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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue