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?

The Writers Museum
Show Hide image

Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

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