‘Like The Ring, but in Bolton’: the BBC horror bringing terror to the north

Show caption Bolton wonders … Taz, Ashley, Antony, Noah and Wren in Red Rose. Photograph: Vishal Sharma/BBC/Eleven Film Television ‘Like The Ring, but in Bolton’: the BBC horror bringing terror to the north Twins Paul and Michael Clarkson have dreamed of making a creepy drama in their home town for decades. Now, they’ve done it … with a little help from Ian McKellen Jack Seale Thu 11 Aug 2022 17.47 BST Share on Facebook

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‘We always knew we wanted to tell a story in our home town,” says Paul Clarkson, the co-creator of BBC Three’s new eight-part drama Red Rose, alongside his twin Michael. “We were asked: ‘What concepts do you have?’ And Michael went: ‘Something like Scream or The Ring, but set in Bolton.’”

The 33-year-old Clarksons’ new series rides the vertiginous contours of life in a northern English community – then takes that realism and jumps off to somewhere much darker. We are in the Greater Manchester town in the present day, where a group of teenagers who call themselves “the dickheads” are marking the end of their GCSEs by partying in the streets and on the nearby moors. As they celebrate and wonder what they’ll do next, one of them, Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth), receives a phishing text and downloads an app called Red Rose.

This is, literally, a fatal mistake. The series sits in a genre that is still all too rare on British telly: horror. At first, the app seems like a peculiarly helpful mindfulness assistant, but before long it is controlling Rochelle’s life, an omniscient force able to help her out or terrify her with threatening visions, via the phone’s camera. Against a lovingly rendered backdrop of everyday Bolton life, a cautionary tale about technology – particularly the way teens invest so much of their self-worth in the vagaries of social media – plays out.

“We were growing up watching horror, saying: ‘Bloody hell, can you imagine this happening in our house?’” says Michael. “Like in The Ring when you get the call: ‘Seven days …’ People would be like: ‘What? Who do you want? Sorry?’”

“With Match of the Day playing in the background so you can’t hear what they’re saying,” Paul continues. “Instead of the mansion where Drew Barrymore’s murdered in Scream, she’s putting washing out on a single drawn-out washing line in the back yard of a terrace house.”

Considering how little-known the Clarksons are, Red Rose is an extraordinarily confident piece of work, a mood mirrored by the surfeit of opinions and ideas, smoothly conveyed by the brothers’ ability to work as a conversational tag team, that spills out as they talk from their separate homes over Zoom after the completion of filming.

App happy … Hannah Griffiths and Silvie Furneaux in Red Rose. Photograph: Sam Taylor/BBC/Eleven Film

Ian McKellen said: there’s something in the waters in Bolton. Danny Boyle’s used it, I have used it, now you two are

Their first break came when they saw that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels might be dramatised and, with just a YouTube channel of song parodies to their name – albeit one where the clips have up to 28m views – they simply wrote and demanded to be involved. “We sent a letter to Jane Tranter, the producer, detailing why we should work on it,” says Paul. “Raised Catholic, tick. Twins, similar to the relationship between daemons and people in Lyra’s world, tick. Interest in the supernatural, tick. She took a meeting with us, and ended up asking us to break down the books into TV concepts.”

Their work on His Dark Materials led to a job on the AppleTV+ future-dystopia thriller See, which in turn won them a place in the writers’ room for Amazon’s fantasy epic The Wheel of Time. Now in LA with an agent, they were in earshot when Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor put out a call for lesser-known writers. With four big shows on their joint CV – and, the brothers say, having learned a lot from working with Haunting showrunner Mike Flanagan, who went on to make Midnight Mass – the twins got Red Rose greenlit, and came back to the UK.

They cite the Anglo-Irish community, the way different generations happily mix, residents’ tendency to speak plainly, and the shared trauma of the town being “an industrial Mecca that became a Thatcherite graveyard” as reasons why Bolton is the ideal setting for Red Rose. “There is a voice in Bolton,” says Michael. “One of the people we were speaking to about this was Ian McKellen – who’s from Burnley, but predominantly cut his teeth in Bolton and would identify as Boltonian. He said: ‘There is something in the waters in Bolton. Danny Boyle has used it, I have used it, and now you two are using it.’ And we were like: ‘We’ll take that, Ian.’

“Also, you have the moors surrounding it, hills and forests, but then you’ve got council estates, industrial buildings, beautiful Victorian buildings, crumbling ruins; new things, old things, everything is in a mix.”

Northern exposure … Amelia Clarkson and Harry Redding are terrorised by a phone app in Red Rose. Photograph: Vishal Sharma/BBC/Eleven Film

That rounded sense of place informs an element of their writing that the twins are careful to repeatedly emphasise: they may specialise in fantasy and horror – what they refer to simply as “genre” – but they believe unreal, hyper-real or surreal stories depend on how believable the real part of them is. Red Rose is a horror for the internet age, but there are long passages where, in terms of the basic premise about a sinister app, nothing happens. Instead, we are watching kitchen-sink drama or high-school comedy. “When we’ve been discussing [projects] with people in the industry,” says Michael, “they’re like: ‘What’s The Theme, capital T capital T?’ Why can’t it be many things? Who wants to watch something about just one thing? Life’s more complex than that. And I think audiences now are wanting to see reality reflected more. Even if it’s set in space, they want to feel connected to something. One of our bedrocks for this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which humanises things so well. The world of the fantastical in that feels as real as anything else.”

“Stories are better when you use multiple brushes,” Paul says. “A bit of Ken Loach here, a bit of Joss Whedon there, a bit of Stephen King here, a bit of Derry Girls there. You find you care more about the characters because you see them through different scenarios, situations, emotions. We’ve made it rich enough to have quite a … buffet of concepts.”

One strong theme in Red Rose is absent parents: the central friendship between Rochelle and Wren (Amelia Clarkson, no relation) is coloured by both of them compensating for a missing mother or father. Rochelle’s single dad often has to trust her to look after her younger twin sisters. “There’s a lot about our relationship with our mother in this,” says Michael. “She had a very difficult time of things growing up. In order to deal with that, she turned to drink. She was an amazing human, but she died when we were 17. At the same time as we were going through crap, we were still having fun, though. We have four older siblings who are hilarious, terrifying, inspiring, loving, so a lot of things about them are in this as well.”

Nor does the show flinch from making poverty a key part of the drama. One of the first signs that the Red Rose app is not quite of this world is when it magically puts credit in the pre-pay electricity meter in Rochelle’s candlelit home. “The rise of food banks has been astronomical in the last decade,” says Paul. “It’s disgusting that we’re in 2022 and we need those. It belongs in horror – domestic horror.”

The Clarksons are, however, keen not to make what Michael calls “poverty porn”. Rochelle’s straitened circumstances, he says, are just how things are. “It’s part of her shame, because obviously she doesn’t want people to know. But it doesn’t define who she is.”

Being twins does not mean the Clarksons employ an unusually intuitive or intense writing process: like a lot of duos, they split scripts in two, write alone, then swap and edit the half the other brother has written. “I sit more in an emotional world,” says Michael, “and Paul sits more in a logical world. But we can do both. And sometimes you feel like you’re both building train tracks to the same idea. One of us will get to it first, then the other will seethe. We were writing a Star Wars parody musical for our YouTube channel and, at the same time, we both picked the same Disney song, the mob song from Beauty and the Beast. One of us had done the chorus, one of us had done the verse. It made a complete song.”

“When there are disagreements,” says Paul, “we do thrash it out. You know in Revenge of the Sith when Obi Wan and Anakin go to use the force on each other? It’s like that, until eventually we’re both blasted over to the sides of the room. If you cannot defend a story point, a character point, whatever, you will back down.”

That sums the Clarksons up: two kids with hard backgrounds who want to document their lived experience, but use Disney, Star Wars, ghosts and dystopian tech to do it. It’s a combination that could power a long career. “We can tell many more stories,” laughs Paul Clarkson, “and just franchise Bolton as a location for the fantastical and the insane.”

• This article was amended on 12 August 2022 to correct the name of photographer Vishal Sharma in two picture captions.

Red Rose will air from 15 August on BBC Three, with all episodes available on BBC iPlayer