The Red King Review: Uneven Folk Horror Crime Mash-Up

From the creator of Being Human, The Red King is a diverting and witty homage to The Wicker Man tradition.

Anjli Mohindra in The Red King
Photo: Alibi, UK TV

Welcome to the island of St Jory, population: one less than there used to be.

A year ago, St Jory teenager Cai Prideaux went missing and the police did very little about it. Now there’s a new sheriff in town in Sgt Grace Narayan (Anjli Mohindra), an outsider with an unbending belief in the letter of the law that’s ruffling feathers among the locals. The islanders, you see, are used to running things their own way. The True Way.

That’s the Hot Fuzz-meets-The Wicker Man premise for The Red King, an original six-part series written by Being Human creator Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara and Lisa Clarke. It’s a crime drama/folk horror mash-up that uses murder mystery trappings to tell a story about religion, insularity and national identity.

St Jory is your typical folk horror island in that there’s nothing typical about it. Grace arrives on the day the place closes to visitors for the season, when local tradition has them chased out by a parade of bell-jangling masked “Catchers”. There’s an effective chill in the moment that the previously noisy crowd fall silent the second the boat is out of view, and more chills to follow – mostly taken from the creepy corn dolly aisle of the horror supermarket.

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Eerie Pagan symbols and blankly staring masks abound, alongside whatever grisly prosthetics and digital VFX the modest budget could stretch to. Not every gathering of masked locals achieves the sought-after effect, and no new ground is broken in what is essentially a folk horror pastiche.

That extends to the characters, who are deliberately familiar types, from Mark Lewis Jones’ bullish former police sergeant Gruffud, to Marc Warren’s grieving drunk Dr Prideaux, and Adjoa Andoh’s stately lady of the manor Heather Nancarrow. Maeve Courtier-Lily is entertaining and memorable as Winter, a take on Britt Ekland’s saucy innkeeper’s daughter in The Wicker Man, and leaps off the screen whenever she’s on it. Gateshead-born Jill Halfpenny shows up for an episode too, fulfilling what must be her contractual obligation to the Tourist Board of North-East England. (St Jory is a Welsh island but the show was filmed in Northumberland.)

The set-up is modernised by putting Anjli Mohindra’s Grace among the familiar types, which opens the door to some useful and authentic-feeling dialogue about race early on. Grace herself brooks no nonsense and does a good line in dry put-downs, but her character is eventually flattened by delivering too many speeches at shouting intensity.

St Jory being a local island, for local people, its calendar is marked by parades an annual weather event that, usefully for crime drama purposes, cuts the island off from the mainland for days at a time. The storm is known as the “Widow’s Wail”, which is also the name of a sword in Game of Thrones. That could be a coincidence from any other writer but Whithouse’s Being Human was similarly flecked with pop culture nods. Taskmaster and Strictly also get shout-outs here, while a copy of Terry Pratchett novel Small Gods is featured in episode one. And well it might be, because like the Discworld book The Red King is also a satire of religious institutions and the evil committed in the name of belief.

The six episodes build well enough, dropping clues and revelations at regular intervals. The mystery grows and the finger swivels around to point at various characters in turn. It’s all serviceable, but there’s a sense that The Red King‘s heart isn’t really in its police investigation. St Jory’s history of folk religion and what it says about its people – and by extension, about us – is its real subject. The show’s at its most energetic in big set pieces about the nature of the law or in confrontations about faith and punishment.

If British TV commissioners didn’t cling to police drama like to their mothers’ skirts, The Red King could easily have been made without a uniform at its centre (and Toby Whithouse’s next TV gig might have been more of the weird stuff instead of a reboot of 1980s Jersey-set crime show Bergerac). The crime procedural elements here feel secondary to the homages and commentary. As a series, The Red King is less energised by the cop stuff than in the weird belief systems that grow up in island communities – the biggest of those of course being Great Britain itself.

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Overall, it’s a diverting and witty homage to the folk horror genre with some big ideas, but doesn’t quite manage to marry its crime thriller elements with its Summerisle-inspired setting.

The Red King airs on Alibi on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. All episodes are available to stream now on UKTV Play.


3 out of 5