‘Happy returns,’ was the message on a sinister and anonymous letter sent to David at the start of episode four which marked one year since the Southcliffe shootings. David’s fear was that someone was about to repeat the shooting spree, but he was really just looking for an excuse to return to the town; the letter was the only prompt he needed to go seeking answers about the event that ruined his life and left him unemployed and living alone without his wife and children.
‘This is just some nutter,’ his former journalism colleague said about the letter’s author. ‘Stephen Morton was just some nutter, wasn’t he?’ David replied. And so back to Southcliffe he went, where he met briefly with the soldier Chris, who told him that he was right when he said Southcliffe deserved the shooting spree. David though was clearly remorseful about his rant in the pub, and spent the episode speaking to people in the town, looking for something concrete and satisfying that could give him a sense of closure.
The bulk of the episode though followed Claire – the mother of the murdered Anna – chasing some imagined part of her daughter’s life before she died. This storyline didn’t work for me, and bordered on absurd at times, as Claire dressed up like a prostitute to gain entry to a building she thought a former acquaintance of Anna’s was being held in. I wasn’t a big fan of Shirley Henderson’s performance in the show, playing Claire as constantly upset and anxious, before and after the shootings. Her physical movement in the episode was really affected and mannered, constantly grabbing or shaking, drawing attention to the actor and the acting rather than the character.
As The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, the scenes with Claire were ‘both unconvincing and distracting.’ It would have been much better to spend the episode with Chris and with David, two characters we already knew extensively who were involved in the show’s central storyline. The problem with devoting big chunks of episodes to these little slices of grief coping is that if it works, as it did with Paul last episode, it’s fine, but if it doesn’t, lots of the episode seems irrelevant and slow, distracting from the show’s main storyline
As a result, we saw very little of Chris, who was struggling with feelings of guilt, believing he was responsible for Stephen’s shooting spree and thus indirectly responsible for his wife’s death. He broke into David’s hotel room, with the reporter following and confronting him. Near the episode’s end, David tracked Chris to his house, were he stopped him from killing himself. Chris presumably at one point considered replicating Stephen’s attack, and sent David the letter as an unconscious cry for help, one David responded too.
And that was the end of Southcliffe, barring one final shot of David at the town music festival. The show was never going to give a satisfying resolution. It explored a specific crime – shooting sprees – which usually leave behind unanswered questions and bafflement. It would be untruthful for the show to end with a fulfilling conclusion. Still, the ending was too sudden, and I don’t think it was the right decision to leave David completely unaware of the attack Chris and his uncle carried out on Stephen.
Really, the episode was a little unnecessary. Nothing much happened in it. Like I said, I didn’t like the storyline with Claire, but even if you did, most of its themes were already covered last week with Paul. And there was very little about Chris, who, after David and Stephen, was the most interesting character in the show.
Those scenes that did involve Chris were I think trying to provide a contrast between him and Stephen. David prevented any deaths this episode, because he noticed Chris’ fragile mental state and his cries for help. Nobody paid such attention to Stephen. Considering the show spent a lot of time exploring whether or not such attacks can be prevented, or if people who conduct them can be spotted and helped, it would have been better to spend the bulk of this last episode with Chris and David, looking further at these issues.
Criticism aside, I really liked Southcliffe. The directing was inventive throughout, and the tone of the show – quiet and with no music score – unusual. The acting was outstanding; think for instance how influential Stephen has been throughout the series despite only featuring substantially in the first episode. That’s in large part down to Sean Harris’s acting. Rory Kinnear was also excellent as David, and his character interesting and original; a cynical journalist, okay, not that different, but also a misanthrope whose worst aspects were exaggerated and then, by the final episode, pacified by the town’s tragedy.
If the show had aired earlier in the year I would probably have put it in my Best TV of the Year So Far article. It wasn’t without its flaws, it was a little too slow and it often went off on distracting tangents, but Southcliffe was enjoyably dark, gripping and thought-provoking.
- I’m never sure with TV and film what to attribute to the work of the director and what to attribute to the cinematographer, but either way some of the shots in Southcliffe were stunning
- Incidentally, the show was directed by Sean Durkin, who wrote and directed the multi-award winning film Martha Marcy May Marlene, and was written by Tony Grisoni, screenwriter of the Red Riding trilogy and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas adaptation.
- The little flashbacks to David’s childhood were okay but could have been fleshed out a bit more.
- ‘You put us in a zoo,’ one of Southcliffe’s residents told David. It’d be interesting to know what those from Hungerford, and Cumbria and other towns were shooting sprees have taken place, made of the show.