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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism