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.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism