TV preview: Southcliffe | Steve Coogan

Sean Harris as Stephen in Southcliffe
Sean Harris as Stephen in Southcliffe
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A senile old woman clutches to her chest a purse containing her own faeces. Her son, a damaged war veteran, is hunted through the woods and urinated on.


Sunday and Monday, 
Channel 4, 9pm

Steve Coogan: Stand Up Down Under

Tuesday and Wednesday, 
Sky Atlantic, 9pm

The following morning, their sleepy market town is devastated by a random spate of shootings. Welcome to sunny Southcliffe, a monumentally grim yet utterly engrossing and – dare I say it? - profound drama from Warp Films (This Is England) and writer Tony Grisoni (Red Riding).

Directed by US indie filmmaker Sean Durkin, it’s an atmospheric piece wrapped in an overcast pall and characterised by static, locked-off shots, queasy slow zooms and a distinct lack of incidental score. Although part one burns rather too slowly for its own good, it subsequently exerts a powerful grip, as we find ourselves trapped within the tragic lives of these characters.

With obvious echoes of the Raoul Moat case, Southcliffe unfolds in a town with a strong Armed Forces presence, where machismo rules and emotions are suppressed. Grisoni explores the debilitating effects of war via Sean Harris’ dead-eyed loner and a conflicted young soldier (Joe Dempsie) just back from Afghanistan.

Reporting on the aftermath of the shootings, Rory Kinnear’s cynical, embittered journalist returns to his childhood home to confront, not only the grief, trauma and Little Englander hypocrisies of the locals, but his own unhappy past. He’s also seeking neat explanations for an inexplicable event. Why, Grisoni asks, do these things happen? How do you make sense of the senseless?

His dialogue is spare, natural and convincing, and despite the harrowing subject matter, the violence isn’t gratuitous: Durkin always places the killings off camera. Given that one of Grisoni’s themes is media sensationalism of such tragedies, it’s a wise and sensitive move.

The non-linear structure, in which the action frequently flashes back to show events from different perspectives, provides a sense of these characters being trapped in a vicious cycle. The daily reliability and innate Britishness of the shipping forecast is a recurring, gently sinister, motif. From the tortured couple played by Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson, to the self-destructive landlord played by Anatol Yusef, Grisoni tackles head on the various ways human beings deal with grief. The cast is uniformly outstanding, never once overplaying their roles.

If this all sounds unbearably sad, believe you me it is. But it never feels heavy-handed or worthy. This isn’t a piece of pointless misery porn. It’s a commendably sincere and sympathetic attempt to confront the unimaginable, while offering acute comment on the uglier side of British society. It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss dramas of this nature as mere BAFTA bait. But Southcliffe is a major work, and quite easily the best British TV drama of the year so far.

Laughter time! In Steve Coogan: Stand Up Down Under, the comedian takes his one-man show through Australia and New Zealand, while grumbling backstage about faulty microphones and the tedium of touring. And that’s about it. While it’s certainly interesting witnessing Coogan as himself, the repetitive nature of this self-produced documentary tends to wear thin.

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