There’s a scene missing from Channel 4’s disturbing new four-part series Southcliffe. Heralded as “one of the bravest and most important dramas in the channel’s history”, the drama tells the story of an “ordinary” morning in a quiet market town, which is suddenly ripped apart when a gun-obsessed loner goes on a shooting spree. Within a few hours, 15 people lie dead. None of them has done anything wrong – except the obvious: wrong place, wrong time.
You read all that and immediately you think you know the opening few moments, don’t you? Scruffy Rambo-style murderer straps on a firearm, barges his way down the high street, shooting everything and everyone in sight, blood everywhere.
Except Southcliffe is nothing like that. Despite the subject matter, there’s remarkably little on-screen violence, and not a great deal of blood. This is a nuanced, intelligent look at how people react to grief, how they deal with loss, how they recover from horrendous trauma.
Writer Tony Grisoni says the only reason the drama features a “spree killing” at all is that he needed a device that would leave many members of a close-knit community suffering a bereavement at the same time (he’d considered making the drama about an industrial accident or a natural disaster).
That said, the events in the fictional town of Southcliffe bear a striking resemblance to the Hungerford massacre. Even if you don’t remember the details, you’ll doubtless recall the incident. On the afternoon of 19 August 1987, local man Michael Ryan went on the rampage in the small Berkshire town, shooting 31 people – 16 of them fatally – before turning the gun on himself.
The similarities are striking: the Southcliffe killer, Stephen Morton, like Ryan, is a resident of the town he terrorises. He’s a fantasist, obsessed with guns and the military. Like Ryan, he’s mocked and teased by local people and lives with his mother. (There are echoes, too, in Morton’s crimes of the 2010 massacre in Cumbria and the 1996 killings in Dunblane.)
Grisoni stresses that Southcliffe – which was filmed in Faversham, Kent – is not based on the Hungerford killings, though he did visit the Berkshire town as part of his research because “if you’re going to include a shooting spree in a small market town, I thought it was the right thing to do”. But, he adds emphatically, “I wasn’t looking to make a documentary.”
But the drama raises an interesting question: how does a small town recover after a mass shooting?
Ron Tarry, now 87, was mayor of Hungerford at the time of the tragedy. He was out of harm’s way on the day – a sales representative in the agricultural industry, he was visiting a nearby farm and rushed home when he heard the news – but he knew many of the victims, and was at the forefront of efforts to put the town back together. He says, “I think we have recovered, largely because of the community spirit here.
“One of the things that helped us recover was the realisation that this was our problem – it was one of our townspeople who did it, not a stranger passing through town. And to some extent that made us feel we’d better do something about it.
“There was an immediate community reaction. People said, ‘What can we do to help?’” An office was set up to deal with the immediate aftermath, staffed by local volunteers.
“The first thing I had to do was deal with the money that started to turn up. I remember on the Saturday of that week [three days after the killings] a whole mailbag of cheques arrived and my wife said, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we set up the Hungerford Tragedy Fund.
We appointed three trustees and we gave them absolute authority to distribute the money as they thought. And there was more than £1 million. Even today I’ve no idea who got the money and I’m glad I don’t know.”
There was a memorial service a few weeks later. Interestingly, all the names of the dead were read out – with the exception of the killer’s.
And there was another difficult issue for the town to deal with: how, if at all, should it officially remember the event? Should the council erect a memorial in the victims’ names on the high street?
In the end, Hungerford chose not a grand monument but a simple plaque listing the names of the victims on the brick gatepost of the playing fields on the outskirts of town.
Tarry says, “The memorial is fairly modest. People from the press and television who have come to see me, say, ‘That’s rather underwhelming, isn’t it?’ And perhaps it is. But that’s what it is. We thought it was right and I still think it’s right. It caused controversy – some of the families thought we were hiding it away and we were ashamed of it. But the feeling was that we didn’t want a big granite statue in the middle of town that would become the focus of attention.”
Tarry adds, “These days, people talk about the tragedy only very rarely. There are special prayers on the anniversary of the shootings, but generally it’s not mentioned. Nearer the time, people would clam up if anyone tried to talk about those events – it was something we should try to forget.
“And even now, people say to me, ‘Don’t bother [talking to journalists]. Say you have nothing to say.’ But I feel I ought to speak up. I think it’s my duty to help people remember how it happened.”
Even today, there’s a split in the town about whether the best way to live with the past is to open up or keep quiet. I call Bryan Geater, whose daughter Myra was shot by Ryan (she was seriously injured by survived).
The first thing he says is, “We don’t talk about that now.” But then his attitude softens slightly. “The town itself has healed quite well,” he says. “It’s now 26 years. People came together.” He’d rather that no mention of the tragedy was ever made, “but the problem is that it’s still on the internet, isn’t it? People look up Hungerford and it’s there stabbing and staring them in the face.” The violent imagery he uses is striking.
How does Geater feel about Channel 4 making a drama about a killing spree in a small town? He’d prefer that they didn’t but doesn’t appear to feel strongly about it: “I don’t agree with it, but it’s always going to happen.” Towards the end of our (short) conversation, he even admits that he might watch Southcliffe.
Tarry says it’s tough for the townspeople that, all these years later, the word Hungerford automatically means massacre to the vast major- ity of people in Britain. Yet doesn’t he involuntarily engage in the same word association when he hears anything about the town of Dunblane? “Yes, I probably do.”
Incidentally, Tarry says he was moved by the sight of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray – a pupil at Dunblane primary school at the time of the massacre – breaking down on camera when presenter Sue Barker asked him about it. “It did rather shake me for a moment. It obviously affected him seriously,” says Tarry.
“It still hurts that when you say Hungerford, people say, ‘Ah yes, we know about Michael Ryan – we know about all that,’” says Tarry. “In fact, for a while afterwards, when people asked me where I was from, I would say that I came from the Newbury area.
“But Hungerford is a small country town, not the sort of place you’d think something like that might happen. That was one terrible day in thou- sands of years of history. It’s not what Hungerford is like at all.”
See Southcliffe Sunday and Monday 9:00pm, C4