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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The good, the bad and the ugly: behind the scenes of the Brexit broadcasts

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television, and last weekend was even stranger than usual.

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television. You sit there, isolated from the rest of the news, hair full of Elnett and face caked in something approaching yacht varnish. Then you’re expected to chat away with an anchor as if you were old mates under dazzling white lights, while seven crew members stand around watching you. Worse, everything has irony baked into it: TV now happens in the lively expectation that it will be instantly giffed, memed and stripped for parts on Twitter. It’s like eating a pre-chewed meal.

We live in such a media-literate culture that politics has the same sense of déjà vu. Its tropes are so familiar from TV programmes about politics that living through them in real-time 3D feels profoundly dissociative. You feel lost in the meta. I once asked a researcher what election night was like. “The only way in which it wasn’t like The Thick of It is that on The Thick of It no one runs around saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is just like The Thick of It!’”

Two days after the Brexit result, I went to College Green in Westminster to record a live version of BBC1’s Sunday Politics. The atmosphere on the muddy lawn, tramped by a thousand assistant producers, was suffused with overwrought importance and high absurdity. Spread out across the grass were tents – “Why don’t you sit in the news gazebo?” a producer told me – from which shell-shocked generals would occasionally emerge, ashen-faced, fresh from rallying the troops through an interview with Radio 5 Live. All it was missing were pillars of smoke, the whump of artillery and a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a cigar. Instead, we had a new shadow cabinet resignation every time we went off air for ten minutes.

That pandemonium compensated for referendum night, when all the channels were at their most sober. Inevitably, David Dimbleby was presiding over a stately galleon of a BBC show, on which things were so serious that Jeremy Vine wasn’t even allowed to dress up as a bendy banana. Over on ITV, Tom Bradby was doing his matinee idol thing (he always looks like someone playing a charming rotter in a detective drama)while Sky News had trapped Kay Burley at a series of parties where she couldn’t make anyone cry. It all reeked of gravitas.

Not so, the rest of the referendum telly. Take The Great Debate at Wembley, which BBC1 screened two nights before the vote. You know, the one that ended with Boris Johnson’s soulful invocation of “Independence Day” (never mind that many countries have an independence day and usually they’re celebrating independence from us). Between speeches from the main panel, led by Johnson and Ruth Davidson, the cameras flicked over to a second panel of people perched on those boy-band-doing-a-ballad high stools. For a moment, I thought that some form of panel Inception had occurred and there would be an infinite regression of panels, each marginally less famous than the last. In the best tradition of light entertainment, possibly the next one would have featured children who looked like Tim Farron and Priti Patel, offering faux-naive zingers.

The contest for the most surreal offering ended in a dead heat. The night before the vote, Channel 4 locked Jeremy Paxman in a room with an extraordinary collection of politicians and random Nineties celebrities. (Biggest surprise of the campaign: Peter Stringfellow is for Remain.) To put it in perspective, this was a show that Nigel Farage the attention vampire blew off. Poor old Paxman isn’t used to coping with luvvies. I thought he might throttle Sandie Shaw when he asked her about security and she started talking about “spiritism”. Someone with a cruel sense of humour should give Paxo a fluffy talk show. “TELL ME A BETTER SELF-DEPRECATING ANECDOTE FROM THE SET,” he’d thunder at Hugh Jackman. “AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT.”

The joint-weirdest bit of EU telly was ­Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Channel 4’s The Last Leg, a show for which the pitch was surely “Top Gear but for sports”. He turned up in a white fur coat and a Bentley for the opening gag, confessed to feeling “seven and a half out of ten” about the EU and essayed a similarly nuanced answer about whether he’d rather have a knob for a nose or a nose for a knob. “You’re really stuck on this whole binary choice thing,” he said, gnomically. Then Russell Crowe turned up to exude his usual low-level petulant menace, crushing any possibility of fun.

Having watched a huge amount of television over the campaign, I have come to five conclusions: 1) our prosperity is assured if we can patent whatever David Dimbleby’s bladder is made out of; 2) no man has ever looked sadder in victory than Michael Gove on Friday morning; 3) Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Anna Soubry should get more TV bookings; 4) the Leave campaign had so many versions of the same middle-aged, bald, white man that I began to wonder if it was a trick, like three kids in a long coat; 5) Versailles on BBC2 – full of frocks and fireplaces and men with hair like Kate Middleton – is the only thing that kept me sane.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies