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The Red King review – like a wickedly playful new spin on The Wicker Man
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The Red King review – like a wickedly playful new spin on The Wicker Man

Folk-horror film touchstone The Wicker Man celebrated its 50th birthday last year, presumably by not blowing out a candle with a tiny human sacrifice trapped inside. Alibi’s wickedly playful island psychodrama The Red King feels like a belated part of the anniversary revels. It pays the ultimate Wicker Man tribute by harvesting the premise wholesale.

Again, we have an uptight copper gatecrashing a remote isle where the old ways still hold sway. There are locals parading in creepy rustic masks, a self-possessed aristocrat lording over everything and, crucially, a missing child no one seems that fussed about finding.

The Red King applies entertaining topspin to the road-tested premise, adding yet more rug-pulls and buckets of sarcasm and self-reflexiveness. In fact, the characters are so self-aware it feels weird no one says: “All this pagan stuff? Reminds me of that old horror movie with Edward Woodward. And maybe a bit of Hot Fuzz.”

In the Woodward role of by-the-book sergeant is Anjli Mohindra, already an old hand at remaining on task in fantastical situations after two seasons of time-loop thriller The Lazarus Project. When we meet Mohindra’s stressed Grace, she is being ostracised in her Newcastle cop shop for whistleblowing. The abuse she receives is ugly but not even the worst thing she experiences on her last day. It is an ill omen for her next posting.

She has been shunted off to St Jory, an isolated Welsh community once dominated by The True Way, a cult that made sinister use of a nightmare-inducing open mineshaft in the middle of the island. All ancient history, Grace is assured by puppyish Owen (James Bamford), the single constable under her command. But as the zealous city copper tries to adjust to her new bucolic beat garlanded with strange straw sigils, she cannot shake the feeling that something peculiar is going on.

The locals seem unmoved by Grace’s attempts to enforce basic law and order. Her recently retired predecessor Gruffudd (Mark Lewis Jones) openly belittles her in the packed pub. Tensions ratchet up further when she learns about the disappearance of a local teen a year ago and begins to question how the initial investigation was conducted.

For the missing boy’s father, hard-drinking GP Ian (Marc Warren, convincingly dissolute), reopening the case offers a flicker of hope, or at least potential closure. But it puts Grace at odds with almost everyone else on St Jory, necessitating an intervention by the island’s big cheese Lady Nancarrow (another regal turn by Bridgerton’s formidable matriarch Adjoa Andoh).

Can Grace take on the whole of St Jory alone as an evil weather front rolls in? Ironically, her recent misery in Newcastle was the perfect warm-up. After enduring six months of “slashed tyres and dog shit through the letterbox”, she reckons she can handle some stink eye from a bunch of farmers. Then she finds a body, and things really kick off.

The Red King’s creator, Toby Whithouse, is no stranger to juggling sarcasm and the supernatural. At times his cult BBC Three drama Being Human felt like a flatshare sitcom that just happened to feature a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. Here, the humour is a constant by-product of interacting with the oddness of St Jory, a place where no one bats an eyelid at the undertaker being named Leslie Crowther. Grace’s moral rectitude – island wild child Winter (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) describes it as her “massive boner for the law” – might also be a drag if she didn’t bleakly joke about it.

Whithouse was in the news recently when an episode of his 2014 cold war spy thriller The Game was being touted as the best hour of TV ever. While it seems unlikely that The Red King will challenge that title, its six instalments are refreshingly distinct, avoiding that mid-run slump that can affect other crime dramas.

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Episode two sees the great Jill Halfpenny parachute in as a domineering DCI from the mainland who stirs things up then cheerfully legs it. Episode three forces the entire community into the village hall while a storm rages overhead. After that, the True Way conspiracy ramps up, and Grace must painstakingly sift through local Red King mythology, red herrings and her own invasive thoughts to intuit the truth.

While the ensemble cast all seem dialled-in to the tightrope tone, The Red King would wobble if not for Mohindra as the besieged incomer grimly holding it together. “Why aren’t you freaking out?” wonders Owen after a particularly grisly moment. “It’s on my to-do list,” sighs Grace, with relatable weariness. It is a marvellous performance where the wit is matched with grit.

The Red King is on Alibi on Wednesdays at 9pm; season-one box set available on Sky, Virgin and Now

Source: theguardian.com