Broadchurch is back and, defying detractors, you can feel its instant fascination once more drawing viewers in once more. It’s also prompted me – perhaps cynically – to dig out a transcript of an interview I conducted with the show’s writer, Chris Chibnall, on 4th April 2013, between the broadcast of series one, episodes five and six.
When you’re doing a drama like this and there’s still post-production going on and you know it’s been a big success, does that make any difference to how you deal with it?
No. It doesn’t. It makes it nicer to go into work. You’re not going in thinking, “Why am I bothering, because only 10 people are watching and they’re all from my family”. No, you don’t change a thing. I think, for us, it’s been exciting, because our last episodes are some of our strongest. I’m watching them thinking, “That’s going to be exciting to see them go out on a Monday night at 9pm”. You don’t change. It’s very clear what the show is, and we were very clear what we wanted to do with it all along. So there’s nothing really shifted in that. It’s more exciting thinking, it’s worth doing it. It’s worth doing it really well because a lot of people are watching it.
Is it nicely baffling that it’s done so well?
Is there a part of you thinking, “What’s gone right”?
There’s a big part of me thinking, “What’s gone right?”, because you don’t do anything different to how you make any other show.
You don’t think, “This is going to be a 60 per cent show…”
“I’ll do this really well, as opposed the other ones I just didn’t bother with”. It’s always interesting when people go, “That’s really lazily written”. You think, it’s never lazily written. It might not be right. But every writer I know works really hard. So I think, no, it’s a lovely, alchemy that’s happened on this that you can’t really analyse. We didn’t do it as a big ratings grab, or a ratings winner. Our brief was: go and do something really bold and authored with a very clear point of view. So ITV were very much behind it being as strong as it could possibly be. And they never said to us, “You’ve got to do this to make it more ratings friendly or ITV friendly”. Never had that, no. It was all, “Make it as strong as you can”. I’m not sure what lessons to take from this, other than do what you believe in and be bold, really. And I think that’s what we’ve all taken from it.
I’m not trying to sound cynical, but that sounds like an unusual brief from ITV.
I think people think it’s an unusual brief from ITV.
Is it not?
It’s not, no. And actually a lot of their shows are like that. Obviously, if you’re on series six of whatever, there are certain things you have to deliver for the audience expectation. My experience of them on Law & Order: UK was the same, to be honest. They were like, “Make the best version of that format. Don’t talk down to people”.
But with that, they knew what they were getting to an extent.
Well, they did, but also you could argue there’d never been a drama with such a high legal content that had ever worked on ITV. The pace of the storytelling is so incredibly fast on Law & Order. I remember reading lots of stuff before it went out, everybody saying, “That’s clearly not going to work – because it’s not suitable for ITV for all these reasons”. But actually they wanted the most robust form of Law & Order, they never wanted a watered-down, soap Law & Order. They don’t micro-manage, they don’t interfere. They’re very writer-friendly, they’re very creative-friendly.
Is that because it’s you?
No. I don’t think that makes any difference! I’m not a super-power, do you know what I mean? I’m just trying to analyse it, but what I hope is – when I go in, or we go in and pitch them a show – we deliver that show. We don’t then go off and make another show. You have to deliver it to the nth degree and in the best possible way. The boldest possible way. With Law & Order we did that. The UK version feels very different to the US in many ways. And it’s cast in a very ITV, deliberate way.
Can you almost feel it out there – people reacting to Broadchurch? That must be something you’ve never quite had before.
Yeah. I think it makes a difference seeing it at 9pm on a Monday. Yeah, I do go on about that, because I think it’s designed for that. It’s designed for those ad breaks. It’s designed for a big cliffhanger at the end of the episode. It’s designed to play at 9pm on Monday, in four acts. And so, I think there’s nothing quite like watching it as it goes out. And also we have cliffhangers and reveals and twists that if you watch it three days later and you’ve been on Twitter, you’re going to get those spoiled for you. The end of episode five being a prime example. I’ve been banging on about that. But it’s nice to be able to! It’s nice to have that conduit and go, “It’s worth recording the other one, because that’ll probably be alright in three days time. Watch us live because people will be talking about it afterwards”. To feel that people are doing that is very exciting.
Is that tangible? I know you’ve done lots of big shows, but has that felt more profound for you?
It feels more… “profound” is a very dangerous word!
Yeah, very tangible. It is. Talking to David [Tennant] he said, “Well, I’ve not really had anything like this for a long time”. And it’s different to being in Doctor Who, it’s a different show. I think Kudos, who’ve made a lot of big shows, they’re all saying, “This is different”. It is the thing of people ringing you up and going, “Oh, I was in the doctor’s waiting room and people were theorising about it”. It’s that kind of stuff. It feels like… what’s exciting is it feels like people have taken ownership of the show in a really positive way. They’re really up for it, and they’re ready for it, and we didn’t realise they were ready for it. They didn’t realise they were ready for it and we just made the show. ITV positioned it well and marketed it brilliantly. And scheduled it well. It feels like the result of that is people feel like it’s theirs. Which is really lovely and maybe it’s the thing ITV does at its best, that maybe nowhere else does.
It’s interesting you talk about the marketing. But somehow everyone knew it was going to be good. And you started in a tricky week, because there was Mayday on the BBC…
Yeah, well, Mayday was a deliberate spoiler. They moved it to that slot to go against us.
What was the alchemy that let people know beforehand that Broadchurch was going to be good?
I think a brilliant marketing campaign, and you will always see writers moaning about how they don’t get the right publicity or any publicity… or the wrong publicity. You know, I could not have been more delighted with the marketing campaign. I think the promo was great. They used a great track on that. It’s been a very sensitive campaign. I think they just trod the line between… they created a buzz but they didn’t create any hype. They didn’t say, “This is amazing”, they said, “We really believe in it”.
That ties in with what you’re saying about people engaging with it. It’s having its cake and eating it, because it’s on a Monday night at 9pm – which is a great slot – and yet it’s the sort of a show people feel like they’ve discovered.
Yes, yes. I think that’s how it was positioned. The audience has grown generally, which is very unusual for a drama. There was just good word of mouth. Also, I think it was down to the cast. It’s down to… People love David, people adore Olivia and maybe a lot of that ITV audience haven’t seen her in a big role before. This feels like a once in a career experience, and that’s great. To have that is really lovely and strange and you just have to sit back and enjoy it a little bit and then carry on with your day job.
Kind of put it behind you.
Yeah. Because you can’t do anything about it.
So I want to talk about creating the series. Did you write it as a whodunnit?
Yeah. I think the analogy I’m using to explain it is there’s a difference between the engine and the car. The engine is the whodunnit, and that’s what will power you through eight hours. But the engine is not the car, and the car is a different thing. It’s about lots of different things. It’s a piece about community and family and faith and belief and fear and our relationship to death and grief. But within that you use the engine of the whodunnit to take you through people’s lives.
Was the germ of it, “I’m going to do a piece about a community” or was it, “I’m going to do a whodunnit that will let me do that”?
The germ of it was a piece about a community and a piece about a town, and it’s town where I live. Literally, where I live. But having done a fair amount of crime drama – having done Life On Mars and Law & Order – I think crime is a brilliant, brilliant prism through which you can explore anything and any themes. Particularly contemporary themes. It’s the best possible prism to do that.
A classic chicken and egg question, but you were putting the show together were you thinking, “I want to do this story and so I need this person”? Or, “I want to write about this person, how can I fit them into the story”?
That’s a question about which comes first, story or character. And that depends on what kind of writer you are. For me, character comes first. Broadchurch was always character-driven. So I created the characters first knowing there would be a suspicious death in there. I made an ensemble who would give the broadest possible reaction to that. But you start with the people, because I think in television drama, honestly, that’s what viewers come back for. They also come back for the mystery and the whodunnit thing, but actually they come back because they’re interested in the characters. They’re interested in how the people react to the mystery, not just the mystery. Mystery by itself is empty.
So do you sometimes find that you might have a character you want to… forgive me, this is a very stupid question…
No, no, there are no stupid questions.
…They just don’t fit. You realise you can’t work a character into the plot unless you transform them so much? Do you have to bin things off?
Yeah, that’s just the process of writing. You do. But I researched it quite a lot before I started writing it. I researched lots of different aspects. So, I knew that the characters I was putting in belonged there, because I knew there were analogies to real life experiences. And I was very careful about who I put in.
I know you’re a dad. Yes, yes.
And there’s a parental bereavement at the centre of this. How did you go about writing that? Particularly the scenes with Beth?
Well, that comes from your innermost fears. That’s in a way, maybe what’s chiming with people – that a lot of this is my fears and soul laid bare. A lot of Broadchurch is a ‘what if’ scenario as well as a whodunnit. Maybe, again, that’s what’s chiming with people. It’s, “How would you respond if you were in this situation?” For me, that’s what was in the writing of it. It’s, “Okay, I’ve put myself in that morgue as the dad”, or with Beth running down the road [in episode one].
That was exactly the scene I was thinking of.
That’s the bit where your heart knocks.
When you were writing that scene, did you know it was going to end up being such a strong moment?
I think you hopefully know what the big images are, and that was always a big image for me, right from the start. In screen writing, you have to ask yourself, “What are the big images?” not just what are the big scenes. And there are five or six in that first episode, and that was one of them. That was very early on. Even before you start writing, you’ve got that. You pour yourself into it. You pour yourself into all aspects of it and find surprising answers.
When it comes to episode eight, is there pressure on you to deliver?
No. It was the easiest episode to write because I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, when I wrote episode one. It was hard emotionally to write, as you would imagine given the tone of the series. But I knew what it was, all along. I had it planned and there was nothing that changed. So it’s very much a fulfilment of the first seven episodes, and going back to episode one.
Do you feel anxious on a Monday night when it’s going out?
I feel anxious every Monday night! I used to write plays and I used to go to the theatre every evening and watch them. With Broadchurch I feel like I’ve got stage fright at about a quarter-to-nine every Monday. I’ve never had that on anything. I don’t feel that on any other shows.
When you’re writing David and Olivia’s characters… Yeah.
It’s a weird thing, because it’s one of those shows that if you read a précis of it, it could sound quite trite.
So when you’re coming up with people who are essentially oddball, mismatched coppers, is that a curse when you’re writing it?
No, no. No because… It’s probably harder for people who have to describe it. That’s why I wrote the script first, because if you write a document you go: “There’s a cop from the city, he comes to the country… he’s got his demons”. I think the trick in mainstream television drama is do the simple things well. That’s the hardest thing you can do. In life. You can use it as a maxim for life! If you reduce it to a sentence it feels like a cliché, but behind any cliché there’s a truth and something to be mined. In a way, again because I wrote it first, I wasn’t looking at the structure in that way. I was just like, “There’s a character here who’s interesting to me – I’m going to pursue that”. Then you write it and go, “Oh, I’ve got a pair of mismatched cops” but it’s alright, because it’s David and Olivia and actually, frankly, I could watch them doing the filing for an hour. So you just play the truth of that.
Were you involved in the casting?
Yeah, I was involved in everything. I really, properly, show-ran it. I accidentally wrote Ellie for Olivia. I have lots of whiteboards and everything gets plotted on whiteboards. The big story arcs, the details of the episodes. When we were doing the character breakdowns, I put ‘Ellie’ and I put, ‘Olivia Coleman’ on the board. Two years ago. Then I forgot about it. When Jane Featherstone read it at Kudos, she said, “Oh, Ellie would be like an Olivia Coleman character”. I was like, “Great!” Then I saw the photo of the whiteboard months later. “Oh, so I accidentally wrote it for her!”
What about David?
David is an incredibly versatile actor and the interesting thing – and the tough thing – of doing something like the Doctor when he did it so brilliantly, is it can be career-defining. People can go, “Oh, that’s what he does”. That’s not what he does. That’s what he did once, and he did if definitively – he’s one of those definitive Doctors –but he can do much more than that. Look at his Hamlet; that’s extraordinary and dark and strange. All the stuff he’s done is really varied and when we went to him with it, he just said, |I want to not do what I’ve done before. Push me and challenge me”. I hope that’s what we did with the character. What I feel is, he fed back into the role with different things. He brings an incredible humanity to it, that isn’t foregrounded in the writing. But there’s something in his face which makes you love that character, despite the fact he’s being an absolute bastard all the time.
It is a great cast…
But did you ever worry it might destabilise the story? “There’s someone we know! There’s someone else we know!”
I thought the opposite, actually. Knowing it was multi-stranded, I felt that when we were going to cut to a different strand, the actors in that had to be of a level with David and Olivia. Because what you don’t want is to go to someone else and the audience says, “Oh, it’s them. Oh it’s people I like slightly less”. So then you’ve got Caroline Pickles and Jonathan Bailey in the newspaper office, and they’re delightful and a brilliant double-act in their own right. So, no, it was the opposite. I looked at Downton Abbey and said, “We have to have a cast that’s as good as that – and maybe let’s try and be even better”. But that’s what I wanted. The show always had to feel like a treat. That was my big thing going in. If you’re going to do an ITV drama, it’s got to feel like a treat for people, and there are a number of ways you communicate that. One of those is going, “Look at this cast! Look at that big picture of them all together!”
Talk to me about Will Mellor – because he’s extraordinary.
He’s amazing. Will came in and read. That part was for a guy in his 50s. And Will was on the cast list and I looked at it and said, “Erm, are you sure he’s coming in to read for that part, because he’s 20 years too young?” He came in and read and it was one of the most extraordinary readings – he just got under the skin of that character. He redefined it. We just went, “Well, you can’t not cast him”. He brought everything you see on screen, he had at the audition. He made me re-evaluate that character and really…
And having him as younger makes him more interesting.
It’s much more interesting.
That’s not traditionally young man’s game to be into spiritualism.
No. No. Exactly, and what it had to be is, he had to feel real, because that psychic is based on… there are real people who go around doing that. Who interface with bereaved families – who work with police.
Why did you want to include this element? It gives the show a slightly heightened quality.
Yeah, I think it just gives it a different flavour. But I also feel life isn’t grounded. There are strange things in life and sometimes we’re a bit too conservative in drama. It brought a note of uncertainty both for the characters and the audience who are going, “What is this show?” I want everyone to feel very familiar with it, but also slightly on the back foot.
It could also be slightly distasteful because you’re thinking, “Is he a conman?”
Yes, you should be thinking that. Because, also, you don’t know in life. I think the show’s also about faith. The contrast between the vicar and the psychic is very deliberate. Both of them hear voices in their head. Who’s to say who’s right?
There’s a line that made a lot of people shiver. Do you know the one I’m going to say?
Yeah. It’s from Pauline Quirke, isn’t it? [“I know men who would rape you.”]
Where did that come from?
Erm, I don’t know! Don’t ask me where a terrible line like that comes from! The terrible thing about that is I was talking about the scene… I was at a gig at the Royal Festival Hall and I was sitting next to my script executive, Sam Hoyle and we were just talking about that scene. Saying, “Oh, she should come to the newspaper office and she should do this, and she should threaten her”. Then the line literally came into my head. I was like, “I can’t say this. I don’t want to forget that,” so I had to get my phone out. I was typing it into my phone and the person next to me was looking over my shoulder going, “What are you doing?!” Pauline was delighted with it.
How did it go at the read through?
We didn’t have a read through for that episode. But on the rushes it was pretty strong. It’s punched through, that line. I think it’s also the combination of it being Pauline as well.
And also just a woman to a woman, I think.
Yes. It is the worst possible thing.
When the series started, I heard you on Radio 4’s The Media Show.
There was this whole business about Scandi dramas, which I think you pretty much debunked.
But watching it, one thing that does occur to me, in terms of how it’s filmed; there are a lot of two-thirds sky shots. And that, I think, felt Scandi.
We’ve never referenced those visually. What we talked about much more is film, to be honest. I think what we were talking about was – and this is going to sound very arty, and I would never had said this seven weeks ago to you – more like Terrence Malick and things like that. Days of Heaven was a big reference. But if you live in Dorset, there are enormous skies. Your life is full of sky.
What are those shots saying to us? They’re saying something, aren’t they? But I can’t work out what.
I know what they’re saying, but I’m not going to tell you.
Why? Is it plot-based?
No it’s something… thematically-based. I’ll tell you at the end of the series. It’s about something, but it’s not about something that’s important to the plot.
Okay, it ties in with…
I think it’s not just sky. It’s about landscape. The connection of people to landscape is really important to the show and it’s very much in the Dorset literary tradition of Hardy and Wessex. It’s Wessex Police, he’s deliberately called ‘Hardy’. These are not subtle references, but it’s all there. Hardy writes – Thomas Hardy – writes about troubled characters in an unforgiving landscape. And he writes tragedies and I think that’s what this is.
Is the name Broadchurch of significance? Because you’ve talked about spirituality and you’ve talked about the landscape. Or am I overthinking it now?
I think you’re slightly overthinking it! It’s actually a compound of two places in Dorset; Broadoak and Whitchurch. So I just put them together. Again, it’s a Thomas Hardy thing, you take two different places, put them together and you have a Wessex sound.
And it seems to fit.
It’s one of those that feels right, and it’s very rare you go, “Oh, that feels right”. It looks right in the TV listings as well. Yeah, I got lucky with that one.
Nice title font too.
The font is right.
Is this going to be a weird time in your life when you look back on it?
Yeah. But if you know that when you’re living it, it’s really nice. I don’t think you’d ever want to replicate it, because you’d never… sometimes you just have to know that it’s like quicksilver. You can’t hold onto it. So just enjoy being part of it, and it’ll subside in three weeks. It’s been lovely to go through it. Been lovely to share it with this bunch of people, with those actors. I’ve spoken to all of them recently; they’re all having a great time with it and feel very proud.