Olivia Coleman and David Tennant in Broadchurch.
Show Hide image

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

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.