Reviewed: Broadchurch and Mayday

Sexy beast.

Broadchurch; Mayday
ITV; BBC1

How you feel about Broadchurch (Mondays, 9pm), ITV’s hyped new crime drama, will depend on whether you buy the idea of David Tennant as a cynical copper and Olivia Colman as his slightly less cynical sidekick. Personally, I don’t. No copper I’ve ever clapped eyes on looks or sounds like either one of them.

This isn’t entirely their fault. They’re playing their characters as they’re written and, while it’s too early to bite the ankles, critically speaking, of DI Alec Hardy – he’s hardly had a chance to say anything yet – it’s already clear that DS Ellie Miller simply doesn’t exist in real life. So, the crime rate is low in Broadchurch, a seaside town where people behave as if they’re in Trumpton (truly, if Pugh, Pugh and Barney McGrew had barrelled down the high street and into the boutique hotel, I would not have been surprised); I get this.

Even so, Miller makes Policeman Potter (Trumpton, again) look like he belongs in a David Peace novel. Standing outside the house of Beth and Mark Latimer, whose son’s body had been found on a nearby beach, she revealed to Hardy that this was her first death knock. Really? Surely even Broadchurch has the odd heroin addict?

Oh, well. I couldn’t get too cross about this: I didn’t have the time. On BBC1, Mayday by Ben Court and Caroline Ip (the writing team behind ITV’s Whitechapel) was screened over five consecutive nights (3-7 March, 9pm) and I was entirely caught up in it, the creaky Broadchurch quickly fading to grey in its wake.

What an extraordinarily singular series this was: a sort of Midsomer Murders- Twin Peaks mash-up with a dash of Lizzie Dripping thrown in for good measure (I will leave the youth among you to google Lizzie Dripping).

Superbly written and wonderfully acted, Mayday gives the lie to the old and now slightly tedious argument that we can’t do television like the Americans can. It was gripping; it was dark and wry in equal measure; it had a deep and abiding sense of place; it had a cast to die for.

I believed in it absolutely, clinging resolutely to my sudden faith in British prime time even when one of the characters claimed to be receiving tiny stones – miniature meteorites of meaning – from her dead sister up above.

We were in a nameless English country town: red-brick houses, new and old, bounded by an ancient forest. A girl had gone missing during a May Day parade. Who had taken her and why? Was it Malcolm Spicer (Peter Firth), whose scheme to build executive homes on a nearby field she had scuppered? Or was it Alan Hill (Peter McDonald), a policeman who had been acting rather strangely just lately? Or perhaps it was Everett Newcombe (Aidan Gillen), a depressed womaniser with a taste for tooyoung blondes?

Thriller plots are mostly a disappointment; even those that twist and turn convincingly tend to end with a whimper. Not this one. Neatness wasn’t its bag – so much was left unsaid and unexplained – with the result that it never fell into the great mantrap that is anticlimax.

It had lots to say, on the sly, about social class (the team that scouted its pictureperfect locations and dressed its resonant interiors should win a bundle of awards for its work). It captured perfectly the febrile aspiration that lies at the heart of small English towns and lent 21st-century zest to the old adage about how you never know what goes on behind the net curtains (or, these days, the Ikea blinds).

The mystery at its heart, then, was in some ways a sideshow – or, at least, a natural extension of its characters’ quotidian and abundant weirdness. Yet all of this might have remained somewhat inert if it hadn’t been for its amazing, high-octane stars. Special plaudits go to Lesley Manville as Gail Spicer, housewife avenger; to Sophie Okonedo as Fiona Hill, housewife detective; to Max Fowler as Linus Newcombe, floppyhaired schoolboy extraordinaire; and, most of all, to Gillen as Newcombe, the snarling widower.

Gillen is so compelling, it’s almost embarrassing. I watch his upper lip doing its thing and I feel as though I might be blushing. He terrifies me and yet he is so irredeemably sexy.

Olivia Coleman and David Tennant in I"Broadchurch". Photograph: ITV

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear