This time last Monday, ITV premiered a major new drama, Broadchurch, the first of an eight-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community revolving around the death of a child. What I’m supposed to say now is that, on the same night, at the same time, in the same slot, ITV’s arch ratings rival BBC1 broadcast what was the second episode of a five-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community, Mayday (shot I believe in Dorking, but never specified as Surrey). Actually, it’s impossible not to the say all of that, because it is factually correct. If I add that both major new dramas were produced by Kudos, the production powerhouse whose reputation was built on Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars (and with whom I have worked in my capacity as Q&A host and, once, as TV presenter), again you won’t need to hold the front page. These facts are now self-evident, and old news.
However, I’ve worked up some kind of unifying overview now. I watched Mayday through to its bitter end – it ran over five consecutive nights, which is always a risky strategy, as to exploit boxset-binge orthodoxy you’d better have the goods to back it up – and saw the new, award-winning British film Broken over the weekend, which isn’t about a child murder, but hinges on our grim fascination with children in peril.
Now, the murder mystery dates back to the 19th century in literary terms, with a boom in the whodunit in the first half of the 20th, and has been a fallback option in film since the silents. There is nothing new in a TV serial being predicated on a crime being solved. Indeed, take away the crime and police drama from contemporary and you’re left with a pretty patchy looking set of listings for the terrestrial channels, and a blank screen with a white dot in the middle on Alibi and ITV3.
The publicity for Broadchurch has been very effective, from hoarding to cinema advertising (a brave excursion into the dark for any TV show), making the most of its largely original setting, Dorset’s magnificent Jurassic Coast – which I know well from visits to Billy Bragg’s house and walks along the fossil-filled beach with his old dog, Buster. The limestone cliffs make a thrilling backdrop for David Tenant, Olivia Colman and the rest of the fine cast, plus some police tape. (We are also initially led to believe that the victim, 11-year-old Danny, fell to his death from the cliff.) Chris Chibnall, the writer, who was instrumental in Law & Order UK and wrote the superb single drama United, has lived in Bridport for ten years, which has acted as a template for Broadchurch itself (although filmed in Avon, not Dorset).
With Danny, and the pivotal disappearance of 14-year-old “May Queen” Hattie in Mayday, this was TV drama risking that all-too-common hazard: the news overtaking fiction. Had a boy or girl gone missing in similar circumstances, or been found murdered, it’s feasible that both “major dramas” would have been pulled from the primetime schedules for reasons of sensitivity, or over-sensitivity, arguably. (Ghoulishly, a 16-year-old girl, Christina Edkins, was stabbed on a bus in Birmingham, but this happened on the Thursday morning, and was clearly adjudged to be different enough from the more ethereal events in Mayday, where pagan ritual was certainly implied in the build-up to the reveal of the murderer.)
I guess that “every parent’s worst nightmare” is frequently used as a hook for popular drama because of the fact that children are all too often victims of violence or abuse or abduction. It seems to me – and I’m not an expert – that the “classic” literary whodunits generally involve the murder of an adult, and not a child. But there’s nothing more dramatic than an “innocent” in danger. Why else would the disappearance of Madeleine McCann capture the world’s imagination so? Why else would we all have heard of a place called Soham? Or named a law after Sarah? We live in a world where the spectre of school shootings in America are matched here only by an all-engulfing paranoia about marauding paedophiles, grounded or otherwise.
Broken, directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe (Boy A, Perrier’s Bounty), hints at this, as a grown man with unspecified mental problems is – in the opening scene, and in the trailer, to be fair – attacked by a next-door neighbour while cleaning his car in the suburban London cul-de-sac the main characters share. This, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting manuals, is “the inciting incident” and it happens almost before anything else has been established, other than a young girl lives on the same street at the childlike man.
I won’t divulge any specifics, as Broken has only just been released, and it’s better if you don’t have too much foreknowledge. But the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, Skunk, one seemingly much less “adult” than Hattie the May Queen in Mayday (who is played by a 20-year-old actress, and at no stage convinces as a 14-year-old – she plays her surviving twin sister, too). Skunk is played by the actually-14-year-old Eloise Laurence, a real find, and she conveys as much as anything else a sense of sensitive resilience, which is handy, as the street she lives on seethes with resentment and violence. Where Mayday revolves around a creepy forest (the screenwriting manual, or meta-manual, I am currently reading is called Into The Woods, after the Joseph Campbell mythic concept of the dramatic “journey”), where all manner of unsavoury events either occur, or are rumoured to occur – voyeurism, dogging, assault, murder – Skunk’s refuge is a vacant hulk of a caravan in the back of a breaker’s yard. No picturesque woodland or limestone cliffs for her, although this publicity shot suggests otherwise.
