Southcliffe on Channel 4: A tangled narrative with Very Important Messages about loneliness

It has cult hit written all over it, but something this arty drama just doesn't sit right, says Rachel Cooke.

Channel 4
By the time you read this, Southcliffe (4, 5, 11 and 18 August, 9pm), Channel 4’s earnest new four-part series, will undoubtedly have been decreed a critical hit. Arty, lingering camera shots? Tick. Serious, committed actors (Rory Kinnear, Shirley Henderson, Eddie Marsan) putting in serious, committed performances? Tick. Slightly weird, minimalist dialogue? Tick. A tangled plot with Very Important Messages about loneliness, hardship and social alienation? Double tick and perhaps a small golden star. Over at Bafta HQ in Piccadilly, they’re probably already engraving the little statuettes.
Yet I feel so uneasy about it. Tell me if I’m wrong but I think its highbrow exterior, all smeary skies and slightly difficult-to-hear voices, hides a surprising and rather dubious cheapness. In case you don’t know – and it’s been so hyped, you’d have to have been living on top of Scafell Pike for the past month not to – the series is about a small market town and the way its inhabitants are pitched into grief when a local loner, Stephen (Sean Harris), goes on the rampage with a gun. Fifteen people are killed, children among them.
So far, so grim. This being television, everyone who died – or almost everyone – had known Stephen (at the end of his big day out, he died, too) and some of them had recently treated him quite badly. Even less probably, one of the reporters sent to cover the killings for national television, David Whitehead (Kinnear), grew up in Southcliffe and remembers Stephen from school. Perhaps this explains why his overwrought reports to the camera seem to have come straight out of The Day Today.
If this all sounds somewhat emotionally overloaded, I haven’t even started yet. Not only was Stephen – also known as “the Commander” – a joke, the victim of verbal and physical attacks; he was also caring pretty much single-handedly for his bed-bound and senile mother. In one flashback – Southcliffe spools disorientatingly backwards and forwards, like a bad dream – she appears to have used her handbag as a potty. No wonder he was at the end of his tether, eh?
David, meanwhile, was bullied as a child, after his father was accused of causing an industrial accident at a power station in which he and several other men died. David hates Southcliffe and seems hardly surprised by what happened there. The locals didn’t see it coming? No wonder they didn’t. The smallminded, ignorant, wilfully blind bastards!
It gets worse. Stephen’s social worker, Claire (Henderson), is desperately trying for another late child – she’s doing IVF – when her teenage daughter is gunned down. It’s as if loss were a numbers game (sorry, but no one loses a child and thinks: “Oh well, I’ve got another two at home”). And it’s not enough for Paul (Anatol Yusef), a pub landlord who owed Stephen money for odd-job work, to lose his wife and two small children in the attacks; he has to have been having an affair, too, so that his pain carries with it the horrible whiff of punishment.
Just in case we haven’t quite grasped that nothing is simple here – except that it is, in a weird way, since by now we’re thinking that if only people had been kinder to Stephen and paid more attention to him, he might not have gone nuts with his gun – another of Stephen’s victims is Chris (Joe Dempsie), a soldier just home from Afghanistan. Funny, isn’t it, the way not every man who kills is deemed to be a murderer? Isn’t the world warped?
This isn’t to say that there aren’t things I admire about Southcliffe. On the plus side, I have a strong feeling that it will have a redemptive ending – the community will, perhaps, come closer together – and I’m a sucker for human resilience. And Harris’s performance as Stephen is truly something to behold: shuffling and nasty. He looks so empty.
The script – by Tony Grisoni, best known for Red Riding – has some decent lines, the kind you notice and turn over in your mind afterwards. “I feel like a dead pigeon,” says Queenie, Stephen’s frail mother, as he hoists her out of bed. “Your beard water’s like soup,” says Paul’s small daughter, watching him shave in front of the bathroom mirror.
Southcliffe’s director, Sean Durkin, has given the series a horrible intimacy, his camera in people’s faces and on the dashboards of their cars. I gather that the people of Faversham in Kent, where the series was filmed, are anxious about the effect that Southcliffe will have on tourism. To me, though, the town looks beautiful rather than bleak, mysterious rather than menacing. Durkin certainly has an eye for an interesting horizon, for strange weather, for peeling clapboard – but I’m afraid that I don’t buy it at all as the work of art it clearly longs to be. Art simply isn’t this brutal, this laboured, this insistently pedantic.
Lonesome road to reporting: Anthony (Al Weaver) and David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear). Photograph: Dean Rogers/Channel 4.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.