by Ross P. Garner, Cardiff University.
N.B. This article contains spoilers.
On Monday 22nd April, ITV’s serialized crime drama Broadchurch (2013) concluded with a ratings high of over 9 million viewers . The series, which focused around the investigation of the murder of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) and its after-effects upon a small, tightly-knit and (on the surface) idyllic seaside town in the English county of Dorset, has gripped audiences and been seen as evidence of a renaissance for the UK’s main commercially-funded broadcaster. As John Plunkett of The Guardian observes, the channel has “not necessarily [been] …known to viewers as the home of edgy (or edge-of-your-seat) thrills” in recent years. Instead ITV1’s recent branding as ‘The Brighter Side’ – utilizing stark juxtapositions between golden light and darkness in its idents – could have been rephrased as ‘The Lighter Side’ given the centrality of entertainment shows such as The X-Factor (2004- ) and Britain’s Got Talent (2007- ) to its recent public image. However, since January of this year, the channel has undergone a major re-brand. The ‘1’ has been dropped from its name and a chameleonic new logo that changes colour in response to the perceived tone of the accompanying programme has been introduced with the aim of reasserting the channel’s centrality within British television culture. Broadchurch has been central to this re-branding campaign by occupying a prime position within the channel’s trailers for 2013 drama. As this blog-post invites such indulgences, Broadchurch’s publicity strategies regularly piqued my interest through making intertextual connections with some of my existing fan interests: utilizing electro-pop star Ellie Goulding’s ‘Explosions’ as audio-accompaniment to trailers and overtly referencing key dialogue from Twin Peaks (1990-1) within billboard adverts (see below) put Broadchurch firmly on my cultural radar (and that’s before we get onto the show’s plethora of ex-Doctor Who (2005- ) talent both on- and off-screen). However, despite acknowledging David Lynch’s TV masterpiece in episode two (searching young Danny’s bedroom unearthed – as Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) found in Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) safety deposit box – cocaine and a large sum of money), Broadchurch overlooked direct and sustained appeals to ‘cult’ audiences.
Broadchurch‘s side-stepping of red drapes and dancing dwarves nevertheless provides an entry point for critically assessing both the series and, due to its centrality within the campaign, ITV’s wider re-branding. This is because, in line with both industrial data concerning gendered viewing trends within British television and cultural discourses concerning wide-reaching or ‘mainstream’ appeal (see Jancovich and Hunt 2004), Broadchurch clearly imagines women as its primary target audience. Despite David Tennant’s leading man status, the series’ core is undeniably mothers. Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Millar and Jodie Whittaker’s Beth Latimer provide the dramatic centre as, whilst the former experiences gradual estrangement from her previous intimate understanding of the town’s inhabitants, the latter portrays the adjustment to losing a child with significant aplomb. When this narrative focus is recognized, alongside how Pauline Quirke’s Susan Wright moves slowly from periphery to centre and eventual exit across the eight episodes, it’s clear that issues of motherhood provide the programme with its central focus. With respect to the channel’s re-branding, then, occupying an integral position within British TV culture seems to here involve recourse to pre-existing gendered understandings of what ‘mainstream’ appeal means within a UK commercial context. This should not be taken as a gripe, though. In fact, recognizing this production constraint allows for complaints directed towards how Broadchurch resolved its central enigma to be rethought. Whilst some (not all) reviewers criticized the series for revealing the murderer too soon – and so relinquishing the programme’s tension too early – this narrative strategy makes sense given the centrality of female audiences to ITV and its imagining of ‘mainstream’ appeal. Revealing the murderer within the first half of the final episode allowed Broadchurch to remain focused on its female characters as DC Millar’s coming to terms with her husband’s deviance, and attempts at re-building bridges with the community, occupy the foreground.
