How the seaside become the go-to backdrop for British crime dramas

"Seaside towns have replaced grim stained urban railway arches as TV’s favoured fictional killing spots"

Eve Myles in Broadchurch

Ah, the British seaside. At its best, it’s stunning. Sand the colour and texture of running gold, skies of the bluest azure, with clouds like pillows of spun sugar. The setting for glorious picnics, as John Betjeman put it so lovingly, with “sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea”.

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Though if he’d written Trebetherick now he could have added “and a dead body, possibly at the bottom of a cliff”. At least there is in television crime dramas. Seaside towns have replaced grim stained urban railway arches as TV’s favoured fictional killing spots. Think of all of the Prime Suspects and the more recent, dreadful, Marcella.

The entire industry seems to have packed its hamper with egg and cress buns, checked the windbreak hasn’t gone all mouldy, put the roof rack on the car and headed to the coast. The new series of Unforgotten (Sunday ITV) features a character, Neil Morrissey’s down-on-his-luck financial adviser, who lives in a lovely seaside home; and Faith Howells, wife of a missing solicitor in Keeping Faith, lives on a gorgeous stretch of the Welsh coast.

The glowingly beautiful Jurassic coastline was one of the big stars of Broadchurch, the recent mini-series Innocent was watery, as were Hinterland, Liar, The Loch (not seaside, strictly, but a big lake) and Shetland, of course. In Hidden (Saturday BBC4) DI Cadi John does many early morning trips across the Menai Strait on Thomas Telford’s beautiful suspension bridge. I know, I know, it’s not the seaside, but that’s a LOT of water.

I suppose it’s because the seaside, and big lakes and rivers, are good places to brood. How many times did DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) gaze out at sea in anguish in Broadchurch? How many characters wandered along the sand, or sat on clifftops, just thinking about stuff? You can’t do that in suburbia, you can’t sit by the North Circular and commune with the deepest recesses of your soul. You could try, of course, but you’d cough a lot and get smuts in your eyes.

David Tennant Broadchurch
David Tennant Broadchurch (ITV)

Imagine how different Bram Stoker’s Dracula would have been if the Count, disguised as a great big dog, hadn’t leapt from the wrecked ship Demeter to disappear in Whitby, the finest seaside town of them all (I won’t hear any argument, sorry). It just wouldn’t have been the same if he’d jumped off the back of a lorry in Slough or Loughborough.

There’s something about that juxtaposition of the openness of the seaside, and the closed, muffled darkness that can lie at its heart. Being by the sea should leave you feeling sunny and optimistic, alive with endless possibilities and hope. At the very least you can have an ice cream and eat fish and chips while being attacked by seagulls, those winged thugs, the football hooligans of the air.

So a crime, particularly that most shocking crime of all, murder, is all the more devastating when the skies are clear and glorious and all you can hear is the murmur of the waves. You feel seaside communities should be open and happy, so when it turns out their residents harbour wickedness (Broadchurch again, and possibly, Keeping Faith, because surely no small community anywhere is as bright and chirpy and blameless as Faith’s little home town), it throws the world that we know off its axis.

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Besides, seaside towns look nice and the light is amazing. Who can blame crime dramas for decamping to gaze at the waves?