Broadchurch (ITV) and Mayday (BBC)

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It’s funny how sometimes two shows (or two films, or two books) with almost identical ideas show up at virtually the same time. On the screen, we’ve had two volcano movies, two meteor films, two Capote biopics and two Snow White reboots show up at the box office within a few weeks of each other; and now we’ve had the TV equivalent, with two shows about shocking crimes being done to local children in small idyllic English communities airing within hours of one another.

Of the two, I think it’s fair to say that BBC’s Mayday had been widely derided, whereas ITV’s Broadchurch would be up for sainthood were it a person, such has been the adulatory response to it. I’m going to slightly take issue with that, but I’ll start by saying that the two shows are strong dramas, well made with excellent casts, and that both are certainly well worth watching.

So why didn’t Mayday go down that well while Broadchurch has been such a hit? It may be because the former is not the show that people thought they were getting from the trailers, whereas the latter emphatically nails it, delivering to and exceeding viewers’ expectations. Because the truth is that despite their similar-sounding premises, these are two surprisingly different shows.

Whatever Mayday’s virtues, subtlety can’t be said to be one of them. The drama made the four prime suspects for the disappearance of local teenager Hattie Sutton abundantly clear from the very first sequence: outwardly respectable business man Malcolm (Peter Firth), under-stress PC Alan (Peter McDonald), middle-aged dubious wheeler-dealer Everett (Aidan Gillen) and the local mental health concern Seth (Tom Fisher). What follows is less a conventional murder mystery, more a case of four individual drama anthologies linked by the background of the investigation; the police themselves barely appear in it, except dashing through frame too busy to talk to anyone. Alan’s wife Fiona (the superb Sophie Okonedo) is the nearest thing we have to a lead investigator in the show.

All four suspects display wildly suspicious behaviour in performances only one notch away from being ripe, but the interest is in finding out why each of them is behaving so oddly – which turns out to be nothing to do with Hattie’s disappearance. The drama ‘plays straight’ and doesn’t deliver a culprit from left field from outside its quartet, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a really surprising twist development near the end just when it seems you know how it’s all going to turn out. That said, the actual ending is abrupt and rather premature and will likely annoy a fair proportion of the audience who have sat through the entire five hours to get there.

The other thing that might have put off a large part of the hoped-for audience is the weird, ghostly tinge to the drama’s atmosphere. It doesn’t quite tip over into the full-blown silliness, but is distracting enough to alienate an audience expecting something more straightforward than the mounting Twin Peaks’ vibe involving pagan circles in the woods. But it would be a shame for people not to engage with it more, because there are some brilliant performances from the likes of Lesley Manville as Malcolm’s grotesque of a wife Gail, and from newcomer Max Howard as Everett’s son Linus who is also in love with Hattie’s twin sister Caitlan, played by Leila Mimmack. The strength of the show is these characters and the way that the director Brian Welsh tells the story by focussing on his lead actors’ faces in tight closeup, while slowly building the eerie atmosphere overpowering what should be an idyllic fairytale English country village.

Broadchurch is very different in almost every respect: it is set in a very ordinary, modern, conventional English seaside town. There is no protracted mystery over the fate of 11-year-old Danny Latimer: while Mayday took three and a half hours to reveal what happened to Hattie, Broadchurch speeds us to the scene of Danny’s mother Beth grieving for her dead son on the beach in less than 11 minutes from the opening titles, which seems rather a rush and wasted opportunity to build up some initial tension.

And that rather sets in place the problem I have with Broadchurch. Despite its many strengths – top cast and quality writing chief among them – its pace seems off. It’s clearly trying to emulate Forbrydelsen in taking its time to tell a tale, and there’s no problem with that; but the Danish series managed to tell a story carefully and slowly at great length but in such a way that almost every scene was unbearably tense and gripping, and the moment when an episode ended with a cliffhanger left you howling in exasperation for more. By contrast, Broadchurch has been notably lacking in narrative drive almost from the start: in the first three episodes it seemed that no one in the show is really all that bothered about who killed Danny Latimer, with the locals more concerned on when the forensic SOCO tents on the beach would come down so that the tourist trade could get back up and running. The biggest cliffhanger so far has been a slow pan out to a derelict boat ablaze off-shore.

Within the story, the only character with any sense of drive and zeal about solving the murder is town newcomer DI Alec Hardy. He’s assigned as the lead investigator, and he’s presented as being over-wrought and ‘big city’, leaving everyone else looking perplexed at why on earth he should want things done ASAP and not tomorrow. Hardy’s sidekick is longtime local DS Ellie Miller who feels hard done by for not having got the DI job herself – but then, seeing her flap about, unable to give a morning assignment briefing to the murder team, you wonder who on earth thought she might be up to the job in the first place.

