Broadchurch and the macrocosm

WHEN I was studying English literature for A level, I had a teacher who never lost sight of the bigger picture, who thought it was, for example, important to our understanding of the revolutionary impact of the Romantic Poets to know what came before or to be able to put Shakespeare or Sheridan or Shaw or Shaffer in their historic and social context.

Similarly, we had a classics master (yes, I know, it was a traditional grammar school – and it was a long time ago) who thought that the chances of us not falling asleep studying Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Cicero’s rhetoric or Horace’s Odes would be greatly improved if we had a broader grasp of Roman history, Latin poetry and Greek drama and philosophy – the sexy stuff in Catullus and Ovid and the murderous dynastic dramas of the great tragedians.

So we were introduced to the concept of the macrocosm and the microcosm – the ancient Greek vision of the cosmos in which the part or individual (microcosm) reflects the whole (macrocosm).

The best drama often epitomises this concept, either in its full sweep or in the detail, and Broadchurch, particularly the final series, was a very good example of this, with its focus on individual stories that resonate far beyond a fictional Dorset seaside town.

There was the pressure of social media on young people, the vicar with his shrinking congregation, the editor of the local paper facing the realities of 21st century newspaper management, and the ongoing drama of Beth and Mark, a loving couple, driven apart by the aftermath of the murder of their son, with Mark unable to let go of his grief.

The central story of the rape was powerful, shocking, topical and painfully authentic. The impact of a horrific and brutal assault, apparently at random, on what was meant to be a happy birthday party for the victim’s best friend, was cleverly and perceptively etched in over the eight episodes.

Broadchurch – filmed in West Bay and Bridport in Dorset, with some scenes in Clevedon on the north Somerset coast – is any small town where most people know each other, and the various services, public bodies, shops, businesses, pubs and clubs are all part of a network so closely woven that there is always someone who has seen or heard something, or who knows someone who has.

In short, Broadchurch is a microcosm of small town life, not cosy or comforting, but honest and recognisable. If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably enjoyed the unfolding drama, but you may not have fully appreciated the psychologically acute way that writer Chris Chibnall unravelled his plot, as tightly meshed as anything produced in the fictional net and twine factory in the show (Bridport, as many will know, has been a centre of rope and net-making for about 800 years).

Chibnall – soon to take over as show-runner of Dr Who – has his ear tuned very finely not only to the way people speak and think and behave, but to the tiny details that make our lives better or worse. One such detail was in an early scene in this final series when Maggie, the editor of the local paper, was summoned to a meeting with her (much younger) boss. Maggie was (rightly) furious that the manager had replaced her front page news story with a bit of fluff about kittens. Throughout their tense interview, the manager picked at a limp supermarket salad and smiled glassily, demonstrating her lack of interest in the opinions of her editor, and her contempt for the idea of the value of real news over trivia and potential hits on the website. Trust me, this scene was so realistic I had friends emailing me to comment on it.

Maggie eventually walked out – as so many experienced editors and senior journalists have from local newsrooms across the country over the past five or six years. Local news – such as planning controversies or council finances – is not wanted by digitally obsessed, profit-driven managements.

Was it realistic that she would decide to launch her own YouTube news magazine? Not according to national newspaper reviewers who criticised the editor and the vicar– “more like the sort of clerics and journalists Miss Marple might have encountered, than convincing representatives of the contemporary Church of England or the fourth estate,” said the Guardian.

Sorry, no, not unrealistic and definitely not Miss Marple territory. In this part of the West Country (possibly not entirely coincidentally, as the Dorset-based Chibnall will have observed the decline of local newspapers) there are many former editors and senior journalists who have chosen to go it alone rather than see their papers turned into celebrity-driven, website-shadowing repositories of advertorial.

You are reading this on the Fine Times Recorder, a microcosm, our way of flying the flag for independent journalism, supporting and promoting the things we believe matter – the arts, local food and the environment.

Fanny Charles