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

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage