Sunday nights were usually reserved for cosy costume drama until Channel4 miniseries Southcliffe shook up the TV schedule with a portrayal of small-town England that shatters the idyll. In the final instalment showing this weekend, the fallout from the rampage of a lone gunman (Sean Harris) builds to an emotional crescendo as the survivors come to terms with their loss.
In some ways similar to the first episode, the last moves through time to try and make sense of what appears to have been a senseless act. Writer Tony Grisoni tells RadioTimes.com that the time-hopping structure allowed him to get to grips with the multi-threaded story.
“We always aimed to keep everything in flux and our options open. I would watch the rushes and respond with new writing, we would try different ideas out, always striving to make the best possible choices. The final part is the result of this complex, fluid way of working. This method keeps everything very alive.”
Grisoni always takes a playful approach to his work and regularly collaborates with experimental film-makers, like Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland) and Michael Winterbottom (In This World).
“Telling a story in this way is also fun – it engages an audience – they contribute. Myself and Sean Durkin [the director] went over the structure throughout the process, unpicking, putting back together. The shape changed particularly during the editing process of course. It was an on-going process and very exciting for that.”
The subject matter, though, is anything but light-hearted. Grisoni explains that he was initially inspired by the “poignant, very human relationship between the dead and those still living,” a relationship he calls, “at once both comforting and disquieting”.
But might confronting viewers with a sense of mortality have been a hard sell for TV execs looking to fill a Sunday night slot? Not so, says Grisoni. “Right from the start I was afforded the freedom to find the stories I wanted to tell, in the way I wanted to tell it. The executives at Channel 4 were enormously supportive throughout.”
It’s just as well. The critical response to the series so far has been rapturous and Grisoni is somewhat taken aback by this, but he’s also keen to underline the point that “If the executives are courageous and willing to take risks, then you'll get an adventurous and bold drama.”
Of course there are those who take issue with some aspects of it and particularly the first episode which was was used by The Daily Telegraph’s Serena Davies as the springboard for a debate about the level of violence on television.
“It distresses me when people have knee-jerk responses in the line of ‘there’s too much violence on telly’,” says the veteran writer (who also penned the script for 2009 crime series Red Riding).
“What kind of violence are they talking about? What is the context? Do they include news programmes, factual programmes, reality shows or are they just talking about drama? As film and programme makers we are incredibly responsible and careful about what we depict, and Channel 4 is guided by Ofcom.”
Inevitably, real-life shooting massacres have been a reference point for viewers and critics, though the story is more concerned with the emotional rather than physical trauma. Grisoni explains that, while he read up on the tragedies at Hungerford, Dunblane, Whitehaven and Austen, Texas, the shooting spree was merely “a device”. His primary research had a different focus.
“Our lead researcher, Susannah Price placed ads and put out the word inviting people to share their experiences of sudden bereavement. The resulting recordings and texts were humbling. People you will never read about in the style magazines or see on television shows responded with heart-rending, courageous accounts of how their lives were smashed.”
But if Southcliffe is a tribute to the bereaved, why did the first episode draw such an intimate portrait of the gunman? Do his reasons for killing really matter in the wider context?
“I don't think we can ever know the reasons why Stephen Morton goes on the rampage. The factors are so complex and interwoven. Besides, I think drama is at its best when it asks questions rather than attempts to provide answers. But it was always important to me to show Stephen as a human being. What he does is beyond understanding, his acts are monstrous but he is not a monster. The frightening, poignant thing is that he is one of us.”
In contrast, Rory Kinnear’s investigating journalist David Whitehead hints at a troubled past growing up in Southcliffe, but Grisoni holds back on the details of that. Why?
“When you write a character, some things come to the fore, some recede. It's an instinctive thing. Only after the event do you look back and see what you have done. The novelist China Mievillle says that a lot of writing goes on behind your back.”
Unsurprisingly then, the final episode doesn’t offer all the answers viewers might be looking for, but it does offer a satisfying sense of release, and it may be that – if you are confounded by it – you’re simply not asking the right questions. Grisoni encourages those tuning in this Sunday to consider all the angles.
“I am fascinated to hear people’s responses because I think the act of storytelling is incomplete without the active participation of an audience. And I mean active. Southcliffe is put together in such a way that you play a role in constructing the narrative as a viewer. I know that can mean hard work, but hard work is fun, isn't it?”
The final episode of Southcliffe is on Channel4, 9pm, Sunday 18 August