It is rare to watch a TV show in 2013 and realise, within about 15 minutes, that it might be one of the best British dramas of all time. But Channel 4's Southcliffe, which finished on Sunday, is something really rather special. Exploring the dynamics of a fictional English town affected by a Hungerford-type shooting, it is a magisterial one-off and a taut, haunting extrapolation of small-town taunting. With an elliptical back-and-forth structure and a provincial, pylon-buzzing lyricism, this is timelessly classy, state-of-the-nation television-as-literature, an arthouse film masquerading in the Downton Abbey, Sunday-at-nine slot.
It evens stands comparison with modern American classics, despite the British industry's relatively Lilliputian budgets. If haute US drama like The Wire and Mad Men - rich, sprawling epics stuffed with characters, story arcs and the odd dud chapter - is the equivalent of the nineteenth-century novel, Southcliffe is a precision-engineered short-story, in the spirit of J. D. Salinger's 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish', and all the more devastating for its brevity. The Sopranos had eighty-six episodes; Southcliffe has four. But, my god, does it pack a lot in.
It is hardly surprising, given its pedigree. It is made by Warp, the visionary production company behind This Is England, with whose compassionate dissection of parochial machismo Southcliffe rhymes. It pairs Sean Durkin, the 31-year-old director behind the disquietingly assured Martha Marcy May Marlene, with Tony Grisoni, who co-scripted the Yorkshire noir Red Riding trilogy. Grisoni assembles Southcliffe's structure with the care and authority of a Swiss watchmaker, albeit one who likes playing with the hands, while Durkin (who is Canadian but grew up in the UK) envelops the story with a subtle sense of dread, return-to-childhood otherness and a visual-moral haze.
Durkin also draws performances that hum with the galvanic allure of the pylons. The formidable Sean Harris plays gunman Stephen Morton, a laconic military fantasist who lives with his elderly mother (as did Hungerford perpetrator Michael Ryan). Stephen comes across, at first, as a slightly unnerving oddball rather than dangerous (weirdly his West Country, wannabe-soldier gawkiness reminded me of Gareth from The Office), before a beating-in-the-rain transforms him into an impassive angel of death, a black-clad, broad-shouldered force of anti-nature. It is impossible to justify what Stephen does, obviously, but the hand he's been dealt in life is so pitiful, the mud-and-piss-soaked straw that breaks the camel's back so severe, and the writing, acting and direction of his backstory so humane, that one can sort of understand what drove him to it. Sort of.
After the first couple of episodes, the dramatic focus shifts to Rory Kinnear's David Whitehead, a London-based BBC journalist sent back to report on a hometown of which he has less than fond memories (like Thomas Turgoose's Shaun in This Is England, David was bullied as a child over the death of his father). A nervy, modest presence whose face is simultaneously old and boyish, Kinnear was critically acclaimed for his Hamlet at the National Theatre three years ago and there is an element of Hamlet to David: the dead dad; the bitterness; the overthinking reluctance to return to a "rotten state". David's grand soliloquy, a pub diatribe against the mean-spiritedness of the town, isn't confided to a theatre audience, but recorded on a phone, posted on YouTube and fated (along with the memory of his dad) to haunt him forever.
The loved ones of the victims are played by a National Portrait Gallery of character actors, including Skins alumnus Joe Dempsie as a squaddie-on-leave, Boardwalk Empire's Anatol Yusef as a selfish, soul-loving philanderer, Shirley Henderson as a gentle careworker reduced to a whimpering, soliciting spectre, and the peerless Eddie Marsan. I won't give too much away, but the build-up to each shooting is quietly, inescapably gut-wrenching, and there is a particularly desperate montage at the end of the second episode involving a ringing phone. The violence, which mostly occurs off-screen, is composed, brusque and shockingly understated.
Music only plays when characters actively listen to it, which intensifies the silences, but it also becomes a distillate of a character's mood and a form of emotional punctuation (symbolic choices include Otis Redding, John Martyn, Oasis and even the Shipping Forecast). The ultimate catharsis comes during an acoustic set at the annual All Souls concert, a supremely restrained, ambiguous final tableau that highlights the absence of those present the year before.
We've been very luck with mystery drama this year. Broadchurch gave mass audience TV a thoughtful, Scandinavia-infused shot in the arm; the second episode of Morse-prequel Endeavour, with its finale on the Trinity College roof, was genuinely operatic; Top of the Lake (which has also just finished) was a sublimely shot gallimaufry of Antipodean feminism, Twin Peaks scratch-the-surface surrealism and Old Testament starkness.
But Southcliffe is a class apart, genuinely monumental TV that already sits comfortably within the British canon (the only other show from this decade that sits as comfortably is the episode of Accused with a cross-dressing Sean Bean, which was as melancholy, intricate and exhilaratingly poetic as television gets). Above all else, Southcliffe is a feverishly British elegy to loss - not just the loss of a loved one, but the loss of memory, the loss of childhood, the loss of tempers, the loss of the capacity for joy, the loss of fear, the loss of reason, the loss of one's sense of self, the loss of the will to live. Questions are left tantalisingly unanswered (including the most terrifying one of all), many of the characters look into the jaws of suicide, and the very notion of community is corroded, if not actively corrosive. And yet amongst all that anguish, particularly in that subdued final scene at the concert, lie the bewildered, delicate embers of a seething hope. What a piece of work is Southcliffe.