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The cast of Red RoseCourtesy of the BBC

Red Rose: The story behind the year’s most unsettling TV show

A new BBC horror series, Red Rose, follows a group of Bolton teenagers in the thrall of a destructive, mysterious app

Many regard the northwest of England to be a place haunted by its own history. If that’s true, you might consider the Clarkson Twins to be geographical exorcists. After working on fantasy drama The Wheel of Time and Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, screenwriters Paul and Michael Clarkson have returned to their hometown of Bolton for their new BBC creation, Red Rose.

The show follows a group of teenagers navigating their post-GCSE summer, when a mysterious app begins to influence their lives, placing them on a path which may just lead to their own self-destruction. The app, known as Red Rose, first appears on Isis Hainsworth’s steely-yet-vulnerable Rochelle, seducing her into using it under the guise of “helping” her. After seemingly restoring power to her house, Red Rose threatens to expose Rochelle’s use of food banks and taunts her with the spectral image of her dead mother.

Some viewers may find similarities between Red Rose’s sadistic challenges and the mysterious Blue Whale internet urban legend that emerged in 2016. Supposedly, this challenge issued increasingly dangerous tasks to teenagers across the world that ultimately would lead to fatal consequences. While the creators insist that Blue Whale isn’t related to Red Rose, both undoubtedly touch on a core tenet of the internet’s malicious potential: our perception of reality is indelibly, and perhaps permanently, warped by our reliance on technology. 

Speaking over Zoom from their homes in London and Bolton, the pair explain how they grounded much of Red Rose’s terror into a simple but powerful rule: “The simpler it is, the scarier it is.” They did this by making phones their focus. “Communication can easily be misleading – it’s become endemic in society, which has led to a lot of devastating consequences,“ explains Paul. “So we said, ‘let’s embrace the phones, let’s lean into this and try to use [them] to their full potential.”

Despite infusing the show with the supernatural, ensuring it felt true to life was essential. But one of the greatest difficulties in writing stories centred around teenagers and the internet is the rapidly evolving natures of both: “We spoke with a lot of nieces and nephews and went into our old secondary school to do focus groups with teens to find out how their lives were, and what the key differences were,” says Michael. “That was obviously technology, but the utilisation of it was still simple.”

The pair found that social media fed three fundamental needs: care, attention, and a desire to feel seen and heard. “People attach themselves emotionally to what they create online”, says Paul. “The digital self we create on social media is part of us – but we are in a technological age where few people understand what they’re using beyond the surface level. No one knows how it’s coded, where it’s transmitted to – who is that data going to?”

Where Red Rose truly twists the knife is in its reflection of the frightening uncertainty of working-class families like Rochelle’s, our initial teenage protagonist leading us into the world of Red Rose  – at a time where 41 per cent of children live in poverty in southeast Bolton, her struggle to merely keep the lights on feels all too real. The sociopolitical undercurrent of the show is carried through Isis Hainsworth’s Rochelle, the first but certainly not the last to fall for Red Rose as a result of having no other option. This emphasis on the psychological entwined with the technological draws distinct parallels to Black Mirror, which actress Amelia Clarkson who plays Wren Davis is a huge fan of: “I think what I’m obsessed with is the psychological darkness of it all.”

“Your phone lives in your pocket – it’s always there. It can control the way you feel so much even though we could just turn it off and not feel it anymore. I think that’s really scary” – Isis Hainsworth

Speaking over Zoom, Clarkson, Isis Hainsworth and Natalie Blair each explain that what truly scares them about Red Rose is its reflection of how impossible it is to untether ourselves from our phones. “Your phone lives in your pocket – it’s always there,” says Hainsworth. “It can control the way you feel so much even though we could just turn it off and not feel it anymore. I think that’s really scary.”

“I think Red Rose pushes on that disconcerting emotional numbness you get from scrolling,” adds Clarkson. “You’re so emotionally manipulated that you can’t go off your natural emotions and feelings like you can in real life.”

That Red Rose begins at such a seminal moment in their adolescence is an integral part of the show, says Clarkson: “I think everyone understands that pinnacle post-GCSE summer where Red Rose starts – it felt like such a malleable phase where anything could happen, and it would shape who you were after.” For the twins, this malleability is precisely what makes these teenagers most vulnerable to the app: “Red Rose exploits shame, because if you can control someone’s shame, you can control them – so, technology plus shame plus manipulation creates a powerfully terrifying pressure.” However, the pair wanted to use Red Rose to demonstrate how someone could free themselves from that torment: “Once you’re open about things, suddenly they lose their power.”

When watching Red Rose, it’s undeniable that the feeling of an industrial town trapped in time encapsulates an eerie stillness, as Paul found when they returned to location scout. “When we were walking round Bolton, someone described it as a Thatcherite graveyard.” For that reason, Red Rose couldn’t have been made anywhere else – the script and the characters are clearly infused with the indomitable Northern spirit, a region eternally haunted by its past through a stagnated present: “A lot of people grow up fast in Bolton. There are benefits and downsides because there’s an element of tragedy there… it’s a story of all former industrial towns that have lost their once-beating economic heart.”

Most importantly though, Red Rose gives a voice to the millions of working-class people throughout the United Kingdom, at a time when they must shout louder than ever. For Michael, this is one of the most important aspects of the show. “We’re excited for the working class across the country to watch this – because if we were teenagers watching Red Rose, we would feel seen and heard.”