Swaying gently from the ceiling strap of my London commuter train, the stench of someone’s breakfast Doritos filling my nostrils (does no one actually eat proper food at home any more?), my ears full of the toxic mash-up of noise leaking from a symphony of other people’s ill-fitting MP3 player headphones, I can still consider my blessings. After all the big stuff – health, family, friends, comfortable shoes and the 80 per cent certainty that there will be cake at work today – I give silent thanks that at least I don’t live in a small town.
Small towns are TV killing fields. Streets are littered with bodies after neighbour turns on neighbour. I know this to be true because I’ve seen Broadchurch, The Town, The Returned, Top of the Lake and Southcliffe (the last two both end this week) and I’m waiting for The Guilty (ITV) and What Remains (BBC1). All involve small communities sundered by murder and ripped apart by grief and suspicion.
I know we’ve lived through years of cosy atrocities committed in and around Midsomer, its pretty landscape routinely punctuated by imaginatively murdered corpses. But Midsomer Murders is a blood-drenched Scooby-Doo, it’s a cartoon. No one takes it seriously.
But grown-up proper dramas have arrived and small towns will never be the same again. You won’t feel safe in your beds, small-town dwellers, because someone is out to get you. Or so it seems from TV dramas. And you will know your killer, or the killer of someone you hold dear. Small towns have become TV drama’s new “precincts” (hospital/police station/anywhere people gather for fictional dramatic possibilities, see Casualty, Holby and so on).
I’m surprised it’s taken so long, because the dramatic possibilities of small towns are rich. You need just one murder to keep everything bubbling along for a handful of episodes. It’s not like Silent Witness, where you need a body of the week and a self-contained two-part story. In a small town, an unnatural death causes shockwaves and a story can crest the wave of suspicion every week. Everyone knows the victim, everyone has secrets, all of which can be mined to full effect by a good writer.
Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall did this brilliantly, of course, and Tony Grisoni’s hardcore version of Broadchurch, Southcliffe (Sunday C4), also expertly splits open the seams of a tiny seaside community visited by violent death. It even uses Radio 4’s Sailing By followed by the Shipping Forecast, those very beacons of quiet Englishness and utter peace, as terrible juxtapositions to the murder stalking its streets when a loner rampages with a shotgun.
Dramatically, for writers and for audiences, there’s more at stake in a small town than in an anonymous big city, where people get lost and victims are just more names in a big ledger of TV drama deaths. In a small town, suspects are everywhere, and suspects mean stories. Done properly, as we have seen with Broadchurch, Southcliffe, Top of the Lake and their kind, this can mean television drama at its absolute best and most riveting.