Unlike Mayday’s sidelined police, Broadchurch’s primary focus on the police investigation is very much singing from the Forbrydelsen song book (audibly, too, if you listen to the music by Icelandic star Ólafur Arnalds.) The detectives are played by David Tennant and Olivia Colman and both are excellent, even though the character of Hardy is such a stereotypically dark, angst-ridden dour cop that it takes all of Tennant’s considerable acting skills not to have us roll our eyes at the cliché. He just about pulls it off, and there’s a scene in episode four where he’s forced into a social dinner with his subordinate Ellie and her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) that is by far the best single sequence in the entire first half of the series – simultaneously hilarious, awkward and revealing.

The rest of the cast is initially introduced in an early tour-de-force single tracking shot by director James Strong that follows Danny’s father Mark as he walks through the town streets on his way to work, greeting more than a dozen people by name who will come to be suspects. Unlike Mayday, however, none are made to stand out initially: there’s no one obviously to blame, which means that everyone is a suspect. No overt suspicious behaviour from any one or two people means we watch everyone for the smallest little twitch that could suggest something darker underneath. It’s almost the complete flipside to Mayday’s more cartoonish approach.

While taking its time with the quiet approach to introducing the town’s characters, Broadchurch again follows the lead of Forbrydelsen by concentrating on the grief of the Latimer family: as Beth and Mark, Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan give top-notch performances, despite Buchan being landed early on with ‘not reacting as he should be doing to his son’s murder’ red herring status and generally being revealed as being somewhat less than the perfect loving husband and father than he appeared in that early tracking shot.

Mark is a plumber and works with Nige (Joe Sims), a rather too-eager-to-please apprentice that will bring to mind the character of Theis Birk Larsen’s sidekick Vagn in Forbrydelsen to those with suspicious minds. Added to that is the mysterious caravan-dweller (Pauline Quirke), the newsagent with a criminal past (David Bradley), members of the local press (Carolyn Pickles and Jonathan Bailey) and their big city counterpart (Vicky McClure), an odd cleric (Arthur Darvill), an amorous Antipodean hotelier (Simone McAullay) and a telephone engineer with psychic pretensions (Will Mellor). It takes a long while for these characters to start to pick up momentum – it’s not until episode four that it really feels as though they’re finally doing anything other than standing around waiting to get noticed – and in the meantime the series does rather lack for something to really grip the interest. That’s something Forbrydelsen never did for all its Nordic pace and extended running time.

I feel I’m being slightly unfair to Broadchurch, because I’m working on having seen only four of the eight 40-minute episodes whereas with Mayday I’ve seen all five hour long instalments, thanks to them being shown on connective evenings on BBC compared with its weekly ITV counterpart. That means it’s possible to evaluate Mayday as a complete piece, but Broadchurch is still a work in progress and everything could change in the remaining four episodes. For example, one of my criticisms of Broadchurch was going to be how the national press barely played a part in the proceedings; but episode 4 suddenly made a plot point of implementing this, and did it well. But whatever happens to make sense of any perceived early shortcomings, the startlingly inept Family Liaison Officer is a definite and rather bizarre misstep to the otherwise believable proceedings.

Regardless of how it shapes up as a whole, I simply haven’t found Broadchurch as captivating as so many others have done. I caught the first episode of Mayday without intending to watch more, but ended up compelled to see it through; while with Broadchurch, I committed in advance to watching the entire series but have to admit that there have been points over the first few episodes where I’ve felt my concentration drifting to other things, and have almost forgotten to watch the next episode. That’s not a great endorsement, so as good as Broadchurch is in so many departments I have to say I’m slightly underwhelmed so far. I earnestly hope that it picks up and really delivers in the remainder of its run.

[Geek Addendum: Broadchurch will likely appeal to avid Doctor Who fans, and not just down to it being David Tennant’s biggest TV drama outing since leaving the science fiction show. There’s also Olivia Colman, who memorably barked her head off at Tennant’s successor as the Doctor; Arthur Darvill, who was long-time companion Rory; and David Bradley, who not only featured as a black-hearted villain in the most recent run of Matt Smith episodes in 2012 but who will also play First Doctor William Hartnell in Mark Gatiss’ forthcoming 50th anniversary drama about the BBC serial’s real life beginnings. Add to that the fact that the show is created and written by Doctor Who writer and Torchwood show runner Chris Chibnall and you have quite the Time Lord stew even before adding in a cameo from Simon Rouse who was so memorable as Hindle in classic Who serial “Kinda” in 1982 before becoming a long time The Bill regular!]

Broadchurch continues at 9pm on Monday evenings on ITV with each episode available via ITV Player for a week afterwards. The series is released on DVD on May 20, 2013. Mayday is available on DVD from April 8, 2013

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