Menace and Beauty in the TV Landscape

Harbour Cliff Beach, West Bay, Dorset (photo Jerome Murray  for the Sunday Times, UK)

Harbour Cliff Beach, West Bay, Dorset (photo Jerome Murray for the Sunday Times, UK)

I am a fan of the crime drama genre of TV show that offers confounding crimes and scenery worthy of a travelogue. These shows seem to fall into a category I will call placemaking crime dramas such as Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake set in the fictitious town of Laketop, New Zealand. Much of the series was shot in the village and environs of Glenorchy where the landscape is preternaturally beautiful, evincing a savage beauty on a par with the savagery of the crimes Detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) must confront. (Not a strict requirement as a viewer, but throw in a female detective and I am usually hooked. Make her middle-aged, like Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, even better.)

Wallander and Jussi on the beach.

Wallander and Jussi on the beach.

I have also been a longtime fan of Wallander, set in the town of Ystad, Sweden, which features the northern light and gray backbeat of the ocean for the somewhat melancholy mood of the show. I much prefer the version produced for Swedish TV with Krister Henriksson a real Swede over Kenneth Branagh in the BBC version.

Scott (Jones) & Bailey (Sharp) on the moors.

Scott (Jones) & Bailey (Sharp) on the moors.

The gritty mean streets of Manchester, in northern England are brought to life in Scott & Bailey. The ab fab co-leads Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones have been described as the English Cagney and Lacey. Jones, who grew up in greater Manchester, can really talk the talk—so I suggest you put on subtitles while you watch because listening to Mancunian is like listening to Swedish in a Nordic Noir.

Mary Anning (1842). The Golden Cap cliff, seen in the background, is featured in the TV crime drama Broadchurch.

Mary Anning (1842). The Golden Cap cliff, seen in the background, is featured in the TV crime drama Broadchurch.

More recently I have been immersed in the emerald and sliver landscape of Dorset where the British crime drama Broadchurch is set. Broadchurch is a fictitious village set in the very real and lovely landscape of England’s Jurassic Coast (for more on why it is called Jurassic read about palaeontologist Mary Anning) . The drama begins with a murder along unprotected sheer chalky cliffs, carpeted in green right up to their eroding edges. It is a landscape that is both beautiful and menacing. 

The series plays with the notion of place in an interesting way. The murder of a child in the village brings together an manically professional outsider, DI Alec Hardy (Scottish actor David Tennant) with DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), a smart but compassionate local. How they view and interview potential suspects is fascinating as it puts suspicions and biases to excruciating test.

Broadchurch was written by Chris Chibnall who lives in Dorset and clearly brings a deep and complex love of place to the series. He says that he was inspired by Twin Peaks (the original placemaking crime drama). There is something reminiscent of the mist shrouded peaks of Washington state in Dorset, an AONB, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an actual conservation designation in Britain. Episodes alternate between sweeping views of the village perched on the edge of the vertiginous cliff, roiling ocean waves beating upon the beach, green meadows, etc. to tightly focused drama among the characters–superbly cast. There is a snake in this Garden of Eden and the mystery is who is it?

There are also some embedded references to local culture, many of which I would miss, as an outsider. I did catch the tribute to poet and author Thomas Hardy found in the name of main character DI Alec Hardy. According to Chibnall, “There’s a huge Thomas Hardy influence in Broadchurch; it’s why David Tennant’s character is called Alec Hardy. That’s why it’s Wessex Police. It’s the same area that Hardy wrote about. The landscape had to feel present everywhere. Even in the police station you get these big windows with all of that light. It’s that Hardy thing of connecting everything to the landscape. The light in the South West is entirely different. It’s extraordinary and painterly.” 

Somehow it is appropriate to have the music of an Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds for setting the perfect mood for this landscape inspired mystery. Perhaps because Iceland itself is an island where people live by the light of the ocean. Ólafur says that he “researched sounds which might be heard in the Dorset area” and then recorded the music for the series in an empty church in Reykjavik. According to Chibnall, who wrote lyrics for the closing song “So Close” it holds clues to the cliff hanger— the killer’s identity.

Marie Dompnier as lieutenant Sandra Winckler in

Marie Dompnier as lieutenant Sandra Winckler in “Les (Witnesses)”

As of this week I am happy to report that my travels continue and now I have crossed the channel and find myself in Haute-Normandie, northern France. Its famous falaises (chalk cliffs) bring to mind the village across the channel, Broadchurch. I have discovered “Les témoins” on Netflix. The drama is set in Tréport, another harbor town. I am dusting off my French as I follow the chic and obsessively precise lieutenant Sandra Winckler as she sorts through the menacing clues of a criminal with a wolf tattoo. C’est un bon voyage.


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