Further evidence of female audiences’ centrality to Broadchurch and ITV is identifiable by examining how the enigmas surrounding Tennant’s character are handled. Revealing DI Alec Hardy’s past misdemeanors as his taking the fall for his then-partner’s errors and adultery draws upon associations from romance fiction via the making the character the rejected male figure who still longs for the woman he loves. Wider questions concerning police incompetence are thus avoided. Not only does Hardy’s characterization align Broadchurch with culturally-feminised genres, though. It also moves the series towards scholarly understandings of the popular. Robin Nelson (2007: 175-6) names as ‘quality popular dramas’ those series which are transmitted on broadcast channels in the UK (the term is, as Nelson notes (ibid: 175), lifted from ITV discourses), work within established TV genres (e.g. the police series in this instance) and move towards a sense-making paradigm for audiences. As Nelson (ibid: 176) states, ‘quality popular’ television “resonates[s] with the need to negotiate with [the external world] but not to open up fundamentally disturbing questions and, ultimately, to reassure through narrative but also ideological closure”. Various textual strategies mobilized by Broadchurch support Nelson’s point: beyond DI Hardy’s opening up, but ultimate avoidance, of questions about police capability, the programme provides ideological closure within dominant sense-making paradigms in two ways. Firstly, the cultural institution of the family is firmly reinstated by Broadchurch’s conclusion. Not only are DI Millar and her children reunited with previously-estranged family members Lucy (Tanya Franks) and Olly (Jonathan Bailey), who provide support through which the family can move forward, but the Latimers remain unified (despite father Mark’s (Andrew Buchan) infidelity) as Beth decides to keep her baby. What’s more, the programme continually restates the Church’s role. The clue, perhaps, is in the series’ title (notions of the church’s ‘broad’ reach being connoted?) but, although questions are raised about Arthur Darvill’s Rev. Paul Coates, Broadchurch also avoids the topic of paedophile clergymen. Instead, Coates is revealed to be an insomniac and recovering alcoholic who, despite having previously assaulted an overly aggressive child, continually supports the townsfolk in their hour(s) of need. In all of these instances interrogations of conservative social institutions are suggested, but ultimately avoided, as potentially difficult questions are brought in line with dominant perspectives.
All of this perhaps suggests that, despite ITV’s re-brand, nothing much has changed. However, subscribing to this position does Broadchurch a great disservice. The programme’s overall aesthetic of disorientation, constructed through jump cuts, obscure camera angles and off-centre character framing, brilliantly complements the narrative’s themes of individual displacement and altered perspectives. This aesthetic has been used elsewhere to similar effect in recognized examples of ‘quality’ television such as the BBC’s critically-lauded Wallander (2008- ) series and similarly allowed tension and ‘uneasiness’ to accrue whilst watching Broadchurch. These aesthetic strategies also helped to provide Broadchurch with much of its emotional impact. Kristyn Gorton (2006) has convincingly argued that the emotionality of television series can be considered as criteria of aesthetic value and Broadchurch should thus be celebrated accordingly. Whoever thought that something as mundane as a trip to the supermarket undertaken by a grieving mother could be so moving by articulating how everyday experiences had now become strange for Beth and how quotidian items such as cereal packaging can articulate deep feelings of absence and loss? Scenes such as this, as well as perhaps more obvious set pieces such as the death of newsagent Jack Marshall (David Bradley), underline that discussions of ‘quality’ television should not overlook series which provoke audiences with emotional experiences by stimulating sympathy between characters and viewers.
In summary, then, Broadchurch has occupied a central position within ITV’s 2013 re-brand and, although the evidence suggests that this has not coincided with a wider shift in the channel’s understanding of ‘mainstream’ appeal, the programme’s ambition and movement within these constraints certainly make it distinct within the channel’s schedules. If not perhaps the renaissance some have suggested, Broadchurch nevertheless suggests re-invigoration within the channel’s attitude towards TV drama.
Ross P. Garner is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He teaches a variety of undergraduate modules concerning television, textuality and industry and has recently completed his PhD on Nostalgia and Post-2005 British Time Travel Dramas.
Gorton, K. (2006) ‘A Sentimental Journey: Television, Meaning and Emotion’. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 3 (1), pp. 72-81.
Jancovich, M. and Hunt, N. (2004) ‘The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV’, in S Gwenllian-Jones and R E Pearson (eds.) Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 27-44.
Nelson, R. (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” TV Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press.