Broadchurch recedes into the gloom, but ITV's star shines bright

The channel's handling of Chris Chibnall's brilliant whodunnit gives Caroline Crampton hope that ITV is going to give the BBC some serious competition when it comes to original drama.

 

A strange thing has happened to me over the last couple of months. I've found myself voluntarily watching ITV - truly choosing it, rather than just not being able to find the remote. I even had to learn how to use ITV's on demand service. I can't remember the last time I was this hooked on a TV programme, let alone one on three.

The reason for all this? Chris Chibnall's Broadchurch. Eight episodes of extraordinarily plotted drama, so slow burning that it was hard to know if anything was ever going to happen to relieve the itchy feeling of not-knowing. At its heart, it was a simple and familiar story – a boy is found dead on a beach, and a tight-knit community struggles to cope with the difficult truths the ensuing investigation reveals. A linear narrative, no fancy tricks with dream sequences or convenient flashbacks, and slow, so slow. When the story finally came to an end (of sorts) in last night's finale, it was filtered through performances of such astonishing power that I hardly dared to blink in case I missed a second – something I’ve found all too rare of late.

Olivia Colman single-handedly drove the drama to its denouement. Her facial expressions and tearful retching as she was told that her husband was the killer she had been hunting the whole time confirmed what I think we already knew - she's one of the finest actresses around at the moment. The use of lots of steadicam shots and unconventional framing helped both her and David Tennant along – it’s easier to bring out the uncomfortable parallels in a narrative when the director is suggesting them visually as well. It was the little things like this that elevated this drama, and had me returning to a channel I usually forget exists. Little things like the inexplicable slug Olivia Colman stepped on when she returned to her family’s home, shattered by revelations of murder, to fetch toys for her children. Or the single tear that the previously rapacious journalist shed at the final police press conference announcing an arrest had been made. Or the final ambiguity of motive – the too-neat solution of paedophilia shunned in favour of a killer who just wanted his victim to be happy.

Part of what made Broadchurch such a compelling series was how topical it was, both in medium and subject. I bored my Twitter followers to death each week after a new element of the press intrusion narrative was revealed, the parallels with the Milly Dowler case and the various witness statements given to the Leveson Inquiry so fresh in my mind. As this piece by my colleague Rafael Behr threw into sharp relief, there is no public interest in a family’s grief, and yet the press keeps intruding and insisting it holds some kind of moral authority to do so. The sequence where photographers jostled at the churchyard gate to get snaps of the family of the murdered boy as they entered was all the more poignant because even as you watched it you knew that same scene has been acted out for real countless times.

The medium too was topical – as the final credits rolled, the continuity announcer informed viewers that we could “go to ITV’s Facebook and Twitter pages to see an exclusive extra scene”. Part of why I enjoyed Broadchurch was because of the community it developed on social media. Unlike almost all the other programmes I keep up with, I wanted to watch Broadchurch live so I could sit on the metaphorically large sofa and chat to other viewers while it was on. DVD boxsets and on-demand services are in many ways brilliant, but Broadchurch showed me that they are also often lonely. Sitting down at the same time every week, knowing that millions of others are doing the same, is still an excellent way to enjoy a programme.

It’s always telling when a show’s creator is interviewed as it is concluding, rather than when it starts. Publicity drives always happen before a book is published or a film is premiered in an attempt to drum up as many readers or viewers as possible, and then tail off afterwards. When the opposite happens, and the coverage crescendos towards the finale, it’s because the show is picking up fans organically as it goes and thus editors feel they must reflect that in their commissioning. This is particularly notable for this show, since “serious” original drama with “proper” actors is something the BBC has a reputation for, not ITV. But so it was with Broadchurch – it was no accident that Chibnall appeared on Radio 4’s flagship culture show Front Row last night, just a couple of hours before his finale aired. The viewers have spoken – Broadchurch will be back. 

It was this last announcement that struck a slightly sour note. As Adam Sweeting over at theartsdesk.com has noted, the danger is that it be reduced to some kind of “Midsomer Murders-on-Sea”. I can only hope the second series won’t return me to my previous view of the third channel as merely a purveyor of football matches and things with Simon Cowell on. Because last night, for once, we were all watching ITV and it was great.

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

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle