An Alternative Visual Poem: In Praise Of Southcliffe

Brilliant new Channel 4 series Southcliffe is a rare television programme that succeeds in capturing contemporary malaise. Austin Collings writes in praise of a challenging drama

“He had been a child of ten and eleven and twelve years, and then he was not a child because he had learnt the cruel things that they taught him in the places named after the saints. He was ten when he took the gun. He took it so as not to feel afraid. They put him away for it. It was his first feel of a gun, his first whiff of power.” – In the Forest, Edna O’Brien

He dominates episode 1: Stephen Morton or The Commander as they call him in Southcliffe, his local village. A sinewy abstract presence with piercing, not quite dead eyes: more never-alive-eyes, never-given-the-chance-to-live-properly-eyes. Hushed and unrushed, he speaks with an undeveloped intonation that is hard to decipher. He’s no conversationalist, but those withdrawn words of his, they draw you in, make you listen extra carefully, like you would a sickly child.

Away from his house duties, helping his unstable, ailing alzheimer-ridden mum up off the floor, or propping her up in bed, delivering her toast and brews, dedicated to her demise, he appears feral-like, playing soldier in the woods with a new bloke he’s met in the pub, a squaddie, back from Iraq; at one with the texture of the undergrowth and the wastelands. His ginger beard; unkempt and straggly in the same way that animal fur can become unkempt and straggly when it’s been left outside for too long. He could be a fox in man’s clothing.

At the end, no longer able to maintain the burden of sanity, he has become both dangerous and deeply sad.

By episode two he is a floating presence. Other characters are given their TV time. But he’s the one you’re thinking about: Stephen, The Commander. The space and solitude of the small village allows him to prowl and stalk, to calmly hold his gun across his body, to rest it in his arms, and then put a well-aimed bullet in the next person he sees, or enter houses and put a well-aimed bullet in people who have just woken up. The death toll reaches double figures before he shoots himself, in a hole somewhere, surrounded by the media and police.

His understated and focused menace recalls real-life figures who killed or injured many over the course of a day, or minutes in some cases: men like Michael Ryan (Hungerford, 1987), Robert Sartin (Monkseaton, 1989), Thomas Hamilton (Dunblane, 1996), Derrick Bird (Cumbria, 2010). His last holed-up hours recall Raoul Moat (Northumbria, 2010). Moat aside; take that one day, or those minutes, out of the equation and it all looks different. Their life CV isn’t so severely jarring. They could be normal. They could have continued being normal.

Written by seasoned screen and TV writer Tony Grisoni, who expertly adapted David Peace’s Red Riding Trilogy (Channel 4, 2009), and directed by Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Southcliffe is essential TV. In Stephen, Grisoni has created a convincing composite of the likes of Ryan, Sartin, Hamilton etc: ticking time bombs. No defence against their urges. Frame one onwards, you know it’s going to go wrong, and not just because you’ve seen the trailer, but because you know the set-up, you’ve seen it before on the news – the lone gunman, the corpse trails, the excitable media – but it’s the when, the tension of the when – when is it going to wrong? The moment of murder.

The title, also: Southcliffe. The name becomes iconic. Hungerford, Monkseaton, Dunblane, Soham etc. Defined by atrocities. The once sleepy. How could this happen in this small village? These news phrases, these fall back platitudes, are ingrained in our psyche. They tell us nothing. They only reveal the profitable and predatory nature of the newsroom staff. Where people are, where they plot-up, lay their hat; anything can happen, anywhere. Murder is not solely an urban habit. No surprise then that one of the key characters in Southcliffe is a newsreader with a distinct absence of scruples, reluctantly returning to Southcliffe, his birthplace: pulled back in like a child led by harsher children to a site of imminent wrongdoing and old wounds.

Grisoni’s approach is in a similar ballpark to books like Libra and In The Forest: the former, Don DeLillo’s cooly compassionate lament of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the latter, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing account of Brendan O’Donnell, a disturbed young man who abducted and murdered three people in O’Brien’s own county, Clare in 1994. Both are fictionalised accounts of true-crime events. Both have a depth – and a depth of poetry and style – that sets them apart. The power is in the restraint.

Grisoni’s non-linear script also has the feel of poetry about it. An alternative visual poem for those of us who are tired of being played by the false comfort of bad TV, by Royal faces, Royal issues, lame comedy, poxy satire, weak drama, farcical news, insane advertising, inane art, prescriptive literature and all of the other programmes, visual aids and pieces of work that ignore or overlook the hideous state of England we currently live in. The whole shebang borders on propaganda if one wants to go down that provocative route.

If violence and confusion are the narratives of our times, then Southcliffe is a nobly flawed reflection of this all-consuming malaise. Appearing on our screens just months after the complex reasoning behind the barbarism of the Woolwich affair, and the hysterical outpouring and debatable aftermath that came later, it has the feel of its times – if that makes any sense – in the same way that classic TV productions like Edge Of Darkness did in 1985, or The Firm in 1989. Sean Harris’ standout performance as Stephen even has the determined and dedicated quality of Bob Peck in Edge Of Darkness and Gary Oldman in The Firm.

Sticking with Alan Clarke, Southcliffe has shades of the superb Northern Ireland set, Elephant, as well. Produced by Danny Boyle, this genuine one-off first aired on BBC2 in 1989. The title, later respectfully lifted by Gus Van Sant for his Columbine-inspired film, is taken from writer, Bernard MacLaverty: "The elephant in our living room", a reference to the collective denial of the Troubles. Over the course of 39 dialogue-free minutes, and shot on 16mm film, Clarke employs his customary tracking shot-style to show us a series of everyday killings: one in a park, one in an empty industrial warehouse, one in a back street. It doesn’t get more deadpan. The only difference is that the killing in Elephant is related to a bigger cause – so to speak – whereas Stephen’s spree appears to be unusually personal. All the same, the sense of desolation is similar, and the uncontrived washed-out cinematography is also alike.

Herein, special mention must go to the cold detached artistry of Matyas Erdely’s cinematography. The frosty landscapes (very Elephant). The front window screen car scenes that play out like a deceptively mundane POV computer game. The extreme close-ups of light switches and wallpaper. The familiar insanity of it all has the odd appeal of a William Egglestone photograph, or a Paul Winstanley painting. In this saturated image-age of ours, the camera is quickly becoming pointless – literally pointless. Too often, programmes look good, but don’t have the content to back up the style. But when it’s in the right hands/right eyes, and it’s working from a polished script, pointed in the direction of dedicated actors and mesmerising exteriors, the camera shapes our emotions like nothing else.

The one flaw – and it’s a minor flaw, but a flaw nonetheless – lies in the casting. The main actors, Harris, Shirley Henderson, Rory Kinnear are excellent – and in Harris’ case stunning – but many of the supporting cast are hampered by their natural accents: Henderson’s daughter, for instance, sounds like a posh Richard Curtis regular. In contrast, Harris’ transformation is complete. He’s gone the whole hog. The voice, the look, the posture. His accent: possibly West Country, possibly East Anglia. How much more unnerving would it be if they all spoke with that same local (map-less) accent? How much more immersed would we be in Southcliffe if this were the case?

Minor quibble aside, even at this halfway stage, with two more episodes to go, Stephen’s the one you remember. He’s the one you will continue to remember. Those eyes. That beard. The gun in his hands; the whiff of power… For all Grisoni’s sincerely decent talk about wanting to write about grief, about the widespread grief that people like Stephen create; despite all the writers intentional goodness and sympathy towards the victims, it’s always the nutter, or the oddball, or the crackpot, or the misunderstood, or the just plain lonely, who you remember. They achieve a status of timeless celebrity that is terribly unforgettable. The Stephens. We do not live in a world of deserve. People do not get what they deserve. Good or bad. Right or wrong. The Stephens always have the last word.

Austin Collings’ The Myth of Brilliant Summers, published by Pariah Press, will be out later this year.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today