Seeing red

Get behind the velvet rope to hear why the writers and stars of Red Rose believe the new teen chiller series just had to be made in Bolton

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Red carpet premieres don’t often happen in Bolton, but on a Tuesday evening in early August the stars of the horror Red Rose returned to the town where the series was set and filmed for just such an event.

The eight-part series follows a group of friends enjoying the summer after the end of their GCSEs. In the opening episode Roch, the leader of “the dickheads”, as they call themselves, downloads an app called Red Rose tempted by its offer to make her life better, only to find there’s a terrible price to be paid, which threatens to tear the gang apart.

The setting and the filming were an important part of the story’s development for the show’s creators, Paul and Michael Clarkson, aka the Clarkson Twins. It had been an ambition of the 33 year olds for a long time, says Michael, speaking to Big Issue North at the premiere.

“Growing up here we knew how powerful this place was – how funny, how dark, how dramatic and beautiful. We knew it was the perfect setting to explore modern day storytelling.”

“And the vernacular,” picks up Paul. “The language used and the anarchy you get here. That kind of ‘what you see is what you get’ mentality. Bolton’s the right size as well, because you can run into people you know a lot but not all the time so it’s not got the disadvantages of a village where everyone knows your business, but it’s not got the disadvantages of a city where you are completely anonymous either.”

“There have been a number of Bolton-set shows made before but none have this sort of oomph,” says Natalie Blair, one of the young people who star in the series and is herself from Greater Manchester. “This show is full of heart and love and soul and for it to premiere here is so special.”

Liverpudlian Ellis Howard, another actor in the series, agrees. “You see the joy of the North, the beauty and the spirit of it, the irreverence of it. I often feel like when the North is captured on film it’s not captured in its true beauty – it’s often in standard definition. What I think we’ve done here is capture it in HD – with all the complexities, the nuances, the horror and the joy of it.

“We worked hard to capture the spirit of the town. I’m excited because the embryo for the whole show came from two authentic Boltonians and it’s an authentic working-class story. Coming back here to premiere it feels like it’s gone full circle and is in line with the intention of the piece.”

Paul and Michael are the youngest of six from a working-class Bolton family with Irish roots. Paul began a PhD in nanotechnology at Cambridge while Michael worked a series of “dead-end jobs” before their break in scriptwriting came when they approached the BBC on hearing that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was being dramatised. They landed jobs as script consultants. Their passion and talent led them to LA where they ended up working with Mike Flanagan on Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. With that and some other writing credits under their belts, including work on Amazon’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, they were able to convince BBC execs to fund Red Rose.

The collaboration with Flanagan, Paul says, taught them more about story structure and how to make that work across eight episodes. “If you watch Red Rose through once, you can watch it all over again and enjoy it in a totally different way.”

Asked to describe the show, the Clarkson twins say it’s a combination of Scream meets The Ring but set in Bolton. The seemingly malevolent app Red Rose, taking its name from the Lancashire symbol, is central to the series. It’s a cautionary tale about mobile technology and a theme that resonates with the mostly young cast, who are currently navigating the world of social media as they develop their acting careers.

“On the one hand social media can be really helpful,” says Isis Hainsworth, who plays Roch. “But it can also be scary and terrifying. A lot of people can see you and have an opinion about you and say whatever they want about you from behind their little screens.”

The themes go beyond how young people navigate that world though, says Amelia Clarkson, who plays Wren, Roch’s best friend in the show. “These issues resonate with both young and old, whoever uses social media – the fact that it can collect your data and then almost use it against you.”

Above: Michael and Paul Clarkson at the Red Rose premiere. Main image: Isis Hainsworth as Roch

The pressures facing working class people in today’s Britain is another theme of the show. Twenty-three-year-old Scottish actor Hainsworth describes Roch as “a capable, bold girl but who has some difficult stuff going on at home which we see and hopefully we’ve done that justice.”

That difficult stuff comes in the form of being both elder sister and carer to her younger siblings and living in poverty. In an early scene that illustrates today’s cost of living crisis, Roch is plunged into darkness at home when the electricity meter runs out of credit. Her situation is what leads her to be tempted by the apparent riches that the Red Rose app offers.

The show harks back to the 1990s in some ways, the Clarksons say, despite the contemporary setting. There’s a great soundtrack from the era, for example. They wanted to capture the spirit of “Cool Britannia” – a time when they and their contemporaries could hope for better futures than their parents.

“There was an energy at that time that has gone now,” says Paul. “And something has now gone horribly wrong since then.”

Both Hainsworth and Blair recognise that, as actors also from working class backgrounds, they had a bigger struggle than some of their peers to break through in the industry, though neither wants to, as Blair says, “tell a sob story”. The lack of working-class people in the industry is a source of concern to the Clarksons.

“We’ve been in rooms, in meetings or just around our peers and have noticed there were very few working-class people around us,” says Michael. “We will look at each other and say: ‘Holy shit, this needs to change! Where are all these voices?’”

“We’re in a cost of living crisis,” says Paul. “How the hell are people who are working class meant to break through? We found it hard enough and that was 15 years ago, but we could cope because we could still feel the positive effects of certain government policies that are no longer around.”

Voices such as theirs have a lot to offer in telling new stories in different ways, they say. In LA, Michael found that “uniqueness of voice, especially ones that haven’t been seen or heard before”, was valued and sought after.

They hope that uniqueness has also helped them produce an antidote to northern stereotypes that have been seen on screen before. In a Q&A with the audience at the premiere they said they wanted to avoid Red Rose being like Coronation Street.

Michael says: “We’re really excited to see how working-class people specifically resonate with this story because we’re trying to show them in a way that’s not been seen before – which is in a realistic way.”

And how do they feel about coming back to the town where it all began? Are they excited?

“Excited is a strange word,” says Michael. “It’s more trying to stay in the present. When you’ve worked your entire life to achieve a moment like this, it can feel like it’s just passing you by. So I’m trying to stay in the present and enjoy it for my teen self who would have killed to be here.”

Red Rose is on BBC Three and iPlayer

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