The Weekend Australian - Review
Riding in to investigate arguable art
What happens when a town of more than 300 people simply disappears? Psychological thriller Limetown is the latest audio broadcast to make it on to the small screen
The throwaway excuse “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like” was once delightfully riposted by the British humorist Stephen Potter with “It is because you know nothing about art that you have no idea what you like”.
Arguments about aesthetics are snake pits into which one ventures with boots, gaiters and antivenene, but the reptiles are all the more toxic when discussing the art works patronised by the mediocre Viennese landscape painter Adolf Hitler.
After 1933, when Hitler could finally throw money at sculptors and painters with the bottomless largesse, if not the exquisite taste, of the equally ruthless Medicis of Renaissance Florence, his abhorrence of the impressionist and expressionist art of the day dictated what was permissible in everything from German architecture to urban planning, and especially decorative public art.
The Fuhrer wanted the monuments of his Reich to be neoclassical declarations of racial purity and irresistible power, all wrought on a tremendous scale, and nowhere was this more evident than in his ground zero of Nazi self-congratulation, the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
In Hitler’s Horses, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand tells how he, with the help of many others (not least the German police), tracked down some of the massive sculptures that had, until 1945, adorned the vast courtyards and plazas of this inner sanctum of maniacal self-satisfaction.
It took a lot of luck and some rather dangerous encounters with neo-Nazis, ex-Stasi, ex-KGB, and violent Balkan criminals to pull it off, but Brand’s greatest challenge was persuading sceptics that these objects could possibly still exist.
By April of 1945, Berlin was a horrific, smoking ruin. You would be hard pressed to find a single structure that hadn’t been bombed, shelled, burned or looted. So the idea that two gigantic bronze horses, cast by Hitler’s favourite monumental sculptor, Josef Thorak, which had stood outside the window of Hitler’s
400sq m office overlooking the Reich Chancellery garden, could have possibly survived the Allied bombing and the relentless Soviet artillery, was ludicrous. They stood 10m high, weighed tonnes, and had certainly been blown apart or cut up for scrap.
Not to mention the two triumphant statues of Aryan manhood, Die Partei (The Party) and Die Wehrmacht (The Army) by another of Hitler’s favourites, Arno Breker, which stood at the building’s entrance, with nervous visitors being escorted past by elite guardsmen on their way to an audience with the Fuhrer.
While the sleuthing and subterfuge that eventually reveals to Brand what happened to these titanic torsos is an intriguing tale, it inevitably drags us back through that eternal snake pit of aesthetics, morality and whether quality in art can be assessed out of its historical context.
There is a general consensus that, Hitler aside, Thorak and Brecker were very good at what they did. Casting two matching 10m high horses in bronze that can even hold up their own weight, let alone look astonishing, is no mean feat of engineering, let alone sculpture. And then of course there is the inescapable “Wow!” factor that comes with anything that is simply enormous, and which was Hitler’s intention in all things.
Brandt does not dwell on these questions overly, but he meets some interesting characters, both Nazi sympathisers and oldschool communists, who shrug as they make the point that “Hey, they’re just statues of horses, and pretty good ones, too.”
But they were commissioned by, and intended to glorify, one of the most unpleasant people who ever lived. One who brought
death and misery to millions before blowing his brains out in a bunker not far from where his magnificent steeds had stood, proclaiming the glory of eternal Aryan supremacy to the world.
And this is why they were worth millions of euros on the black art market, assuming that you knew where they were, could find a buyer wealthy, crazy and secretive enough, and who had a big enough shed to hide them in. Such people do exist. The market for Nazi paraphernalia has always been a lucrative one. The events in Brandt’s story would never have happened if it wasn’t.
And as for the story itself? Well, it’s a ripping yarn to be sure, and Brandt, described in the front piece of the book by Dick Ellis, of the Arts & Antiques Squad, New Scotland Yard, as “an idiot, but a clever one”, takes us on a revealing and often entertaining tour of the utterly amoral world of the illegal art trade, of falsehood, forgery and fascist insanity.
But it’s a ripping yarn that could, I think, have been better ripped, or at least been more creatively translated from the Dutch. Cliches abound: “sell like hotcakes”, a “different kettle of fish”, “my heart skipped a beat” and so on. They feel like potholes in a road that is taking you to an intriguing destination, but keep distracting you from the view on the way there.
But having said that, it is a remarkable tale, and as for Breker and Thorak, well, as Mark Twain allegedly quipped about another Teutonic artist with dubious ideological credentials, “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
LOOK AGAIN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY By David Bailey, with James Fox Macmillan, 400pp, $44.99 (HB), $34.99 (PB)
Photography, David Bailey said, is sex. He made it that way. The man who styled the 1960s, changing the way we looked at women and helping to create celebrity culture, was a shameless priapic who thought nothing of a quick one in the studio with almost every model he worked with. He was married to, or lived with, some of the most beautiful women in the world — Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Penelope Tree, Marie Helvin — but was incapable of being faithful. Often he had three girlfriends at the same time.
From the age of 14, Bailey was a hard-drinking tough nut from London’s East End, and his chat-up line at dances was: “Do you want to f***?” For the next 60-odd years, it seems, they all said yes, indulging and adoring him.
