Late 2010. Channel 4's Red Riding cigarette ash well-trodden into the carpet, Sam Morton's directorial debut, The Unloved duly loved, a freshly baked short film out the pizza oven, and the usual surreal mix of the half-born and the half living strewn about the screenwriter's battle field.
Producer, Peter Carlton and myself had been tossing ideas back and forth for some time, trying to find a project we could work on together. The idea for Southcliffe, a 4 part TV drama centred around a shooting spree in a UK market town began here. We shared an interest in the poignant, very human relationship between the dead and those still living, a relationship at once both comforting and disquieting.
I found the following early message:
"The real gold dust, the backbone to the drama, has to be personal testimony - people's experiences of bereavement - of emotions and experiences they find difficult to assimilate. The truth and strangeness of the actual informs everything. Gathering these testimonies will involve a great deal of time and trust."
Rather than start with invention I wanted to be guided and informed by true stories and memories. Our lead researcher, Susannah Price placed ads and put out the word inviting people to share their experiences of sudden bereavement.
The resulting recordings and texts were humbling. People you will never read about in the style magazines or see on television shows responded with heartrending, courageous accounts of how their lives were smashed. The truth was so much richer and more strange than our fictions. These tales of loss were not without poignancy and humour; the deceased refused to vanish, they argued, interrupted waking reality, mocked our logic. In the face of tragedy, time and space disintegrated - something which informed our non-linear, dove-tailed narratives.
Gradually, characters emerged, not portraits of existing people, but combinations and recombinations of what we found in reality:
David - the journalist living in London with a fractured marriage to Jacqui. He's the smart kid who escaped the small town roots, who harbours long-suppressed guilt and bitterness. He is our guide and Virgil.
Paul - forever the lad who never left the town he was brought up in. He and his wife, Sarah run the Anchor & Hope pub. Paul thinks of himself as a bit dynamic, certainly relative to his rather solid brother Geoff. With his wife, young daughter and new baby he has everything a man could wish for, except he's suddenly aware he's not getting any younger.
Claire - a brusque social worker married to dependable Andrew with a teenage daughter, Anna. They would like to have had more children but it didn't happen and Claire is near the end of her tether with IVF.
Chris - the young returning soldier with more problems than he thinks his wife,
Louise could handle.
And Stephen - a compliant odd-job man living in rural poverty with his elderly mother. A man without power but with an abiding interest in guns and military training. Often over-looked but soon to be centre stage.
Anonymous places, invisible lives.
The scripted characters and events of Southcliffe were not locked on the first day of principle photography. A large part of the joy of working on this project was the agreement that we - Peter, Sean, myself and producer, Derrin Schlesinger should continue to develop the piece into the shoot and beyond. It meant viewing rushes, responding to how an actor is playing a part, to the questions raised by the reality of the shoot, to Sean's inspired and confident direction. So there was always a sense of change and development, the characters and the narratives were alive with possibility - right through to the final edit.
The idea of a drama where a number of people suffer fallout from the same tragedy points to a natural or industrial disaster - or to something even more bewildering and inexplicable. Thankfully there have been few rampage shootings in the UK - Dunblane, Hungerford, Whitehaven come instantly to mind - but the reverberations ripple on into the future. Although, in part a device, it was important to explore and embrace such distressing events. We did our research - the details of shattered lives, the weapons used, the police activity, witness reports, the questions, the crisis management groups and the bereavement groups. One of the most hurtful and confounding aspects of such terrible events is that the perpetrator is one of the local community, people know, or thought they knew him. In Southcliffe, what Stephen does is beyond understanding, his acts are monstrous, but he is still a human being.
This was always to be set in a place outside the city, somewhere no one had ever heard of until visited by a series of tragic events. The market town of Faversham on the Kent coast has a strong sense of itself; the old historical centre, the traditional pubs, the salt marshes, the ever-present expanse of sky and North Sea. Particularly in the autumn and winter months the town feels isolated, besieged by sea mist and ghosts.
The area is my quick escape from the Metropolis - another world just over an hour from Kings Cross - and it became a stand in for the fictitious town of Southcliffe. Every scene was anchored in a real location - a pub, the boatyard, the poly tunnels, the marshes. When director Sean Durkin came on board we took him there - it was an instant natural match, as was Sean with the material. The genius of creative producing was in making it possible for us to shoot in and around the town. It helped give the piece a powerful sense of place.
Southcliffe is a fictional market town inhabited by fictional characters, but with similarities to many people and places in Britain today. To outsiders Southcliffe is doomed to be linked with banal violence forever. But we are allowed into the lives of those living there and glimpse a more complex and human reality. Rather than analyse or moralise about our characters' actions, we share in them...
Southcliffe airs on Channel 4 on Sunday 4 August at 9pmSuggest a correction