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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser