Daniel Smith on Broadchurch as a Country Noir


ITV’s Broadchurch as a Country Noir:

Allegory and post-colonial nostalgia in the English countryside





Within the popular drama Broadchurch, aired on British terrestrial television and distributed to a world audience via Netflix and other streaming services, there is a contradiction (Jameson, 1981).

The social contradiction that arises in Broadchurch is a form of ‘disrupted Englishness’, a narrative of the nation whose coherence is questioned (Leddy-Owen, 2014). To get to the heart of this, this paper explores Broadchurch from the perspective of its genre – that is, as a ‘country noir’ – to argue that what the show really is about is a form of postcolonial melancholia, the inability of a post-colonial country to deal with the consequences the loss of Empire has on an ethnocentric national ‘social imaginary’ (Gilroy, 2004). It will be my suggestion that the melodramatics and melancholia which make up the atmospherics and mood of Broadchurch may be read, both aesthetically and sociologically, as located in an ambivalence and anxiety around white English people’s sense of place and belonging in the present.

What is our way into these rather grandiose claims about an admittedly trivial ITV weeknight drama? Because, as will become clear, the show isn’t actually about ‘anything’, the attraction it has is that it is beautiful, and a particular type of beautiful: quaint, English countryside. If the time-space (chronotope) of the nation has been put into contention with the politics of mutliculture and its diasporic consciousness, overturning the “sedentary poetics of either soil or blood” (Gilroy, 1997), then Broadchurch reverts to form: it takes place within a village community – whose inhabits are depicted as autochthonous dwellers (Nadel-Klein, 1994) – and whose drama begins with the investigations of extra-local, national police in pursuit of a murder case.

The simple reading (which becomes the basis of these claims) is that the murder disrupts what is, in an ethnocentric imaginary, a sacred place. The British countryside in the white, middle- (and upper) class imagination is indeed a utopian space. Raymond Williams (1973:1) famously remarked in The Country and City that when the English say “country” they mean both the nation as well as the land so that “‘the country’ can be the whole society or its rural area.” Fast forward to the turn of the century and Empire apologist Roger Scruton (2000) writes in England: An elegy of the ‘enchanted’ land that ‘was’ England, epitomised by the countryside. The enchantment has all the workings of a memory charm, engaging in a wilful forgetting. Its ‘English charm’ is the result of a gentry class whose appropriation of land, exploitation of natural and human resources (at home and abroad) and whose imposition of pseudo-feudal relations gave it all the workings of a theatre (Wood, 1991:110-111). The English countryside is preferably imagined as an Arcadian space, but this space “belongs to the winners. It is beyond all conflict but it is only beyond all conflict because all others have been defeated.” (Nicolson, 2008:17)

In non-fictional sociology, we have many interesting accounts of how this history and its associated myths and imaginings seep into everyday life and practices (Tyler, 2012; Knowles, 2008; Neal, 2002; Agyeman & Spooner, 1997). Of particular importance is Caroline Knowles’ (2008) ethnographic account of rural Devon (the same terrain of ITV’s Broadchruch), which connects the vast entanglements of the imperial past and their ‘echoes’ in the present voices, bodies and landscape. Crucial to Knowles’ (2008:179-178) account of the imperial background and history is that it remains silenced; it is part of the mundane, invisible rituals of everyday life and atmosphere of place that a colonial history and the entanglements of Empire persist. Indeed, in Jameson’s (1981) terms, we can say this is the ‘raw material’ – the social and historical substance – which provides the form upon which an ideological expression may take place. Crucially this ethnographic substance becomes, in Broadchurch as a work of fiction, formally expressed in its genre – a strange and topsy-turvy ‘country noir’.

Broadchurch: both mourning play and murder mystery

Genre paradoxically grows in importance in contemporary popular culture as they are subject to increased hybridity. This is because generic choices have a crucial part to play in plot-construction, or what stands in the way of telling a story (a point of Jameson’s (2015) I will come back to at the end).

The second series of Broadchurch throws up a genre problem. The problem is that series two of Broadchurch is about two things at once and this creates two generic modes competing for precedence. On the one hand it is a detective story taking the form a ‘murder mystery’ and on the other it is a melodrama or ‘mourning play’. These two competing genres make for two odd aesthetic choices.

These choices are neatly summed up by comedian Diane Morgan in her satirical take on Broadchurch on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. First Morgan states,

What’s clever is that it’s about the same murder again and it’s sorta hard to do a murder show again, because we know who done it. So for the new series they actually dug up the victim from the first series in case the murderer wanted to do it again.[1]

Second Morgan points out that,

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…

In short, Broadchurch isn’t about anything – not a murder, nor its culprit – but rather merely silent mourning against an Instagram filtered vision of the British countryside.

Taken together these choices amount to inversions of not merely generic conventions but generic essences: a murder mystery devoid of mystery is not a murder mystery; a melodrama whose mourning is not allowed to be all-encompassing is not a melodrama. If we contrast these peculiarities against a pristine version of each then this will demonstrate not only the cultural and narrative possibilities which clash but also holds consequences for our sociological interpretation of postcolonial melancholia.

Broadchurch as a ‘mourning play’

Broadchurch series two is a mourning play. Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1992), which dealt with Baroque versions of Broadchurch, demonstrated that the essence of the Baroque ‘mourning play’ is its all-encompassing mourning and its expression in the use of allegory, where allegory is “the petrified and primordial landscape of a ruined history that finds expression in death’s head…” (Critchley & Webster, 2013:56). Allegory begins with a corpse (Benjamin, 1992:212-220); here the exhumed body of the victim from series one.

In allegory we are in the realm of fragments and the ephemeral, where we seek and find the particular in the universal – the opposite of the Romantic ‘symbol’ where the particular is a vehicle for the universal (i.e. God or Nature) (Lash, 1999; Buck-Morss, 1991; Taylor, 1989). While Romantic art is redemptive in its use of symbols –the Arcadian daffodils in Wordsworth, say – Baroque allegory speaks to a fallen world. The mourning becomes an ‘epistemic regime’, it encompasses the entirety of natural reality (and here read landscape) and it replaces language in the meaningful articulation of subjectivity: silence in mourning and the fallen-ness of nature in allegory depict a forsaken humanity. Through allegory’s semiotics – of one thing meaning another thing – mourners witness the world as a creation without a creator (God or Nature). This pronounces upon the profane, everyday world a double purposes whose dialectic entanglement is essential to the mourning play: “in allegorical terms …the profane world is both elevated and devalued.” (Benjamin, 1992:175) For Benjamin allegories have a creative, productive function: they turn the profane, everyday language of convention into sacred expressions.

In Broadchurch the central allegory is the enigmatic ‘pressed bluebell’ which becomes the series’ leitmotif. This bluebell is the metonymic symbol of the countryside, yet it is drawn into conflict with this possible meaning as it becomes a mystery and therefore a clue in the inquiry around the death of a young child from the years past. Not allowed the redemptive function as a symbol of the countryside, the bluebell is forced into allegorical use as a petrified fragment and impression of fossiled past action: a murder. It is now a clue for the allegorist of modernity, the detective, whose ability to “join the isolated fragments of reality and thereby create… posited meaning” (Burger in Buck-Morss, 1991:225).

The double use of genre, of mourning play meeting detective story, makes the bluebell both a murder clue and an allegory: doubly about the countryside, the time-space of the drama, and a clue in a murder case already solved.

Broadchurch 2

Broadchurch as detective story

The meeting of the mourning play and its allegory occurs through the figure of the detective. Luc Boltanski’s Mysteries & Conspiracies (2014) suggests that detective stories question ‘the reality of reality’: for us, they question the reality of normal village sociality and through allegorical clues architect the ‘falleness’ of normative white Englishness.

Boltanksi demonstrates that the epistemological position of the detective presupposes a normative order whose set regularities not only account for predictable social conduct and possibilities (Boltanski, 2014:10). Detective fiction relies upon an entity known as ‘society’ which consists of a limited series of groups – nationalities, insiders and outsiders and social classes. Individuals encountered stand as simultaneously singular entities (with psychological and biographical profile) and stereo-typical, representatives of a group who exists within society (Boltanksi, 2014:12). With the intrusion of a mystery, reality itself is problematized –the reality of the nation, its laws and its claim on the regularity, normality and predictability of social life. What is ‘at stake’ in detective fiction’s mystery is the possibility of calling into question ‘the reality of reality’. Through the investigation of the mystery detective fiction does not challenge the doxa of everyday life but instead aims ‘harness’ the contradiction between official and unofficial reality through the intrusion of mysteries (Boltanski, 2014:19-20) Detective stories do not offer solutions to these contradictions, instead they accommodate them. They are conservative (of moral and legal order).

Crucially the role of the detective is to suspend (not destroy) the ‘reality of reality’. As such the context within which the investigation takes places is of paramount importance. In classic detective stories, such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the tension is between unequal social classes and the impartial state able to intrude and exercise oversight via its representatives, namely the police. The detective (through gentlemanly amateurism, public-school boy loyalty, honour and bumptiousness as well as structural marginality to official power) stands for the state in a ‘state of exception’ (Agamben, 1998; Schmitt, 2005). Through investigation the detective proceeds through a suspension of the police’s powers of procedure and through solving the mystery re-establishes them. The detective only achieves this sovereign power – to suspend the rule of law and decide ‘whodunit’ – because the state and its official enforcement – the police – reach an impasse, or contradiction, within the realities of a classed society.

The general structure of the story relies upon an imperial ‘master/servants’ class hierarchy. It is in this class hierarchy where we find perpetrators – it is either from the involvement of what Boltanski class ‘elite servants’ (valets, footmen, butlers, etc. who occupy the liminal space of servant-acting-with-masterly power), middle-class parvenus (who are vulgar plebeians whose wealth is suspect) or foreigners, normally exotic woman (whose otherness makes them unpredictable and naturally distrustful) (Boltanski, 2014:42-57). The detective’s mystery resolutions goes to the rescue of an Imperial master class society. It is in the capacity as a private figure of legal and moral (i.e. normative) order that the private affairs of the elite remain out of public view and the sanctity of the Imperial social-political and legal order remain intact. The detective intrudes in the private lives of the elite so as to salvage their reputation, to avoid scandal and potential affairs, exposed in the public sphere and endanger the security of the nation and Empire. In liberal-democratic societies, the free-press and the police’s public-facing requires an extra-legal and sovereign power – the detective – to protect the reputation of the elite and its moral-legal ‘reality’ (Boltanksi, 2014:64-68).

In Broadchurch the detective, in the form of the David Tennant character, acting in a ‘state of exception’ remains but the Imperial master-servant class structure is absent, or specifically it is problematized. Broadchurch dissolves the private-public divide, and it’s potential for scandal, as its social structure is horizontal and made up of individuals whose private, affective lives all inter-sect, overlap and conceal potential gossip, scandal and accusation on all sides. Unlike the classic detective story where mysteries arise due to the secret workings of the state and Establishment power, instead in the gemeinschaft of Broadchurch suspicion comes from all sides and effects all people equally as middle-class, rural harmony is ruptured by the murder of the child. This disruption to quaint white-English village-sociality is, however, generically achieved by the extra-local detective. Unlike the gentleman amateur Holmes, DI Hardy is instead a professional outsider: he is the arm of the state intruding into the self-governing, private community existing by ‘custom, tradition, and inter-personal sociality’. By imagining the ‘village community’ as a series of small intimate, horizontal social ties on the grounds of autochthonous dwellers, the ‘state of exception’ comes not merely through the crime, that is, the murder, but the decision by the detective to suspend harmony and conceive of all persons as guilty. (In this way Broadchurch is a British version of David Lync’s Twin Peaks). In Broadchurch, all are guilty and all mundane, polite sociality is disrupted and rendered impossible to re-establish by way of the detective’s presence.

