Broadchurch Begins Brilliantly

The first episode of ITV’s Broadchurch is gripping and clever.
A glimpse at the plot line or trailers is enough to convince you of the serious intent of Broadchurch, ITV’s big evening signature drama for the Spring. You could debate whether such a harrowing story is suitable for prime time entertainment as it is the sort of thing that unfortunately turns up on the news every year in some form or other. You might ask whether a drama can offer either cathartic response or new insight into one of the most terrifying crimes imaginable. This is the tricky balance writer Chris Chibnall faces. On the plus side, a superb cast has been assembled  led by the versatile duo of David Tennant and Olivia Coleman both of whom have enough past form to suggest that if anyone can carry us through such a drama, it is them.  So we shouldn’t underestimate the task Chris Chibnall has set himself here and on the basis of the first episode the series delivers with considerable impact. Watch it and you will definitely want to see part 2.

The first one to smile was out
Warning- Spoliers beyond this point.

In a small seaside town, the body of an 11 year old boy, Danny Latimer, is found on the beach at the foot of a precipice. Tellingly, the first scene after the credits is a tracking shot along the high street that establishes just how close the people in the town are. In many ways this is an old fashioned drama; after all there are fewer communities like this in modern Britain. Yet this scene sets up the premise brilliantly because we know that all the people Mark Latimer greets will soon be potential suspects in the murder of his son. As the episode develops this seems like an increasingly clever establishing sequence; better than introducing people as the police question them.

Little time is wasted in showing us the Latimer family’s life before the incident; clearly this will be teased out in retrospect as the series develops. Instead  Chris Chibnall carefully drops little clues- and no doubt some red herrings- to keep us guessing. So, we wonder just where Mr Latimer was the night before, just what was on the files Danny’s school friend deletes and most of all what did happen in the last investigation that newly arrived detective Alex Harding undertook. There’s lots of these things peppered through the episode, some of them we’ve already forgotten, for example is it deliberate that Miller’s nephew pushy journalist Olly only speaks with a Dorset accent when talking to bigger regional paper?  Then there’s the scary Pauline Quirke, watching from a distance and looking like dangerous whoever she is. Perhaps by episode 8 she’ll have killed everyone- she looks capable!

In combining the out of town Harding with just returned to duty local Ellie Miller the series creates a double dynamic not just the provincial versus national angle but by virtue of the fact that Harding has the job Miller had wanted a professional edginess. Chibnall makes both of them flawed from the start- Harding is brusque and prone to angry outbursts while seemingly determined to right whatever wrongs let him down last time while Miller is too close to the victim’s family to maintain the necessary distance as the way she accidentally contributes to the dead boy’s identity being publicly revealed shows.

They both wished they could have better hair in this series

Stylistically, the episode is of the Whitechapel school of finding a strangeness to ordinary places and people with director James Strong able to suggest something as normal as the swelling sea or an elderly newsagent as significant even if they will later turn out not to be. The claustrophobic grief that grips the main band of characters is also contrasted with the wider inhabitants of the town who go about their business and even carry on playing on the beach yards from the police tent at the crime scene. And there is a bright Sun shining on the horror below.

Strong uses slow motion and draws on a haunting score to underline the grief and shock that builds occasionally giving us the full rawness of what has happened particularly when the Latimers hear the news. It is just short of over stylised and suits the sombre mood of Chibnall’s script as well as juxtaposing  with the seaside locale. There are a hundred little touches to the episode that mark its quality- the way we never see Danny’s face, the way Hardy asks the newsagent owner if he is married, the look on Mr Latimer’s face as his family collapses around him, the provincial journalist putting Danny’s sister teddy bear tribute in her handbag and so on. The best thing of all is that at this point we have no clue who the killer might be- or indeed if this is a one off or a potential serial killer- and that is going to draw viewers back week after week.

Many in the cast will have to wait for later episodes to get more than the odd scene as it is the Latimers and the two detectives the opener concentrates on. Harding is a role that allows David Tennant to leave his often energetic persona to one side and it suits him. Harding looks haunted by the recent past, at odds with himself perhaps. Olivia Coleman is tremendous as Ellie Miller; every nuance of her performance suggests a woman wanting to yell and scream but she holds it all in. Somehow she looks even more upset than the family- a clue perhaps to something? As Danny[s parents, Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whitaker are heartbreaking. This is a dream cast from whom we expect great things and if this first episode is anything to go by nobody will disappoint.  

There is the feel of a U.S. serial about Broadchurch yet its makers ensure the essence of the UK remains. After the first episode, you can’t wait for the next and that is a sure enough sign of success. Whatever secrets the people of this town are hiding, let’s hope they are good ones because the shows’ makers have set the bar high very early; if this opener is anything to go by this could be the hit TV drama of 2013.


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