Social media is bad and scary, young women are frequently horrible to each other and everyone spends too much time on their phones is actually NOT the main take away from the first three episodes of this sort-of-YA sort-of-horror series new to BBC Three. It’s actually a lot more nuanced than that in a series that initially plays like a mash up of 2010s horror, 1990s teen drama and Derry Girls’ potty-mouth rough-and-ready sense of humour. Weird combo though that may sound, in Red Rose it works, picking the best of the tropes, populating the show with likeable and believable characters and sprinkling modern social realism into the mix.
Set in Bolton in the modern day (we know this because everyone has a smartphone), a bunch of friends have just finished their GCSEs and are planning a summer of getting wasted. Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth) is the de facto leader, gobby, funny, but with a dark background. Her best mate is Wren (Amelia Clarkson), also with family issues but a bit more accepted into school society. When Wren starts dating Noah (Harry Redding) Roch begins to feel outcast from their friendship. And the fact that her family is broke and has to rely on food banks and Roch can’t get a job because she needs to take care of her twin baby sisters while their dad works, doesn’t help either.
Ahead of a cool party that Roch is invited to only by the skin of her teeth she is sent an app called Red Rose, which initially offers her help, and appears to grant her wishes. But the fairy godmother act is pretty short lived, as the app appears to start messing with Roch’s friendship group, alienating her further from Wren via wrongly delivered messages and unintended social media posts, and even teasing Roch with contact from her dead mother.
It’s unclear by the end of episode three whether Red Rose will turn out to be supernatural or not. What is clear is that the show is not afraid to take risks (there’s a major swerve at the end of episode two) so in exactly which direction it will go as the story unfolds remains to be seen. The show is all the better for it, using audience expectations of what usually happens in teen horror to wrong foot us all the way.
Red Rose comes from the producers of Sex Education but where that took a US high school structure and stuck it in the British countryside, Red Rose is British through and through. These kids have finished their GCSEs and head out to the Moors to sign each other’s shirts and pass round a contraband bottle of Sherry. These aren’t rich kids, school factions aren’t clearly delineated (although you wouldn’t want to fuck with the two Jennas), and we’re pretty sure their school doesn’t have an Accapella group. Everybody just wants to get drunk (despite the fact that they are 16) but there’s no beer pong here. However, the gang does sit around playing a drinking game version of Guess Who?, using prompts like “do they look like they’re a drain on society? and “do they look like they want to speak to the manager?”
The Bolton setting was key to writers Michael and Paul Clarkson who said in a press release, “Bolton was a fascinating place to grow up in and the people are really inspiring. Normally, when you hear northern accents on the TV, they’re working in the kitchens on Downton Abbey or they’re crack addicts on The Bill. We thought ‘why can’t we see real human beings?”
The very naturalistic dialogue shines. It’s here and in the scrappy idiosyncratic and very believable characters that makes the show reminiscent of Derry Girls. While the background and time period are different these are kids and their parents are dealing with their fair share of hardship, whether that’s poverty, depression, alcoholism or crime. And like Derry Girls the big issues don’t bring the show down. As the episodes progress even bigger problems arise.
Though Roch and Wren are the leads in the show the supporting cast is great too. Natalie Blair as unpaid barmaid Ashley is great and has a lot of the best lines, cheeky interloper to the group Taz (Ali Khan) gives good comic relief, and a subplot with Ellis Howard’s Anthony which is only just beginning to develop by episode three promises further intrigue.
Hainsworth and Clarkson are both exceptional as Roch and Wren, with Roch initially the prickly fireball and Wren quickly coming into her own when she’s pushed too far. As a study of female friendship at an extremely vulnerable age it’s very effective too. Rather than playing these teens as bitchy drama queens, instead they are people who love each other, trying to find their feet and test their boundaries. That it’s an evil app that’s messing with their relationship and skewing their communications, on top of the already delicate balance of best friendship adds an extra level of tension. And, no doubt, a metaphor, though fortunately so far that hasn’t been telegraphed to any extent.
It’s a highly promising show, though it’ll be interesting to see what a contemporary teen audience will make of it. Do 16-year-olds still play Guess Who? Would ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ and ‘Better off Alone’ (which all feature prominently in the sound track) not be hopelessly dated to modern teens? Do today’s 16-year-olds still get their kicks by nicking whatever they can get out of their parent’s booze cupboard and sitting in a field? Plus ça change: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Either way, Red Rose is fresh and enjoyable while also being comfortably familiar and true to life. To pull off a teen social media-based horror and make it feel like a timeless Saturday night down the boozer is no mean feat.
Red Rose is available to watch on BBC 3.