived member of the Reform party, is set up as a male fantasy figure in her opening moments when she arrives in the campaign office and asks “what do you want to do with me?”, the sort of line that highlights the artifice far more than any of In the Red’s more outlandish plot wrinkles. From hereon in, although she is featured heavily in the political subplot, Fielding’s storyline is defined chiefly by her unlikely schoolgirlish obsession with nerdy Simon Godley. Rebecca Front represents the only real example of a woman in a position of power and she spends the whole series being trampled underfoot by the boorish old warhorses on her team.
If Malcolm Bradbury’s script is occasionally weak on character, he does a much better job of keeping a tight grip on the many plot threads and expertly drawing them together as the series progresses. The action constantly moves forward and sometimes reaches the level of genuine thrills, such as a prominent scene with an out of control car. The dialogue, while a tad too heavy on the barbed witticisms for its own good, is always colourful and amusing and delivered brilliantly by most of the cast. The high-watermark for multi-faceted comedy-dramas of this kind is Alan Bleasedale’s exquisite G.B.H. which manages to combine the broadest slapstick comedy with the darkest satirical drama to terrific effect. If In the Red never comes close to this level of quality, its admirable ambition is rewarded with a similar sense of exhilarating adventure that most TV dramas avoid in favour of consistent credibility. This is both In the Red’s strength and its undoing, the latter epitomised by a subplot involving John Sessions’ wimpy bureaucrat Hercules Fortescue who goes from obsessively helming a disciplinary hearing to inexplicably helming a ludicrously over-the-top religious satire show designed to discredit the Director General of the BBC. This plot feels entirely too silly to sit comfortably next to even the most unlikely moments of In the Red and emerges as a sort of limp cross between Mel Brooks’ The Producers and a Tom Sharpe novel (Bradbury had successfully adapted two of Sharpe’s novels for TV in the 80s, with the excellent Porterhouse Blue being one of his career highlights).
With its focus on murdered bankers and frequent jokes about whether the public will deem this to be a bad thing or not, In the Red has perhaps become more relevant in the intervening years since its original broadcast. Its cast have remained consistently popular since that time too, with several of its bit part players such as Reece Shearsmith, Mark Pemberton, Kevin Eldon and Tracy Ann Oberman going on to greater fame. This should make the new DVD release of In the Red an easy sell, although the promise of such a starry cast in such an unknown production may set alarm bells ringing. Fear not, for though In the Red may not be a lost classic it is something of a hidden gem, its handful of prominent flaws being only the mark of a commendable willingness to take narrative risks that go against the rules of the usual structure of BBC dramas.
In the Red is released on DVD by Simply Media on 7th September 2015