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.

Southcliffe
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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear