For the past seven weeks Monday nights at 9pm on ITV have become sacred hours to lovers of television detective dramas, because that’s when Broadchurch has worked its tense, gripping magic. In what is already one of the most anticipated television events of the year, the killer of 11-year-old Danny Latimer is revealed in tonight’s final episode.
I interviewed Broadchurch’s writer and creator Chris Chibnall about the anatomy of a fictional TV murder. How did he do it? What are the secrets of making a brilliantly slow-burning series, a superbly crafted hour that audiences of upwards of nine million can’t bear to miss?
1. Take time — and fresh air
Chibnall (Law & Order: UK, Torchwood, Doctor Who) first had the idea for Broadchurch ten years ago. But it was only after an unhappy spell in America working on the 2011 US television drama Camelot that he returned to it. “I thought, I’m going to write something just for me,” he says. “I am going to write the thing that I want to do and I am going to have complete control over it. So I took some time off and storylined it with a friend who’s a script editor.” It was liberating. “I bought some whiteboards and pens and set them up in the back garden. We had lots of cups of tea, then I would go away and write biographies for each character to have a sense of who these people are.”
2. Nail your location
Broadchurch is as much a victim as Danny, as a fogbank of suspicion rolls in and engulfs the small seaside town. “It’s not really a whodunnit, it has never been that, and it’s not just about one family. It’s always been about community. I’ve lived in Bridport [a small Dorset town and one of Broadchurch’s locations] for ten years. I don’t think you see small towns much in TV dramas, but most people live in these places where they know their neighbours and know each other’s business. People understand that life. “There’s this false belief that we don’t know our neighbours, but that’s just not true. I don’t buy the idea that technology is distancing us from each other. People still live in quite a traditional way, we are all connected. That’s what Broadchurch is about. For me, the murder of a child is more powerful in such a community, where you can clearly demonstrate the impact of a terrible event.”
3. Character is all
“I knew the start would be a body being found. How did this affect this person, and that person? In that first episode are the ripples, that’s how you meet everybody, how they hear, how they are affected. I don’t let anyone off. At every point of plotting I’d ask myself, ‘What would the characters do?’ It was never, ‘Here’s a big plot twist.’ I wasn’t looking at it structurally. Everything in this came from character. It’s not just about the event of Danny’s murder, it’s what the event means.”
4. Read your local paper
The Broadchurch Echo is key to the development of the story. “I wanted to write about the effect of a murder on a community, and I really wanted the local newspaper in there because the local paper in my town, the Bridport News, is vastly important. People have been telling me, ‘Those kind of newspapers don’t exist any more,’ but I say, ‘It’s on my high street.’”
5. Think A-level Thomas Hardy
Broadchurch’s Dorset landscapes are lush and gorgeous, suffused with that almost ethereal south-west-coast-of-England light. We have Thomas Hardy to thank for that. “There’s a huge Thomas Hardy influence in Broadchurch; it’s why David Tennant’s character is called Alec Hardy. That’s why it’s Wessex Police. It’s the same area that Hardy wrote about. The landscape had to feel present everywhere. Even in the police station you get these big windows with all of that light. It’s that Hardy thing of connecting everything to the landscape. The light in the South West is entirely different. It’s extraordinary and painterly.”
6. Leave them wanting more
“I’m a boy brought up on Doctor Who, 25 minutes on a Saturday night, and I love cliffhangers. They are embedded in me.” Because of the singular nature of writing for a commercial network, Chibnall had to make viewers want to return after the advertising breaks, roughly every 11–12 minutes. “I was always leading to a ‘gasp’ moment.”
7. Be bold
Once Broadchurch was written, Chibnall had to sell it to a network. “I thought, it’s quite bold, maybe we should go to Sky Atlantic? Then we went, imagine if it was on ITV…” ITV needed little persuading. Its then director of drama Laura Mackie and director of television Peter Fincham quickly gave Chibnall the nod. “It was a big leap of faith for ITV, eight weeks in prime time. It’s a lot of money and a lot of slots but there was no sense of it having to do this or that in the ratings. Peter and Laura said, ‘Make it as bold as possible, just go away and make it really strong.’ We [including production company Kudos Film and Television] absolutely made the show we wanted to make.”
8. Music matters
Broadchurch’s distinctive soundtrack is by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, and Chibnall wrote the lyrics to the haunting song that ends each episode. “The music is a narrative all of its own. I’d heard Olafur’s music and it just broke my heart. I instinctively felt if we could get him, that would be amazing.”
9. A gift that goes on giving
“You can watch Broadchurch multiple times and be able to work out what are the clues and what are red herrings… there are lots of little box set gifts in there, if you like. That’s the joy of doing eight parts.”
10. A perfect ending
You know how it is. You invest hours in a thrilling TV drama only for everything to fall to bits in the finale, as loose ends are hastily tied and the “reveal” is botched and disappointing. Chibnall promises a considered finale, not just a “wow” moment five minutes before the end.
Broadchurch concludes tonight at 9:00pm on ITV