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David Tennant in Broadchurch

Broadchurch begins with an uncomfortable juxtaposition of the heady, golden days of the perfect summer holiday and one of the vilest crimes imaginable: the murder of a child. Initially, though, there isn’t much time to stop and look at the scenery. From the opening scenes it is clear that something is dreadfully, horribly wrong and there is only a brief respite to appreciate ordinary domesticity and to meet the close-knit community full of normal, happy people before the side-step into a world of distress, suspicion and horror. The series is, of course, blessed with a dream cast, headed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman as the feuding police detectives, and supported by the likes of Arthur Darvill, Vicky McClure, Andrew Buchan, Jodie Whittaker and David Bradley. It is also beautifully written and photographed, and this first episode benefits from the combined talents of series creator Chris Chibnall and director James Strong, the dream team that brought us United.
 
David Tennant is no stranger to the role of an uprooted police detective given the responsibility of solving a murder in a seaside community, so it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with his earlier work in Blackpool. However, impressions from this episode suggest that he is very much playing against his commonly perceived type. DI Alec Hardy is about as far away from the lovelorn puppyish DI Peter Carlisle as it is possible to get, the shabby demeanour and penchant for a seafront ice cream aside. Hardy is abrupt, short-tempered and totally by the book, the king of the icy stare and the cutting comment, he has little time for either the over-brimming emotion of colleague Ellie Miller or initial concerns of the effect of the murder on local businesses, and no apparent concept that any of his colleagues might actually have forenames. His rage at the press leak is furious: “Bloody Twitter!” he barks at his assembled investigative team before publicly rounding on Miller. He has few redeeming features; still, there are signs that his heart is not entirely flint. He looks suitably emotional when imparting the news to the grieving Latimer family and manages an almost concerned ‘You OK?’ to Ellie as they drive away together.
 
It is all in stark contrast to Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller, whom we meet returning to work and handing out carefully selected holiday gifts to her friends. She is even civil enough to Hardy, though they clash terribly, partly because of their different professional methods, partly because Hardy has taken the job meant for Miller, but it is fundamentally in her nature to be big-hearted. Miller is devoted to her family and to her community, so she wrestles with the conflict between her instinct to support her family friends and the professional detachment that Hardy requires of her. She cannot help but be swept up in the tide of sentiment that engulfs the town, much to the frustration of her superior. Olivia Colman portrays her confusion and barely restrained emotion to perfection. Events are totally out of her experience both professionally and personally; she has no reference points and so no way of knowing how to act and react or who it is appropriate to interact with. The more worldly Hardy finds it all barely tolerable; we can only hope that the saintly Miller will eventually soften him.

Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan excel as the parents whose world has been ripped apart. Whittaker as Beth howls with anguish at the horror and injustice of it all; Buchan is for now quieter, more restrained, but achingly poignant when he is not even allowed to touch his dead child’s body. There are already cracks in their relationship which it is obvious that the tragedy will shortly widen into chasms.
 
The drama is beautifully shot with the Jurassic landscapes of the Dorset coast playing as much of a prominent role as the starry cast. It’s all glowing sun and green fields, crashing waves and golden sands which makes the spectre of the brutal act all the more gut-wrenching. But there is also a sense that this seemingly perfect community is not all that it seems. We know that there are mysteries to be uncovered and questions constantly bob to the surface. What demons from his past cause Hardy to recoil as he approaches Danny’s body? Did Beth really check in on Danny at 9pm? Where was Mark until the early hours? Why is Vicky McClure's unscrupulous journalist so keen to get her teeth into this case in particular? What about the characters we haven’t properly met yet: Arthur Darvill’s footballing vicar, Pauline Quirke as the scruffy dog owner and Will Mellor as telephone engineer Steve? And what is Miller’s own son Tom so desperate to hide? The drama is in no hurry to give up its secrets just yet; however with writing of this calibre that can only be a good thing. We can count ourselves fortunate to be able to visit Broadchurch for several more weeks.

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