|Sean Harris as ex-squaddie Stephen|
SOUTHCLIFFE is the latest event television, which is basically a posh word for a highbrow mini-series. It follows in the steps of the Sundance Channel's TOP OF THE LAKE and ITV's hugely successful BROADCHURCH - combining an all-star cast with auteur cinema production values and gritty realism and psychological heft. The series centres on the traumatised war veteran Stephen, played by Sean Harris (Micheletto, THE BORGIAS), and the events that lead him to go on a killing spree in his sleepy British sea-side town. That isn't a spoiler. Because in Tony Grisoni's intelligent and empathetic script, Stephen's actions are revealed up front. The series then becomes about why the killer did what he did, and even more, the impact on the town.
In the first episode, THE HOLLOW SHORE, we focus on the events and indignities that lead Stephen to kill. We see Stephen frustrated with caring for his ailing mother, pissed about by friends who owe him cash, mocked by the villagers who saw through his delusions of being in the SAS, and generally despairing that nobody understands him, or the war that he has seen. He strikes up a friendship with Chris (Joe Dempsie - Gendry in GAME OF THRONES). A naive kid who's friend has just died in a crash and needs some structure and perhaps the adrenaline rush of war. Meanwhile, journalist and Southcliffe native David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear - Tanner in SKYFALL) is remembering his bullied childhood and drinking heavily in his adulthood.
There's a lot to admire in SOUTHCLIFFE. It's patient, tense, beautifully shot, well-acted, and has a daring approach to narrative, folding memory into contemporary events, and challenging the concept of with-holding the killer's identity. Director, Sean Durkin, most famous for his Sundance Festival smash, MARTHA, MARCY, MAY, MARLENE presents us a vision of the English seaside town that's muddy-grey and brown, oppressive, claustrophobic and dead-end depressing.
But I couldn't help but think I'd seen this all before. The traumatised ex-squaddie is a totem of post-Gulf War cinema and TV - as is the beaten down carer of the invalid parent. Similarly, we're very familiar with the Lynchian idea that there's brutality and sadism behind the white picket fences not least from writer Tony Grisoni's most recent foray into TV, RED RIDING. SOUTHCLIFFE's going to have to provide something more radical and ground-breaking if it isn't going to be "just another" well-acted, earnest British drama.
SOUTHCLIFFE EPISODE 1: THE HOLLOW SHORE was first broadcast in the UK on August 4th 2013.