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”.