The problem this presents for the detective story is that instead of restoring the legal-moral order of reality for Imperial state, it alternatively takes on a theological instead of sociological function. The investigation of a murder in the village imaginary does not preserve a class hierarchy and its imperial interests, as in Sherlock Holmes, instead the root of the investigation is the expelling of evil. In the gemeinschaft of Broadchurch the criminal act is subject to ‘repressive sanctions’, in the Durkheimian sense of an act which offends the conscience collective to such a degree so punishment seeks not only to re-establish collective sentiments but also “expiation of the past” (Durkheim, 1972:126)

Such that the clues in the murder case come to act as allegories of the mourning is precisely indicative of this doubling of countryside and expiation of evil. Ultimately the genres of mourning play and detective converge. Throughout the second series suspense is weakly manifested in silences. These silences are doubly dramatic: on the one hand they are there to infer suspicion and guilt on the part of the silent party; on the other they are redundant and may be seen as contemplation and ambivalent resignation to the thwarted community. Disrupted Englishness. In the finale of the series, the murderer is found not guilty against the evidence and truth while and the blue-bell clues reveal the murderer of the unresolved murder from years past. Instead of the court acting out justice, the community exacts punishment on their own terms. The murderers – two paedophile child killers – are, ultimately, evil instead of immoral or breaching established hierarchies and power structures. In this regard, the work of the detective is only there to confirm guilt; that is, employed to expiate evil through an allegorical join the dots. Notice here, then, that instead of locating an enemy from without or within which contradicts the political theology of the state – in the form of anarchists, socialists, revolutionaries, or as ‘foreigners’ or ‘parvenus’ – the work of the detective is limited and reduced to little more than locating a simple binary of ‘good and evil’.

Why? Broadchurch writes out the social-historical reality of the countryside as a space of racial and class conflict in favour of the racial purity of a ‘village idyll’. The racial domination and relations of exploitation which made up and financed the sacralisation of ‘the country’, as both nation and rural areas, remain ‘silenced’ not only to provide politically appropriate television but also to sustain the romanticism associated with the landscape as a national, sacred symbol. As such the detective story cannot protect the state and its relations of exploitation, instead it must uncover another villain – but who? If racial and classed others are unavailable, politically, then the only villains we are left with are ‘evil’ ones. The villains become the homo sacer – sacred, accursed men – who may be freely killed but not sacrificed for ritual purposes, both inside and outside the moral order they are merely ‘bare life’ against the ‘qualified life’ of white, English village sociality (Agamben, 1998).

The reading we are left with is this. Villains become merely people who are ‘different’ to us and their evil revolves around their alterity (Jameson, 2015). Yet today, however, as racial and national difference is dispersing as appropriate vehicles for ‘evil’ (it is not politically correct), dramatic possibilities exhausted. The result is that melodramas “become more and more tiresome, and more difficult sustain” (Jameson, 2015), as evidenced here by the fact that there really is no narrative need for a second series. Furthermore as “evil is vanishing socially, villains are few and far between, everybody is alike” (Jameson, 2015). The banality of the villains and the short-circuited layering of accusation amongst the white community of Broadchurch may be read as arising from this politics of melancholia. Melancholia arises from a broken unity in which we see that the ability to accuse an extra-local and racial Other has been ‘disrupted’ by the politics of multi-culture. What’s more is that they unable to name this as the reason for their fallen state. Simply, Broadchurch is a poorly executed melodrama, dependent upon politically correct plots and reliant upon a silence of the racially heterodox history of the ‘country’ so as to project and salvage the Flora advert, Instagram filtered vision of the landscape it is so aesthetically attached it.

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[1] There is within Morgan’s joke on the ‘killer wanting to do it again’ an interesting comment to be made about what Adler (2014:19-20) calls the political-theology of television: with its emphasis upon seriality, television is structured by a unity of narrative in ‘episodes’ and whose foreclosing is structured by a continual deferral. The seriality of episodes means that narrative is hindered by a structured repetition which allows for perpetuation beyond the point of immanent closure. Like fashion, television is never finished. For Broadchurch what we see in series two is the inability of the sacralised aesthetic of the countryside to be narratively extended ad infinitum and as such its repetition leads to narrative collapse. Sociologically we have a society unable to imagine or reimagine their preferred vision of the past in the present.