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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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