Olivia Colman and David Tennant on the final chapter of Broadchurch, plot secrecy and national treasures

“It’s always been there as a sort of friendly, comfortable place that we’ll return to. But now that doesn’t exist any more, it does feel like a loss”

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Filming the final scene of the third and last-ever series of Broadchurch was poignant for everyone involved. But stars Olivia Colman and David Tennant, whose brittle relationship as committed cops and spiky friends Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy gives the show its throbbing heart, knew how to make cast and crew feel better. Pancakes.

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Yes, as everyone hugged and said their goodbyes, Tennant and Colman went off and bought pancakes. “It was a night shoot, so it was a nice treat,” says Colman.

Both actors feel the sting of loss at the end of a drama that’s become entwined with their lives during the past three years. “What will be sad is that we’ll never go back to it,” says Tennant. “It’s always been there as a sort of friendly, comfortable place that we’ll return to. But now that doesn’t exist any more, it does feel like a loss.”

Viewers, too, will miss a partnership that’s always avoided the good cop/mean cop clichés to give us a man and woman who go about their jobs in different ways, but who both want to do the right thing. And there are always good sparks of humour. In the first episode of the final series, which starts on Monday on ITV, Hardy wonders if comfy, chatty, thoroughly locally embedded Ellie knows a Broadchurch woman who is mute with shock after being attacked. “It’s not Trumpton,” bridles Ellie. “I don’t know everyone.”

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The first two series of Broadchurch centred on the death of an 11-year-old boy in a small coastal town in Dorset and the subsequent trial of the person charged with his murder. Series one, in 2013, was one of ITV’s biggest drama hits of recent years – attracting across the series an average consolidated figure of more than nine million viewers per episode, a 31.4 per cent audience share and a clutch of awards.

For a while, determining who killed Danny Latimer became a national obsession. Tennant and Colman couldn’t walk out of their houses without being accosted by passers-by desperate to know who it was. To avoid the attention, Colman started taking taxis everywhere. 

“You never expect anything to have a level of popularity,” says Tennant. “You can never tell. When you’re making something, you’re presumably making it because you think it’s good. And therefore you hope other people will recognise that. But you’ve no way of knowing.”

The drama has always been a byword for secrecy. It became part of television folklore that, during the filming, no cast member was told who the killer was. But it transpires that Colman had in fact been told (“because I asked,” she says simply) but was then forced to keep it secret until filming was over.

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The Latimers

“David was quite cross with me for that,” she says now. “But once you start pretending, you sort of believe it. Then because all the performances were so good, you begin to think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s not them.’”

Tennant grins: “I just thought it was quite funny, even at the time. But she’s quite tortured by the fact. So I can use it. Even now it remains a weapon to taunt her with.”

The final eight-part story is no different when it comes to secrecy. What we do know is that Hardy and Miller will investigate a violent sexual assault on a local woman called Trish Winterman, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh who played Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper for 16 years. Trish’s husband, Ian, is played by Charlie Higson. Other additions to the cast in the third series are Lenny Henry and Sarah Parish. 

Even before filming started, the scripts were individually watermarked. “Everyone found it rather exhausting,” admits the 45-year-old Tennant. “We were all issued with different passwords for different things. So new bits of script would come through and you’d forget what your password was and have to phone somebody up and prove it was you. That drove me mad, if I’m honest. I’d phone up the office and go, ‘I need it on paper, I can’t cope!’”

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Julie Hesmondhalgh as Trish Winterman

Then, when Tennant and Colman were given their call-sheets for the shoot, characters were deliberately misnamed or simply allotted numbers. None of the actors was given the final script, so that the storyline, with all its twists and turns, could be kept secret.

“So, yeah ,” grins Tennant, “there was a recognisable amount of security.” It sounds like they’d make terrific spies, I say. “Honestly,” he rolls his eyes, “it was a nightmare.”

The problems didn’t end when the actors actually made it on to the set. Colman recalls that there were so many members of the public trying to film events on their smartphones that the producers had to employ “quite a lot of fellas holding umbrellas” in order to hide what was going on. “I do find that quite hard, people filming you on their phones,” she says. “It’s hard enough with one camera, let alone 40 iPhones! You have to concentrate and I found it amazingly nerve-racking.” 

Created by Chris Chibnall, who takes over as Doctor Who showrunner later this year, Broadchurch has never been a run-of-the-mill police procedural. It has carefully charted the impact of tragedy on a local community, as the residents contend with grief, unwanted media attention and the inevitable ripples of suspicion. 

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Lenny Henry joins the cast

Neither are Hardy and Miller your usual television detectives: their on-screen relationship is one of sibling-style banter, punctuated by mutual – if affectionate – frustration. Off-screen, Tennant and Colman have become good friends. 

“If I could do every job with David Tennant I would die happy,” says Colman. “He’s the nicest, most fun person to work with. He never complains. He’s brilliant.”

Tennant adds: “Olivia has definitely become a part of my life and it’s lovely… and, you know, our families know each other. Yeah, she’s a mate.”

Hardy and Miller are consummate professionals, but also fallible – he has a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia and she frequently gives way to emotion.

“I was really trying not to cry too much in this series,” Colman insists, “but it was quite hard… When the camera was on Julie [Hesmondhalgh] and she was doing her scenes, it was so unbearable to watch. When the camera was on us for our reaction shots, I had to ask her to do it slightly less well so that I wouldn’t cry.”

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Sarah Parish joins the cast

Dealing with such dark issues on a daily basis must take its toll. Both Colman and Tennant have young children (Colman has never spent more than four days filming away from home) and are deeply protective of their private lives. Is it difficult acting out storylines involving a murdered schoolboy and sexual assault?

“We had amazing police advisers on set with us who work in the field all the time, and their knowledge and sensitivity are just amazing,” says Colman. “We really wanted to do it well. That was important. It was upsetting because the statistics on the numbers of women that are attacked, you just wouldn’t believe… You need to relax after filming. After feeling quite raw on set, at the end of the day, you need to go for a cathartic beer.”

“I think there’s a sense of pacing yourself through the day,” Tennant agrees, “and being able to be – hopefully appropriately – silly when the moment allows.”

Any moments of appropriate silliness he can share? “Well, it’s not like there are hilarious things that we do every day.”

Did you put cling film over someone’s toilet? “Oh God, no. Can you imagine how annoying you’d be if you were that person? No, I think there’s just a sense of healthy fun, without distracting from the work in hand.”

Both are keen to point out that they are “just actors”. Broadchurch, says Tennant, is “one of the happiest sets I’ve ever been on… It’s ludicrous for us to talk about how hard it is or how difficult our life is pretending to be police officers investigating a pretend sexual assault,” says Tennant. “You don’t take it any less seriously, but I can go home at the end of the day and not be someone who’s living that.”

And yet, partly because of Broadchurch’s phenomenal success, it’s getting increasingly hard for either Colman or Tennant to slope home quietly after a day’s work. Tennant is acclimatised to fame – he was the tenth incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who before hanging up his sonic screwdriver in 2010 – but that doesn’t mean he finds it easy.

Doctor Who, he says, “plunges you into that particular pool of fame quite quickly. So I’ve had a few years of it now, I guess, and you just try to find your comfortable level and live as normal a life as you possibly can.”

At 43, meanwhile, Colman seems almost never to be out of work (our interview takes place in the back of a car as she’s being driven home from the set of a new film). She’s been a near-constant presence on our screens over the past few years, putting in scene-stealing turns in Peep Show, Twenty Twelve, Rev, The Night Manager (which won her a best supporting actress Golden Globe for her role as intelligence chief Angela Burr) and, most recently, BBC3’s hit comedy show Fleabag.

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Fleabag

This last was written by her friend and Broadchurch co-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who played barrister Abby Thompson in series two. And thanks to Fleabag, Colman got the chance to play against type as a wicked stepmother. So was it fun playing a bitch? “Oh God, it was heaven!” she says, laughing. “Phoebe is just a genius.”

Like Tennant, Colman isn’t particularly sure what to do with her celebrity status. In person, she is extraordinarily sweet and naturally shy. She finds it baffling when total strangers come up and ask for selfies.

“If you’re going to a work do and you’re all dressed up for an awards ceremony or something, it’s fine because it’s work,” she says. “But if I’m going out with my husband and kids, I’m not at work. I grew up without the selfie thing and I find it quite alien and odd. When people come up and say hello, it’s lovely but… oh, I’m going to sound grumpy now, aren’t I? But I said something the other day to someone who asked for one. I said, ‘Just because there’s not a photo doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.’ I think they thought, ‘What a weirdo.’”

What’s her reaction when she’s called a national treasure? 

Colman giggles. “Er… ‘Is that my mum saying that?’ I’m not sure. It’s flattering, but I feel I haven’t earned that. I don’t know what it means… Judi Dench and David Attenborough – they’re national treasures. I feel slightly embarrassed that, at the moment, I’m not in their sphere.”

What will they both do now Broadchurch is over? Have a midlife crisis? 

“Probably,” says Tennant cheerfully. “That’s an alarming thought, isn’t it?”

If either of them starts buying sports cars, we’ll know why. Tennant doesn’t think it’s likely. He already has a car: it’s a Prius.  

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Broadchurch begins at 9pm tonight on ITV