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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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