Southcliffe review – Episode One – Channel 4

Southcliffe Channel 4Four-part drama Southcliffe explorers a shooting spree in a small English town, the reason – if any – for the attack, and the affect it has on the town community. Episode one was quiet and moody, and focused on the days leading up to the gunman’s attack.

Southcliffe feels a little bit like BAFTA-bait, tackling a difficult subject matter with a cast packed full of award winning actors and with pointedly arty direction. I’m liking it so far though, and I appreciate any drama that is willing to be quiet and reflective, and which avoids being unnecessarily exciting. A lot of ‘serious’ dramas are self-consciously slow, as if afraid that any momentum will transform them into an instant Michael Bay film, but Southcliffe just about managed to get the pace right, opening with the first gunshots breaking a quiet and peaceful morning, skipping back in time for the rest of the episode, and then closing with the attack again.

The show is presumably influenced by shootings sprees in the UK, most probably the 2010 Cumbria and 1987 Hungerford shootings, and will explore what makes someone with no criminal past suddenly kill numerous ordinary people. The ‘suddenly’ part of that sentence is the bit we usually get wrong, because people don’t just suddenly do these things; there are complex psychological reasons behind it.

Southcliffe tried to address this, but it is, so far, a little heavy handed in its characterisation of the killer. Stephen Morton is a man who carves numbers into his hand, a fantasist who pretends he was in the SAS, and takes a soldier recently returned from Afghanistan on an ‘SAS course,’ only to start shooting at him in the woods. After the soldier spoke to his actual SAS uncle and confirmed Stephen to be a fraud, the two of them took Stephen into the woods, chased him down, beat him up and humiliated him.

The issue I have with this is that people who actually go on shooting sprees are usually more subtly unhinged and have less understandable motivations. A good scene in this episode was a part where Stephen was refused payment for a job, by someone who clearly thought he could patronise and ignore him. Scenes like this, as with Stephen’s continual but quiet humiliation by the townsfolk – calling him ‘Commander’ and mocking his military ambitions – are a better and more realistic way of explaining what makes people commit such horrible crimes.

The other major theme in the episode was the mental trauma of soldiers, and how they are dealt with by society. Chris, the soldier who beat up Stephen, was taking drugs, hiding them from his wife, and was struggling to deal with the death of an army friend. Whilst in the woods with Stephen, he seemed on the brink of post traumatic stress, shaking with a gun in his head. Stephen is a former soldier himself, and that military past is a huge part of his ego. Having it so brutally stomped on by two other soldiers presumably played a part in his eventual mental breakdown.

Sean Harris was great playing Stephen, although he had a frustrating tendency to mumble too much, and Joe Dempsie was impressive playing Chris. Rory Kinnear as the cynical reporter will play a bigger part next episode. And I look forward to that episode, because I found this first one promising and intriguing, if a little slow.

Random notes:

  • Two other notable scenes this episode: Stephen phoned Claire, his mother’s carer, just before going on his killing spree, only getting an answer machine, which will probably play on her conscience next week; and the scene in the pub between Stephen and Chris, where Stephen reached out and Chris dismissively mumbled ‘yeah, well you’re the don.’ That seems to have been the small thing that started the chain of events leading to the attack. Although, trying to track down that one tipping point is probably a fool’s errand, one which Rory Kinnear’s reporter will be off on next episode.
  • There was probably one too many shots with strange framing; through car windows or with the characters out of shot and the screen filled with empty space.
  • The opening scene was quite ethereal, contrasting the beauty of a foggy morning with the brutality of a gunshot.
  • Lots of still shots and slow pans, which I liked.

Southcliffe Reviews: Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four

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One thought on “Southcliffe review – Episode One – Channel 4

  1. I started watching it and got a bit confused about the chronology of events. It opens with Stephen bursting into a couples’ bedroom and shooting the woman, then switches to the reporter being reluctantly assigned the story by his editor. Then the context switched to before the shootings. I got terribly confused until I worked out that it was a flashback to previous events.

    As you said, it was very heavy handed. They practically painted a sign on Stephen’s back saying ‘I am a weirdo’. To be fair, I was very tired and may not have given it my best attention. Decided not to bother after the first 20-minutes and changed channel to watch QI instead. ;).

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