Because Mayday has finished, I will mention some of the specifics of its plot, so if you haven’t seen it, please look away now. Hattie disappears, and her body is not found until over halfway through – there’s a red-herring item of clothing in a lake, but that’s all it is – so the absence of a body absolves the writers of having to deal with the usual, formulaic procedural detail, and one assumes this was a deliberate de-cluttering of the form. It’s clever, as the mystery of abduction is in many ways more potent than the mystery of who murdered her. There’s also a red-herring “sighting” of her, alive, on the news, which again is a simple sleight of hand, and a bit of a swiz. There are plenty of false leads and loose threads in Mayday, which is a shame, as five nights of your life is a big commitment, as I’ve stated. Also, without a detective – except for Sophie Okonedo’s retired policewoman, who doesn’t really count – there’s no plodding investigator to tie up the leads.
Broadchurch, of which we’ve only seen one episode, looks far more conventional, and Chris Chibnall told me it was “aggressively plotted” to every ad-break, and it already shows. I’m guessing Mayday was commissioned as a five-night feast, as one-a-week series don’t usually get commissioned in fives, and it’s an unforgiving brief, as there’s no time for audiences to forget anything, hence higher expectation about continuity and pay-off. It had some really nice writing in it, not least the opening scene in which Lesley Manville’s developer’s wife found out that her husband, Peter Firth, wasn’t in fact walking their fat dog for two hours each night after the dog had been subjected to tests at the vet’s. What an original and clever way of her suspicions that he was “up to something” to be aroused.
Because we know that Danny in Broadchurch was out at night, on his skateboard, when he should have been tucked up in bed – or, at least, the police currently think he was – we don’t yet know what to think about his death. Forensics already shows that he didn’t fall at the point where he looked to have fallen from. So murder is suspected. (Unlike Madeleine, he wasn’t abducted from his bedroom window; we always think of Madeleine now.) In the unnamed village in Mayday, no reporters descend, and the police take a seemingly peripheral role, while the villagers search the woods and threaten lynch-mob justice. In Broadchurch, it’s already all about the media, local and national, and their muddying of the waters of truth.
We fear our children going into the woods, or out onto the cliffs, or, in the case or Broken, into derelict caravans in breaker’s yards. We are told we must always know where they are, but we don’t. Do we mollycoddle our kids and wrap them in cotton wool, and thus leave them unprepared for the big, bad world they will inevitably have to enter? (The symbolic “woods” we must all at some point have to enter, like Campbell’s mythic protagonist.) There are three sisters in Broken who are worldy and streetwise, and yet disruptive and abusive, and old before their time. They bully and they swear and they shout across the cul-de-sac. And yet, through the cleverness of the plot (which, by the way, is utterly depressing in its depiction of ordinary folk), we feel sympathy for them, and their violent dad (Rory Kinnear), as they have lost their mum.
The scene in episode one of Broadchurch where Andrew Buchan, the father, is called upon to identify the body of his son, Danny, is harrowing, and beautifully acted, and will haunt any parent watching. (“He’s only little,” he observes.) I’m not even a parent and I can see the hurt, so acutely is it written and played. We who are not parents are children, so it’s universal stuff.
Sometimes, I wonder if British drama, whether urban, suburban or rural, isn’t just a little bit depressing? Death is so often the driver of the narrative. Violence so often the inciting incident. If a TV series reliant on corpses turning up on a weekly basis, whether it’s the pitch-black Silent Witness, or the more bucolic Lewis, they only use a dead child as a real trump card. It’s obvious why. A dead adult is a tragedy, but at least they’ve lived some of their life. A child? So much life left to live. (How shocking was the beginning of Utopia when an innocent child in a comics shop was gassed to death by hitmen? A trump card played so early! It also had a school shooting that was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen on television for years – and stunning for all of that.)
The epic tragedy of Broadchurch. The concentrated, mystically informed tease of Mayday. The painfully raw reality of Broken. A small town, a close-knit community, a cul-de-sac, all “wrapped up in secrets” and bound in police tape. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into an alley. Don’t go near that cliff. Don’t go into that comics shop.
Don’t have nightmares.