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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Folk horror, a history: from The Wicker Man to The League of Gentlemen

Author Adam Scovell’s tone is perfectly pitched between articulate academic and box-set binger.

In 1801, the proportion of the population of England and Wales living in towns and cities was just 17 per cent, but by the close of that century, as landowners were displaced and industry boomed, it had jumped to 72 per cent. The most recent UK census showed that 81.5 per cent of the population of England and Wales now live in urban areas, with less than 10 per cent residing in what would qualify as villages or hamlets.

This mass movement from agricultural to post-industrial life has detached us from the land that fed and clothed us for thousands of years, with the countryside becoming increasingly alien territory, avoided or misunderstood by those who have little contact with mud, dead animals, or the stench of excrement. Such urbanites have scant knowledge of farming or food production and patronise ancient local traditions. They are unnerved by the space, the silence. They fear their countryside, their own past.

Folk horror plays on such fears and explores the narratives lost during this migratory shift. Though its origins surely stretch back to the fireside telling of cautionary tales, the genre as we recognise it now was first named as recently as 2003, during an interview with Piers Haggard, the director of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and subsequently crystallised by Mark Gatiss in his 2010 BBC4 series A History of Horror.

In his comprehensive study, the writer and film-maker Adam Scovell, like Gatiss, identifies Haggard’s film and the two with which it forms an unholy trinity – Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) – as the first links in a “folk-horror chain” that continues to run through film and alternative pop culture. But it’s a chain that is intuitive rather than formally identifiable. Folk horror is a feeling. Those who know know. Scovell cites the writer and illustrator Andy Paciorek’s definition: “One may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist; for like the mist, folk horror is atmospheric and sinuous. It can creep from and into different territories yet leave no universal defining mark of its exact form.”

The continued resonance of these films lies in the social climate of their creation, with 21st-century folk horror’s foundations laid during a late-Sixties counterculture in which attempts were made to reverse the creeping urbanisation and reject war-torn modernity for simpler rural lives of wholefood, weed, barefooted children and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band on repeat.

It is best exemplified by the clash of pagan and Christian belief systems in the post-Manson communal climate of The Wicker Man, in which Edward Woodward’s virginal policeman is lured to a promiscuous Scottish island whose fruit crop is ailing, in order to investigate the suspected sacrifice of a child, only to become the sacrifice himself. Scovell notes that the film asks not only what could have been, but tells us: “It can be, right now, if you want it.” Its combination of “esoteric belief systems with free-love eroticism” is entirely credible.

Folk horror has gained greater traction in a new century defined by financial crises, terrorist attacks and digital threats. It offers a double dose of nostalgia – not only for those wonderful novels of Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, which invited children to exist in worlds neither adolescent nor adult but simply other, or Play for Today episodes such as A Photograph and Penda’s Fen, or the uncompromising public information films of the 1970s – but also for a Hardy-esque idea of an England of foaming ale and romps in the hayricks during harvest, perhaps this time with the benefits of modern medicine and multiculturalism. The folk-horror chain offers continuity and a reconnection with a romanticised rural past.

Scovell, who writes essays for the British Film Institute and has collaborated on films with the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane, is a keen-eyed and enthusiastic curator, his tone perfectly pitched between that of the articulate academic and the box-set binger. He knows that folk horror provides succour as well as visceral thrills and draws clear links between topography, rurality and emerging “hauntology” theory. He spawns new terms, too, such as “eso-erotic” for sexual subtexts, or  “occultivation” for those dark works concerned with the violence that arises when old agricultural ways are challenged by “progress”.

Consideration is rightly afforded to such films as David Gladwell’s moving Requiem for a Village (1975), in which a Suffolk village is consumed by suburbia, and whose dead literally rise in defiance, as well as the many BBC adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories and the man-as-meddler dramas of Nigel Kneale. Foreign directors see Britain with fresh eyes: Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978) and Roman Polanski’s Northumberland-set Cul-de-Sac (1966) are two psycho-landscape masterworks.

What emerges is the notion of a body of work concerned with conflict – between past and present, religious and atheist, physical and spiritual. Folk horror represents a fear of being governed by outside forces while exploring identity confusion.

Scovell also examines contemporary additions to the canon. Although today’s interconnectivity would destroy many a plot line of old, he notes that social media have created new fears, primarily that of the isolation one experiences when deprived of one’s technological dummy. The spirit of folk horror is alive and well in Richard Littler’s wry fictional town of Scarfolk, the Ghost Box record label, the films of Ben Wheatley and Ben Rivers, and the music of English Heretic, Laura Cannell and Richard Dawson. It will, one assumes, also be apparent in the rumoured reunion of The League of Gentlemen, the original success of which could be argued to have instigated the current fascination for folk horror.

Indeed, the comedy’s idea of parochialism as a malevolent force, shared by so many works cited here, is telling. If folk horror playfully revels in all things rural/local, it is by definition the enemy of globalisation and capitalism. For some of us, the idea of our island becoming little more than a series of interlinked retail parks with its countryside reduced to a brisk, cordoned-off procession around some Neolithic standing stones is a far more horrific prospect than the fantastical powers of an unearthed relic, ancient rituals or rustling in the hedgerow. And, let’s face it, it’s more likely, too.

Ben Myers’s latest novel “The Gallows Pole” is published by Bluemoose Books

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange
Adam Scovell
Auteur, 216pp, £18.99​

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions