Mayday and Broadchurch: how Scandi-noir revived British TV

That both the BBC and ITV now risk slow-moving detective dramas confirms the massive impact of The Killing.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

If you’re interested in the devastating emotional fallout from children being murdered in picturesque English villages, then your cup doth runneth over on TV this week. If the kids weren’t going missing over on BBC1’s Mayday, they were being dumped at the bottom of a Dorset cliff in ITV1’s Broadchurch, or perishing in car accidents over on BBC3’s The Crash. This was the week when the burgeoning brooding genre of Nordic noir properly hit the shires: which, on the whole, was better for viewers than it was for the nation’s youth.

Both Mayday and Broadchurch bore the hallmarks of creative minds who had more than a passing familiarity with recent Scandinavian hits like The Killing: both were made by production company Kudos, whose forthcoming projects include a British remake of another Scandi-noir, The Bridge, and Swedish sci-fi drama Real Humans. Yet despite taking up many of the tropes familiar to fans of those shows – a focus on grieving families; strong female leads; oddball detectives; slow-burning suspense – both programmes were also distinctive, and felt like refreshing updates on the genre rather than stale imitations.

The stronger of the two was Mayday, which was screened over consecutive evenings on BBC1. Despite a plot which brought to mind numerous real-life missing-child hunts – indeed, it was postponed from last autumn, perhaps due to its superficial similarity to the Tia Sharp case – it was more a study in a culture of fear and mistrust than a straightforward crime thriller. In offering the viewer a series of potential suspects from the outset, Mayday drew its suspense from our own prejudices and expectations rather than from elaborate twists and turns. Was Aidan Gillen’s menacing widower a murderous sociopath, or simply a crap dad refusing to mourn his wife in the appropriate fashion? Was secretive middle-aged Peter Firth a menacing paedophile, or a failed businessman trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage?

This was unusually intelligent and subtle drama that asked more probing questions of what happens when a tragic incident focuses public attention on what goes on ‘behind closed doors’: possible dysfunction and despair, certainly, but not necessarily wickedness. Hopefully, the conclusion will live up to the rich promise of the first few episodes; one fear that remains, with one episode to go, is that it may yet descend into supernatural whimsy hinted at through its Wicker Man-style allusions.

Broadchurch was an altogether more traditional crime drama, centred around two mismatched detectives. But, on the strength of its first episode, it seems a classier affair than most crime dramas. Featuring a pick of rising British acting talent – including two former Doctor Who stars (David Tennant, Arthur Darvill) alongside the likes of Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker, and This Is England’s Vicky McClure – this was a rare example of big-budget drama which felt more than the sum of its parts.

Instead of going for Mayday’s sinister portrait of smalltown claustrophobia, Broadchurch aimed for a more naturalistic portrayal of relatively normal smalltown folk struggling with the rare trauma of a child murder amid the maelstrom of national press attention. As it happens, compared to the overblown excesses of later series of The Killing and the work of Stieg Larsson, you felt rather relieved to be watching a well-made cop show that wasn’t trying to remind you of the irredeemable villainy of patriarchal capitalism at every single turn. In the space of a single episode, it managed to make more piercing insights into the role of the media than the whole fifth series of The Wire.

Given eight episodes to develop (rather than the more usual two to four hours), it will be interesting to see whether it can maintain its measured polish, or lapse into more clichéd schlock-and-awe territory. Yet, for once with an ITV whodunnit, it’s genuinely difficult to tell how it will pan out.

Sadly, while both shows were proving that mainstream broadcasters like BBC1 and ITV could screen drama which competes with the supposedly more highbrow foreign imports, BBC3’s The Crash was a more depressing return to type. Although there was no faulting the sincerity of everyone involved, and it was well made as far as youth-orientated drama goes, it was difficult to escape the truth that at its heart this was a road-safety ad masquerading as a reflection on the human condition. That it was so incredibly humdrum in its ambition and scope was the saddest aspect of this apparently harrowing drama.

Of course, it’s also easy to overstate the impact of Scandinavians. British drama used to produce such sophisticated takes on the crime thriller on a regular basis. Yet there can be little doubt that the success of Scandi-noir has offered the opportunity for creative rejuvenation here, which is something to celebrate. Yet, as The Crash reminded us, I expect we shouldn’t get used to such rich treats on a consistent basis until more broadcasters are prepared to invest routinely in programmes on the basis of the quality of their content, rather than the perceived virtues of their message.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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