British Crime Dramas Explore the Dark Side of Small Town Life

‘Broadchurch,’ ‘Southcliffe’ and the UK’s small town crime drama boom takes its cues from Nordic Noir. By Soraya Roberts.


Small town crime is big in the UK these days. While London once provided endless fodder for Prime Suspect and continues to keep Sherlock in business, the quaint killings of Midsomer Murders have given way to serious small town vice on screen. Broadchurch, Southcliffe, Mayday, Shetland and the upcoming Hinterland all revolve around petite communities rattled by local crime. "These are the places that, until something like this happens, aren't in the headlines," says Southcliffe producer Peter Carlton. "The perception of a country is often to do with its cities and not to do with its small communities, and, actually, a hell of a lot of people still live in those communities."

Southcliffe recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and takes place in the foggy fictional locale of North Kent Marshes. Directed by Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Sean Durkin, it was filmed over approximately four months in a market town on the Kent coast called Faversham. Channel 4’s four-part mini-series centers around a former soldier and loner (Sean Harris) who embarks on a shooting spree, killing a number of his fellow townsfolk. It traces the events leading up to the crime and the effect it has on the locals, particularly a journalist (Rory Kinnear) from the big city who grew up in Southcliffe.

Warp Films’ Carlton and writer Toni Grisoni created the series in order to examine how “the living relate to the dead.” They chose a small community, with which they were both familiar (Grisoni wrote 70 percent of the script for Faversham), in order for their characters to "plausibly interact." "If you put them in a big city, that becomes much harder to do," Carlton explains.

Broadchurch also takes place in a small community, but for different reasons. Creator Chris Chibnall was inspired both by ABC's Los Angeles-based legal drama Murder One and Twin Peaks, David Lynch's cult classic about the murder of a small town homecoming queen. "Those shows have stuck around in my DNA as I've become a writer," he told The Independent. The location, on the Dorset coast, also happened to be right on his doorstep. "I was walking those cliffs and that beach and I'm thinking, 'Gosh it's so cinematic around here and nobody's put it on film for a very long time,'" he said, adding, "I thought it would be good to do something where I live."

Southcliffe and Broadchurch were shot at the same time, but the former was greenlit by Channel 4 before its producer heard about the latter. Says Carlton, “I was suddenly going, ‘Oh my god, what do you mean it’s in a coastal town and it's one word? Jesus.’"

No, Nordic Noir. Appearing in the wake of Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge (all of which aired on the BBC to great success), Broadchurch and Southcliffe are widely considered to have taken cues from these shows. So is BBC's five-part thriller Mayday, which was filmed in the historic market town of Dorking, Surrey, aired around the time of Broadchurch, and revolves around the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl on May Day; and Shetland, also on BBC, which takes place on a Scottish archipelago (though much of it was reportedly shot in Glasgow) in which a local woman is found murdered; and Hinterland, yet another BBC offering, which unfolds in Aberystwith, a Welsh market town, and which The Guardian equates to Sweden’s Wallander, the detective series about a morose middle-aged cop.

If nothing else, Nordic Noir has alerted British TV writers to a variation on the procedural, says Serena Davies, TV and Radio editor at The Telegraph. "I think that’s the biggest gift The Killing gave us – it gave us 20 episodes of one crime," she says. "I think that’s definitely something these dramas have learned."

Broadchurch’s creator acknowledged in The Independent that The Killing – which, ironically, was itself inspired by a British series, Prime Suspect--probably made ITV more open to his series. Airing on BBC America this summer, it was so popular--the UK finale attracted 10 million viewers, according to Entertainment Weekly--that in August Fox announced they would be remaking it. "It's in the classic tradition of the best whodunits where every episode you are pointed to a potential suspect," says Shana Waterman, senior vice president at Fox, who is heading up Broadchurch's adaptation for 2014. "I think American audiences love a great mystery." Waterman adds that Chibnall will return as executive producer and will help Fox “figure out the location that most speaks to the appropriate setting for the material with a United States sensibility.”

Though Broadchurch has brought attention to small town crime dramas, British TV already had a lengthy history with the genre, says Ian Wylie, a former TV editor at Manchester Evening News who has been writing about the small screen for 25 years. He remembers BBC’s Dixon of Dock Green, a procedural that ran from 1955 to 1976, revolving around a cop in a small community who knew most of his criminals. “Midsomer Murders continues that tradition with several deaths an episode in a chocolate box Chilterns setting,” Wylie says via email, referring to the campy ITV series that has run since 1997 and is a punch line among Brits for having a crime rate double that of London. “Producers often tend to equate harder-hitting crime stories with a city setting – from Cracker and Prime Suspect to Luther.”

But a few years ago the BBC decided to start “breaking boundaries,” says The Telegraph’s Serena Davies. That meant no more Jane Austen. “They’re trying to be serious, which means everything is rather miserable and tends to be about crime,” she says. And preferably takes place in a small community. As Shetland star Douglas Henshall noted in The Daily Record, tiny towns turn the crime into “a much bigger deal because it involves everyone and is in a closer-knit community where people all seem to know each other.”

But this sort of intimacy can be superficial, says Carlton, who is from a small town himself. "What's interesting is the extent to which people can live invisible lives even in close proximity," “Southcliffe’s” producer says, adding that he and writer Grisoni chose a shooting spree for their series because the perpetrators tend to come from within the community. "There's that sense of, 'this was one of us,' and associated with that is a sense of guilt.”

In July there was concern that Faversham’s residents took issue with being associated with a spree shooting after The Independent ran a piece saying as much. But Carlton shoots down the story point blank. "Faversham just inaugurated a ‘Southcliffe Walk’, where you can go around the sites of the shooting," he says. Faversham’s increased exposure on the international stage is somewhat ironic considering its initial concealment is what drew the producers to it.

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"We were interested in the idea that not only can communities be invisible to each other but there’s an invisibility factor to them to the rest of the world," Carlton says. “There is a sense in which as a nation we feel we have outgrown these small towns but sort of want them to stay as our innocent heartland."

Or, not so innocent, as the case may be.