That’s DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) to DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) in Broadchurch Season 1. The ITV drama follows their investigation into the death of a local boy – 11-year-old Danny Latimer – who is found lying on a beach. When forensics suggest strangulation rather than suicide, the familiar procedural plot begins to unravel. But Broadchurch is more than a bog standard whodunnit: it’s a study of grief.
From the moment Danny’s mother, Beth (an agonisingly good Jodie Whittaker), sees her son on the sand, the impact of bereavement is placed in the foreground – right alongside the uncovering of the killer’s identity. Even Hardy, who is drafted in to lead the team despite a previous child murder investigation going wrong, carries tragic baggage with him. But where many detective shows would simply follow the outsider scrutinising the local community, creator and writer Chris Chibnall also gives us Ellie – an insider with an unavoidable connection to the whole case.
In such a small setting, the loss of Danny permeates everyone’s lives – and Broadchurch finds time to explore all of them. It’s about character as much as crime, from the parish reverend, Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), who warns the town it must stick together to survive, to the local newsagent (David Bradley), who has his own past scandal to unearth. Through it all wades the local journos – including an enthusiastic Olly, who also happens to be Ellie’s nephew, and the shrewd Karen, a national reporter for The Daily Herald who swoops in from the city to dig up some juicy gossip.
The media’s role in sensationalising the case only emphasises the pain of it for the bereaved family, who find themselves facing revelation after revelation about loved ones and close acquaintances. Soon, everyone becomes a possible candidate for the murder, be it summer house manager Susan (played with an abrupt menace by Pauline Quirke) or even Danny’s own dad, Mark, who spends more time away from home than his wife would like. Every person is portrayed with equal parts compassion and suspicion, an astounding ensemble of performances that makes the mini society heartbreakingly sincere.
Hardy sifts through every detail with a ruthless detachment – and a soft edge of vulnerability, thanks to Tennant’s superbly understated turn (and overstated facial hair). But it’s Olivia Colman’s cop who draws you in: just like the Latimers, every new piece of information is a shock to her system. “These are friends. People I’ve known all my life,” she exclaims to Hardy, who spends the time trying to talk her into becoming less involved. For her, funerals are opportunities to pay respect; for him, they’re a chance to scope out any strange behaviour.
When a town is grieving, though, strange behaviour is the norm, and that juxtaposition between insider and outsider perspective becomes the driving force of the narrative – one highlighted by the fact that Hardy only ever calls Ellie by her surname, Miller. What starts out as a study of grief for Whittaker’s family becomes an examination of loss for our policewoman too: a mother and wife herself (to Matthew Gravelle’s loyal Joe) who finds herself losing trust in all those around her. It gives the familiar whodunnit formula a huge emotional punch, as she moves from denial through anger to acceptance. It also adds a spiky heart to the detectives’ typically witty odd couple banter.
“So your commitment to this investigation stops outside these doors?” asks Hardy, when he suggests her son could be used in a reconstruction of Danny’s final moments.
“With respect sir,” a tearful Ellie retorts, “move away from me now, or I will piss in a cup and throw it at you.”
Following their work on Doctor Who and Sherlock, James Strong and Euros Lyn direct events with a subtle flair (backed up by Ólafur Arnalds’ intimate piano soundtrack). The opening shot of Danny standing still zooms out to reveal he’s on the edge of a cliff, a motif that eventually becomes the programme’s signature: as Mark’s friend, Nigel, storms out of a heated argument with Susan, the camera pulls away through a window; as Ellie stands, upset, in a field, we back away to leave her alone. Soon, it’s not just the Australian innkeeper, Becca, trying to keep the tourism industry going, or the rude, unlikeable Hardy, flown in from another town, who feel like strangers: the notion of isolation within a group spreads through the increasingly fragmented Broadchurch – accompanied by misery.
The result is a contender for the most depressing TV show of all time. Broadchurch is like a sadness generator set to its saddest setting, left on autopilot while The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve plays in the background. Every time you think the residents can’t be any more upset, something even sadder happens. But its melancholy is as engaging as its mystery, a combination that saw the drama series become a sensation across the UK during its original broadcast. Broadchurch is not just a compellingly plotted and densely layered crime thriller: it’s a study in grief that reverberates with humanity, even as it pulls it apart. A tragedy, the saying goes, can bring people together. Broadchurch is a distressingly brilliant piece of television.
Season 1 and 2 of Broadchurch are available on-demand with ITV Encore, ITV’s premium subscription channel. ITV Encore is available through Sky on demand and Sky Go. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream ITV Encore’s catalogue through NOW TV, which costs £6.99 a month, no contract.
Where can I watch Broadchurch on pay-per-view VOD?
Broadchurch Season 1 recap (warning: spoilers)
DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to Broadchurch police station, only to discover that the role of DI she was earmarked for has been given to Alec Hardy (David Tennant). They are soon faced with the case of Danny Latimer, an 11 year old body whose body has been found on the local beach, seemingly having jumped off the cliff.
A distraught Beth (Jodie Whittaker) sees the body as the police are examining the crime scene. The forensic team decide that accident has been staged, with Danny actually strangled earlier.
Hardy tells Beth and her family – including husband, Mark Latimer – about the circumstances of Danny’s death, but wants to keep the media coverage to a minimum. However, Ellie’s nephew, Olly, is an eager journalist keen to get a job with a national paper. He leaks information about the found body on Twitter, much to the disappointment of Ellie, which attracts the attention of reporter Karen, from national paper The Daily Herald. She disobeys her editor and heads straight to the town to scoop an exclusive.
Ellie and her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) tell their son, Tom, about the death of his friend. Tom immediately decides to wipe the memory of his mobile phone and computer. Karen approaches Chloe Latimer (Beth’s daughter) to try and get an interview, while Ellie notices that Danny’s phone is missing. In response to the leak, Hardy holds a press conference asking for more information.
Mark becomes the police’s first suspect, after his alibi – involving his friend, Nigel – turns out to be dubious. Other secrets surface, such as the fact that Beth is pregnant. She confides in the local priest, Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), about her baby. Drugs and money are found in the Latimer household – specifically, in Danny’s and Chloe’s bedrooms – which are linked to the local B&B owner, Becca, by Chloe, who is secretly trying to protect her older boyfriend, Dean, from being arrested.
The case builds against Mark, thanks to blood found on his fishing boat, as well as his fingerprint appearing in a summer house near the cliffs. Marks says he fixed a pipe there, although caretaker Susan (Pauline Quirke) denies this.
Further details arise about Danny’s final movements, with newsagent Jack (David Bradley) saying he spotted him having an argument with a postman. Facts are muddled, though, when local psychic/token weirdo Steve claims that he’s received “messages” that informed him Danny was killed in a boat by someone the boy knew. Steve attempts to get close to Beth so she can convince the police to listen to him – something Hardy angrily opposes. The inspector, meanwhile, is revealed to be sick, with a heart condition that requires pills to keep him from collapsing.
Mark is released from custody when Becca admits that Mark was with her on the night of Danny’s death: the two are having an affair. Beth finds out and threatens Becca, while Mark begs forgiveness. More information about people’s pasts is unveiled, from Jack’s former conviction for sex with a minor before he moved to Broadchurch (where he now runs the sailing club with the local kids) to Hardy’s own motivations for wanting to solve the Danny case: things went wrong with an unsolved case in a previous town, Sandbrook. Susan, meanwhile, is unmasked by the local newspaper editor as someone called Elaine Jones – but when confronted, Susan makes her own violent threats against the editor. She then goes to threaten Nigel too, with her own knowledge of his history.
A memorial service is held for Danny, where the Reverend reminds the community to stick together.
Karen secures her interview with Beth, saying the media attention will help, but all it does (after Karen convinces Olly to write a follow-up piece about Jack) is throw national light on the newsagent’s past – especially when he discovers Danny’s phone in the bottom of a bag left behind after a sailing club session. Olly and Karen have sex. This makes Olly happy.
Ellie attempts to become friends with Hardy, who is found unconscious by Becca after drinking at a dinner with Ellie and her husband, Joe. Hardy continues work on the case, though, interrogating Reverend Coates about Tom, Danny and their interest in computers. Chloe’s under-age relationship with Dean comes to light, while Nigel tries to bribe Susan to leave.
Hounded by the locals for being a pedophile, the Reverend asks the police to protect Jack. We find out that Jack married his “victim”, who was one month under-age at the time of their initial, consensual affair – and with whom he later had a child, who died in a car crash at the age of six. Distraught, Jack kills himself.
A service is held for Jack, at which the Reverend repeats his calls for the community not to fail innocent people. Tom says that Danny and he were no longer friends before Danny’s death, while the Reverend is revealed to be a recovering alcoholic, who previously assaulted a child. Beth arranges to meet the mother of a child in the Sandbrook case to find out what it’s like dealing with the grief and the media.
Ellie and Hardy investigate the boat, where they find hair and fingerprints – prompting a string of DNA tests from various suspects. Susan, meanwhile, gives Tom Danny’s skateboard. At night, a break-in at the cordoned off summer house prompts a foot chase with a suspect, who escapes when Hardy has a heart attack,
Susan, who it turns out found Danny’s body in the early hours of the morning but said nothing, is revealed to be Nigel’s mother during a police interview. She is released without charge after she admits to stealing fuel – a crime that is reported in Episode 1 – and says that she saw Nigel placing Danny’s body on the beach.
Hardy explains to the local newspaper team that Sandbrook’s murder case was unsolved because his ex-wife lost evidence. She was having an affair with another officer. Hardy took the blame to protect everyone else – and, most of all, his teenage daughter from finding out.
Tom’s computer is given to the police by the Reverend, whom Tom asked to hide it. (The Reverend, meanwhile, is also striking up an attachment with Becca.) Hardy examines the PC. Combined with information about a footprint, a slew of deleted emails and the reactivation of Danny’s phone (which can be tracked), Hardy discovers the source of Tom and Danny’s fight:
Highlight to read: Joe was having a (non-sexual) affair with Danny. When Danny threatened to expose him, Joe accidentally strangled him in a fit of rage, only to cover up the murder and make it look like an accident. (Because Nigel and Joe are both bald, Susan mistook Ellie’s husband for her son.)
Hardy tells Ellie, who was unaware of any of this. She attacks her husband, before being removed from the police station.
She takes the children to lay low in a hotel, while the killer’s capture is revealed to the press. Hardy tells the Latimers, who then hold a funeral for their boy – a ceremony that prompts beacons to be lit by communities all along the Dorset coast in memory of Danny.
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