Southcliffe opens with an elderly woman tending her front garden in a British village. The sky is grey and the street is silent. Suddenly two bangs register that might be gunshots. She looks down and sees a bloodstain on the lower half of her jumper. More bewildered than hurt, she notices a man marching up the street towards her, possibly carrying a gun. We don’t see his face.
The scene ends abruptly, but no sense of suspense or menace lingers. Only a horrified awe that something awful has happened, and with so few of the usual cinematic signals to clarify it for us.
This scene prepares us for how to watch Southcliffe, a series that rejects television’s typical narrative urgency and dramatic crescendos in favour of raw and painful silence. These four episodes recall British television’s social realism of the 1970s and 1980s, when programmes like Boys from the Blackstuff and The Firm were demonstrating that television didn’t take until the 21st century to reach artistic maturity. This is not fun or addictive viewing, but it is immersive, vital, and desperately moving.
Made in 2013 for Channel 4 and now available on SBS on Demand, Southcliffe documents the prelude and aftermath of a random gun massacre in a small town in Kent. While fictional, the story is inspired by similar British tragedies in Hungerford in 1987 and Cumbria in 2010, when supposedly sleepy towns were attacked out of nowhere by lone gunmen. Writer Tony Grisoni (The Red Riding Trilogy) and Canadian director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) disorient us with a non-linear narrative, interspersing scenes of the characters’ normal lives with incidents from the massacre. We never know when such a moment will appear, evoking the chaos those affected have to endure as their lives are torn apart for no apparent reason.
The scripting and editing are careful enough, however, that we never lose track of events. We follow a handful of characters, flitting between getting to know them before the shooting and discovering how they’ve been affected. Young soldier Chris (Joe Dempsie) has returned home from war to his young wife. Claire (Shirley Henderson) and Andrew (Eddie Marsan) have a teenage daughter but are trying for another child using IVF. Brash and macho Paul (Anatol Yusef) has a family and a business but risks it all by cheating on his wife with younger women. David (Rory Kinnear) is a journalist who grew up in Southcliffe and left under painful circumstances, but is now sent back to cover the tragedy and give the story a personal touch. And withdrawn former soldier Stephen (Sean Harris) looks after his elderly mother but is mostly ostracised by his neighbours, who he one day decides to start shooting.
We’re positioned at some remove from these complex lives, which are presented matter-of-factly with few prompts to elicit our investment. The series has no musical score and the light is constantly grey and forbidding, the worst stereotypes about English weather made manifest. At first Southcliffe may seem too aloof for its own good, its characterisation and action too stark and quiet to engage with.
But the unexceptional nature of this town and its citizens is the point. This is poignantly normal and modest life, perhaps banal from the outside but vivid to those living it. The seemingly random, unfair manner in which it is shredded reveals how achingly fragile even the most unassuming, unpretentious life really is. This makes Southcliffe terrifying, but also an affirmation of life as something to be cherished right now. We are not always allowed to choose our fate.
The shooting is a dramatic mechanism rather than the point of the series, perhaps even a metaphor. Little effort is spent analysing why such shootings happen. That they do and that they destroy more lives than of those killed is what matters here, as is how those who lose someone rebuild themselves in a world revealed to have no mercy. Not all of them can.
The performances are tremendous, perfectly in tune with Durkin’s restrained tone and protracted silences. Kinnear convincingly awakens David from journalistic ambivalence to recognition of the hold his childhood trauma in Southcliffe still has on him. Harris is stony and imposing but not unrelatable. His devotion to his mother and his victimisation by the townspeople give him humanity despite the script revealing little about his past. Henderson is devastating as Claire’s sanity crumbles, and Yusef imbues Paul with even deeper tragedy when he realises he could have made different decisions and is now trapped with his failure.
Recalling key moments from these stories pierces me as I write this. Southcliffe achieves stunning emotional peaks amidst silence and punishingly grey skies. This is not binge viewing in the compulsive sense, but the four episodes are best watched in quick succession. The original weekly broadcast may actually have diminished its power. Instead, immerse yourself in Southcliffe’s tragedy and feel its terrible grandeur, remembering how television can reveal beautiful truths in the most raw, unvarnished ways.