David Tennant and Olivia Colman on what Broadchurch learnt from Scandinavian drama

"There's a stillness and quietness, a sense of allowing you to work things out for yourself"

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Until the first, tearjerking episode of Broadchurch, in which David Tennant unleashes a new steel in his eyes and Olivia Colman reduces the viewer to mush with one sad frown, I hadn’t thought this hard about detective chemistry since The X Files.

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Creating a mesmerising police duo is, I think, about the hardest job on screen. All the stuff that the leads would normally fall back on – flirtation, wit, banter, attraction – wouldn’t work here. The viewer would just think, “I wish you two would stop flirting when you’re meant to be finding a murderer.” Instead, between them, the actors create something much subtler: intellect, concentration, empathy, professional respect, all coagulating into a persuasive interplay. If you’re used to Tennant as the overlord of mischief, and Colman as the precise straight woman from Peep Show, this is a whole new world.

They carry that chemistry off-screen, too, not simply getting on really well, but complementing (as well as ceaselessly complimenting) one another’s personalities. Tennant is in that “meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” phase of his career – way too canny to pretend not to notice how successful he is, he still shrugs off his success as an amusing decision made by other people.

Colman absolutely hates giving opinions – I’ve met scores of actors who hate talking to journalists because they don’t want to be probed on their private lives, but she’s the first one I’ve met who won’t tell you what she thinks out of plain modesty. “In the comfort of my own home, with very good friends, I can be fairly eloquent, but that’s about as far as it goes. I can be fairly knowledgeable about one and a half topics.”

So he’s skittish and relaxed, and she has the polite expression of someone at the dental hygienist, who wishes she was almost anywhere else, but doesn’t want to offend the hygienist. The combination is endearing.

Starring in Broadchurch, which I confidently predict will be called the British drama of 2013, was an easy decision for both of them. Created by Chris Chibnall (Law & Order: UK and Doctor Who), this eight-part series has that slightly languorous, thoughtful quality, a darkness in its cinematography and its atmosphere that makes for quite magnetic viewing. Even though it has some quite mainstream types – the hard-working, loving, standard-issue family at its core – you sense it could all be subverted at any moment.

David Tennant recalls reading the scripts: “I was immediately pulled in, on two levels – literally, the what-happens-next could take your breath away. And it was all happening in a world with all these brilliantly drawn, proper characters. That was the cocktail. Usually, it’s one or the other or, worst of all, neither.”

In the show, set in the present day, Tennant is a DI parachuted in over Colman’s head to a small-town Dorset police force and immediately confronted with the murder of a child. Colman is his sidekick, but also the mother of the child’s best friend, and from the start this gives a horrible emotional kick to her involvement.

“I just remember reading it in one go, sobbing, crying, sobbing, crying, oh, it’s finished,” says Colman. “I don’t think I was meant to cry as much as I did. But I found it so upsetting, I just couldn’t stop.” She says this rather cheerfully, her Louboutin soles flashing bright red as she fidgets. “I usually try not to cry in things, but it’s so emotive.”

As we leave the first episode, the outside world is about to descend on the small town, and pick over its internal workings, looking for guilt of any kind. “I suppose it’s fairly obvious, the moral dilemmas that this community faces – their lives that were private have turned out horribly exposed, for the world to make judgement on, and they turn on each other,” Colman starts, and Tennant continues, “The complexities of the case risk being oversimplified by the arrival of the press. Certain characters get cast in roles by the press, which I think we have seen in life.”

Olivia chips in, “And it’s so fast, now. One press of a button and it’s out; it’s not a horse delivering a piece of paper. It’s really sad. And that’s part of the fascination of the project. An actor has to do a certain amount of interviews, that’s what you have to do, whether you like it or not. Some people will happily do more, some people just stick to what they have to do. But these people have never signed up to that. They’re grieving and they’re being judged. It’s horrific, really. It might be interesting for people to register, if they notice.”

David Tennant makes some faux-grumpy grumblings here, about Facebook and Twitter and how annoying they are, but it’s hard to tell whether things – specifically, the attentions of the outside world – have really changed as a result of new media. “It’s hard for us to tell as well,” Tennant says, “because as an actor, where you are in the pecking order changes. Seven years ago, in this drama, I wouldn’t have been the one being wheeled out to talk about it.”

“Twenty years ago,” Colman pipes up, “I wasn’t getting any work at all.”

But what’s easier to live with, attention or obscurity? “Obscurity means you’re not getting any work,” she says. “I love doing parts in a theatre above a pub. But I have preferred being able to pay my mortgage. It was so hard, doing those jobs where you’ve also got to go and clean during the day. I’ve found it a lot easier being paid for what I do. It’s a funny old two-sided whatsit.”

For Colman – who, I suspect, is always happiest detailing her shortcomings – this leads very easily into a discussion about the longest time she’s ever spent unemployed. “The longest I’ve been without work so far has been a year. And I don’t ever want that again, it was horrible. I’d audition, and fail. And then, of course, they can smell it on you when you go in.”

Tennant looks at her sceptically: “Do you mean nothing at all, or the odd radio play?”

“Nothing. Not a sausage…”

She segues straight to the present, because she’s worried about what she’ll do now, too. “If something was coming up in two months, that’d be amazing, because then you could properly be a mummy, do all the pickups from school, baking even, push the boat out. So long as you knew there was something coming up.”

Now Tennant is openly laughing at her, because it’s so obvious that something will come up. Remember her recent roles in the comedy Rev, as an abused wife in Tyrannosaur and as Carol Thatcher in The Iron Lady? But some people can find things to worry about, however good they are.

Both actors are hugely optimistic about British TV, though. Colman allows herself a rare triumphal feeling on this. “It does feel really healthy at the moment, I’m really proud of it. All the channels are trying to outdo each other with excellence. Hoorah for that.”

Sort of – not undiplomatically, more a-diplomatically – Tennant adds about Broadchurch, “This doesn’t feel very ITV, and I think that’s a conscious decision on the part of those in control at ITV. The writer [Chibnall] was given complete freedom on it. They said, fine, go away and make the best-quality piece of television that you can.” It’s a tricky thing to pin down, where this leap in standards comes from – as Colman points out, it’s in keeping with the dramas so in vogue on BBC4: “There’s a stillness and quietness and bleakness, a sense of allowing you to work things out for yourself, which they picked up from Scandi drama.”

Tennant, meanwhile, thinks the box set has changed everything. “Eight weeks, that’s something that people lick their chops for now. They want to get involved in characters, they want to understand how they work. They don’t think, eight weeks, I can’t stick with that. In movie-making, mid-range indie films are a bit lost now because TV’s doing what they used to do – that character investigative stuff; the kind of stories that are being told are a bit more emotional, a bit more complex, a bit more involved than they were a few years ago. It’s great news for TV; I don’t know that it’s great news for films.”

While viewers embark on this emotional whodunnit, powered by the new ambition of British drama, I can’t help thinking, though they didn’t mention it, that telly has been boosted by the steady blossoming of great actors. Tennant is to make a legal drama, for which he’s been hanging out at the Old Bailey, and a political one, but he won’t tell either of us which MPs he’s been hanging out with. (He says he’ll tell Olivia later.)

“They all got a bit fidgety, I’m not allowed to say who they were. One used to be a big hitter and isn’t any more. A bit bitter. I was expecting because they don’t stop, they have no life outside, that they’d mind. And yet they loved it. They loved when they stood up in front of the House and did a speech. They loved it. And it’s the same with us.” There are clear parallels between acting and politics – yet MPs would kill to be as popular as Tennant and Colman.

“It’s not glamorous,” Colman adds, in case I get the wrong idea. She actually loves “leaving the house in the dark, with my cup of tea, to go standing in a car park at five in the morning. It’s like a little gypsy encampment. I’m sure there are actors who get to go to parties, which we don’t get to go to, but I can’t imagine anybody thinking it was glamorous. You’re peeing in a portable toilet like everybody else.”


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Broadchurch begins tonight at 9pm on ITV