Devon Country Noir: Broadchurch, mourning and ‘disrupted’ Englishness

By Daniel Smith

I have to admit, with some possible embarrassment, that ITV’s Broadchurch (currently in its second series) is incredibly watchable. First and foremost it evokes nostalgic feelings in me towards the West Country and in fact features my alma mater, the University of Exeter, as Wessex Crown Court; second that it has two of the best British actors in it (David Tennant and Olivia Coleman) and three, well, it’s beautiful to look at. As comedian Diane Morgan put it during her satirical take on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, “despite the fact it has all death and grieving in it, its bright and lovely and sort of Instagram looking, like an advert for Flora or Cadbury’s Flake, so it’s dark but also colourful …” Very amusing as Morgan’s take on the show is, it in fact speaks volumes more truth about the program than it lets on. After taking on board Morgan’s quip, it suddenly dawned on me that Broadchurch is a sort of English country noir, a version of The Killing or The Bridge minus the dark aesthetic and Scandinavian setting dramatizing Danish social democracy and liberalism as a Golden Age of welfare politics (Pitcher, 2014:69). Instead Broadchurch is firmly placed within idyllic English Village-ness (Tyler, 2012), dramatizing the social modality of community relations, mutual ties, gossip and hard-to-maintain secrets. Of course, what we could say is that the murder in this show is irrelevant, indeed Morgan says as much when she remarks ‘I didn’t know you could do a murder show about a murder that had been solved’? Point being the murder is the vanishing mediator which effects a sort of mutual to-and-fro of identity claims to the governance of English villages, relationship to the landscape and desires for communal harmony made possible by ‘leaving us alone’.

Broadchurch’s ‘country noir’ comes across most clearly when we recognise its noir qualities arise from it being a mourning play – a show about a ‘death’, but not of a child from the community, or the guilt felt by revealed secrets in the murder trials… Rather mourning consist first and foremost as a generic quality. This is not too outlandish a claim as Broadchurch is an ITV melodrama, or what the Germans call a Trauerspeil. A mourning play is a Baroque inheritance, a genre of the ‘obvious’; and if ambiguity is introduced, it is an ambiguity that is overt and ‘easy’ – see Diane Morgan’s discussion of how the show (not so) “subtly” hints at a character’s evil through shadow and ominous sound… But more than a Baroque aesthetic, a mourning play centrally places ‘mourning’ as the emotional response to a type of ‘fallen’ state in which humanity has descended into. As such ‘mourning’ is the way the fallen nature of the world is expressed, and this expression comes from an experience of ‘silence’ –of note here are the scenes depicting people grieving as they stare off into the beautiful Devon countryside or seascape. Silence is, as Walter Benjamin argues in his book on mourning plays (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), an epistemic regime – that is where knowledge of the world is expressed by ‘not knowing’, of being ‘in the dark’, of remaining silent as they observed the fallen beauty of the world.

Given that I have suggested that Broadchurch isn’t actually about a murder, (not only because the murder was technically ‘solved’ in the previous series but also because it acts as a mcguffin for community antagonisms to be dramatized), but actually about claims to Englishness then I further suggest that the experience of mourning, silence and the aesthetic of Instangram filtered, sunshine country noir is also about ‘something else’. This ‘something else’ is a mourning for a type of Englishness, what Leddy-Owen calls ‘disrupted English communities’ (2014). For Leddy-Owen, English identities expressed and articulated by (working and middle class) white, majority participants found appeals to a life of community cohesion, solidarity and mutual co-operation ‘disrupted’ by “a racialized non-English ‘other’ and/or a classed intra-English, intra-white internal ‘other’.” (Leddy-Owen, 2014:14) What Leddy-Owen is discussing is the fact that when concerns, values or cultural ambitions of ‘Englishness’ are being articulated, they are often peculiar class concerns which are translated into essentialised narratives about a form of national cultural life which has be ‘disrupted’, thereby obscuring “more critical and nuanced interpretations of complex social and personal concerns.” (ibid)

In Broadchurch it might be more plausible to suggest that the show is about disrupted Englishness than a murder mystery because what the murder is acting as here is an allegory, which is where one thing means something else. The murder doesn’t mean the death of a child, it means the death of a type of “English”, sequestered and self-sufficient occidental community. We could say, following the line of interpretation of Walter Benjamin on mourning allegories, that the profane world of Broadchurch, its gossip around Vicars, Village bicycles, bitching mothers, betraying husbands, hack journalists and the intrusions made on this life by Crown Courts, London lawyers and the exhuming of dead children is transfigured in allegory, into sacred entities that are being desecrated: “Considered allegorically, the profane world is both elevated in rank and devalued. …For allegory is both convention and expression, and both are inherently in conflict.” (Benjamin cited in Adler, 2013:24) If the everyday world of village relations and conventions become elevated into a scared expression of ‘Englishness’, then the tension is that any personal or social conflict becomes expressed in terms inadequate to ‘solve’ any particular issue. As Leddy-Owen is arguing with ‘disrupted Englishness’, the personal and social conflicts expressed around Englishness are less ‘about’ English life than they are about ‘problems’ of ones neighbours, ‘who we have to share our country with’. The representational mode of Broadchurch relies less upon internal character developments but rather the allegorical understanding of people in British society and culture. The West Country denizens of Broadchurch are the ‘occidental others’ of mainstream British society, as Nadel-Klein (1994) described the fringe dwellers in British society: they are ‘local’ dwellers, compared to the ‘gentry’ or ‘country’ dwellers  – the Rev. Paul (Arthur Darvil) is internal and essential to the community’s harmony, whereas DI Hardy (David Tennant) is external and inessential to community and a plague to the efficient course of ‘mourning’ over a real death for the village dwellers. Or consider the ‘Bluebell’ motif of the series, where extra-local DI Hardy and the local DI Miller (Coleman) search for the meaning behind this supposed murder clue, more an allegorical allusion to the British countryside in spring time, less a clue to the murder – it is a scared entity of the profane world which is best ‘left alone’ than investigated (Can’t a bluebell be about the English woodland, not the murder of a small girl…?)

Indeed all of this merely points to the fact that British TV melodramas are sites for providing visions, literal landscapes to ‘watch’, for ideals of Englishness to be played out and their melodramatic, allegorically rendered disruption. I would suggest any reading of these texts which doesn’t take the act of aesthetic and narrative production as a form of ideology in its own right misses precisely how these dramas ‘write’ their stories from the raw materials of British social and cultural contradictions: …with a TV show like Broadchurch, a boring show about ‘nothing’, has the political message of ‘Can’t we live in our villages in peace? Can’t we be ‘left alone’?’ written into its core (see Jameson, 1981).

References

Adler, Anthony Curtis (2013), The Afterlife of Genre, (Brooklyn: Punctum Books)

Jameson, Fredric (1981), The Political Unconscious, (London: Routledge)

Nadel-Klein, Jane (1994), ‘Occidentalism as a cottage industry: representing the autochonous ‘Other’ in British and Irish rural studies’, in Carrier, James (ed.), Occidentalism: Images of the West, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Leddy-Owen, Charles (2014), ‘Reimagining Englishness: ‘race’, class, progressive English identities and disrupted English communities’, Sociology, published online here.

Pitcher, Ben (2014) Consuming Race, (London: Routledge)

Tyler, Katharine (2012), ‘The English Village, whitness, coloniality and social class’, Ethnicities, 12(4):427-444

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