Olivia Coleman and David Tennant in Broadchurch.
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Onset of madness: Broadchurch has gone completely loopy

How credulous does Chris Chibnall think we are?

Broadchurch
ITV

I wasn’t able to write about the first episode of the returning Broadchurch – no critic was allowed to see it in advance. And even to watch the second episode before it went out (12 January, 9pm), the better to meet my deadline, I had to sign an embargo form in my own blood.

ITV insists that the omertà around the series is to prevent spoilers; programme bosses want it to be the collective thrill it was last time around, when reputedly not even the cast knew who’d killed Danny Latimer. But now I’ve seen some of it, I wonder. Broadchurch has gone completely loopy. Perhaps they just feared the ridicule.

Where to begin? By now, you’ll be aware that Joe, the husband of our plucky Wessex cop, Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), has unaccountably decided to plead not guilty to the murder of their son’s friend, Danny. So, we, the Latimers and poor Ellie must endure a trial. Still, here’s the good news. It just so happens that the Greatest Prosecution Barrister in the World lives in Broadchurch. Not that Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling, wildly miscast) wanted this gig: she refused to take it even when the Latimers accosted her on the beach.

But then, also on the beach, she bumped into Joe’s defence barrister, Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who just happens – you could easily get sick of the phrase “who just happens” when it comes to the new Broadchurch – to be her former pupil. That clinched it! In a flash, she came over all competitive and the next you know she was sniffing her long-retired wig, holding it to her nose as if it was a fine cigar. These two, Sharon and Jocelyn, are like no barris­ters you’ve ever met – or have even seen on the telly. Jocelyn seems not to be working for the Crown Prosecution Service: the Latimers pretty much hired her themselves. And not for Jocelyn and Sharon the reading of bundles, the tedious legwork involved in preparing a case. They loiter ghoulishly in graveyards, happily make irregular home visits to clients, and constantly spew little speeches about justice and dark secrets. Think Marple, not Rumpole.

All this is set against an even barmier subplot. It turns out that Miller’s colleague Alec Hardy (David Tennant, with suspiciously conker-coloured hair) has been secretly operating an off-piste witness protection scheme. Claire (Eve Myles) is the wife of a man, Lee, whom Hardy still suspects of the murder of two girls (a reference back to the disastrous case in which he was involved before he pitched up in Wessex) and she is – or was – living in a lovely cottage under his unofficial protection.

At the end of the second episode Lee absconded with Claire, following a meeting between them arranged by Miller and Hardy in – wait for it – Miller’s old and now empty house. (Hardy fixed up this encounter in the hope of recording Lee confessing to Claire on a whopping great voice recorder he taped to a coffee table.) But then the heavily pregnant Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) turned up, and her waters promptly broke, thus ruining his not-very-cunning plan.

How credulous, I wonder, does Broadchurch’s writer, Chris Chibnall, think we are? Very, is the only possible answer to this question, for which reason I tremble to predict what might be on its way. Is Joe Miller at the centre of a paedophile ring? (Please, no.) Will Charlotte Rampling be exposed as a witch? (She reminds me strongly of Carol Tregorran in The Archers, a woman who is much given to brewing mysterious “teas”.) Will the proprietor of Traders Hotel ever get her hot water sorted out? How loud will the series’ already deafening background music eventually become? Most important of all, will DI Hardy ever find the time to talk seriously to his hairdresser?

Needing to soothe myself after this descent into madness, I watched Life of a Mountain: a Year on Scafell Pike (14 January, 9pm), a BBC4 documentary about the peak. But it was no good. Wasdale, the valley over which England’s highest mountain looms, is my special place. Too late, I remembered that I always panic when it appears on screen. It needs tourists like Olivia Colman needs crying lessons.

The revelation that volunteers recently found an octopus among all the rubbish left at the mountain’s summit did my nerves no good at all. But it’s far easier to rail against litter louts than to point the finger at Broadchurch, a series that some of my TV critic colleagues are still calling “ingenious” and “astonishingly assured”. 

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 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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