Such was Bailey’s charm. No one could resist. And no one, however insanely jealous they became, could say they weren’t warned.
On his first date with the New York heiress Penelope Tree, a 17-year-old virgin, the 30-year-old playboy told her the Aesop fable of the frog asking the scorpion why he’s stung him halfway across the river, imminently drowning them both. “I can’t help it,” the scorpion replies.
Fifty years later Tree tells Bailey’s co-writer, James Fox, “I couldn’t believe I listened … and didn’t think ‘I’m outta here’.” At the time Bailey was married to Deneuve and having an affair with someone else.
As soon as Tree was 18, she ran away to be with him. Seven feet tall in high heels and her hair piled up, she looked, he said, like Bambi crossed with an Egyptian Jiminy Cricket, “her legs up to her neck”. He made her internationally famous.
She lived with him in London, the hostess at parties where the cast list was the 1960s: John Lennon, Ravi Shankar, Brigitte Bardot, Bill Brandt, Peter Ustinov, Mick Jagger and many more. Bailey, a lifelong workaholic — and a self-confessed alcoholic at the time, drinking a bottle of spirits a day — was frequently away filming.
She said he had pictures of all his girlfriends on the mantelpiece “like notching up kills on an Air Force plane”. Cecil Beaton’s butler remembered Bailey, high on pot, slapping Tree on the rump and asking him: “What do you think of this old bag?”
Tree was roadkill. Within three years she had anorexia, bulimia, acne, a problem with cocaine, and her modelling career was over. “She started to get fat,” Bailey whines. “It was awful, awful. I didn’t know what to do with her.” He began an affair with someone else.
One of this memoir’s strengths is that Fox reunites Bailey with his old lovers. Tree is blunt about his selfishness. “Bailey has always stayed in a bubble … that narcissism that completely denies the reality, basically, of anybody else’s existence.”
The front of the book (pictured) — styled, naturally, by Bailey — has a Beaton portrait of him. He looks like the singer Michael Hutchence, smouldering in leather trousers, Cuban heels, with long dark hair.
Tactile, flirtatious, unfiltered, outrageous, Bailey was irresistible to both sexes. Gay men made his career, he says, and pursued him all his life, but he never indulged. He taught Rudolf Nureyev to do the twist. “He was so like a woman … he wanted to get in my trousers … I feel I’ve missed something, looking back. I think, shit, I might have had a go.”
One of his big influences as a child, growing up in the brutality of the war-torn East End, was his gentle gay Uncle Arty, a sailor who brought home unusual pretty things, music and shawls. He went to live in San Francisco and died of AIDS. Bailey believes his own undiagnosed dyslexia made him an outsider, just like gay men.
Bailey was born in 1938. Childhood was bleak and loveless. He disliked his parents and did not attend their funerals. His father, Bert, was a hard-drinking tailor, an overt womaniser. He remembers the day he and his mother, Glad, entered a pub to find Bert necking with the barmaid.
Glad was a dress-machinist who took him to the cinema four or five times a week, filling his head with images. A dyslexic boy’s vivid, visual memories haunt this section of the book: Glad in a flowery dress, walking through the brown grass of Wanstead Flats with the wind blowing, looking beautiful; or trying on a dress she couldn’t afford in Selfridges, when he glimpsed her twirling, backlit. “That was the moment that changed my life. I thought it was magic.”
Gang fights were part of his everyday life. He was diminutive, so he started using humour to sidestep violence. After national service in the RAF, where he learnt photography and read books, he went to work for John French, the gay fashion photographer on the Daily Express.
By 23 Bailey was working for Vogue. He discovered Jean Shrimpton, a posh girl from Buckinghamshire with a need to please and no confidence. “She had fantastic legs … she and Kate Moss are the best models I ever worked with.”
When Jean left him in 1964 he was shattered, even though he was unfaithful. “Wasn’t going to let it happen again, allowing a woman to break my f***ing heart.”
Shrimpton, Tree and Catherine Dyer (his present wife) he names as the great loves of his life. “It’s funny a short-arse like me made it with all those girls.” He had a brief marriage to the French actor Catherine Deneuve. “She was a bit short — five foot eight — and a bit on the fat side for me … but she was a very good model, especially after I’d finished with her.”
Deneuve, rather more generously, says she saw in Bailey the shy romantic pretending to be more cynical than he is. Laughing is a defence. He has an ability to be astonished by simple things that he sees as beautiful. But “he never spoke really of himself”.
Names drop in this book like overripe plums from the tree. He hated working with Coco Chanel. “She always had what I considered old models — at least 25. They seemed like old dykes to me.” He didn’t like ugly girls or ones with breasts. “I don’t like big udders.”
Bailey introduced Andy Warhol to Mick Jagger. He remembers Anjelica Huston (another lover) and Jack Nicholson trying to steal a lion’s-head knocker off a door in Regent’s Park at 3.30am.
He amused royalty. There was Princess Margaret. “I like her wit … she was a big fan of my photography and not Snowdon’s, and he used to get angry.” Dinners with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Paris. And, famously, the Queen, whom he pictured smiling broadly. He asked whether her emeralds were real. “I liked working with her, she was all right.”
Through drunken madness, he ended up on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, “She stole my camera … she was drunk. She had kleptomania, she had two bodyguards when she went into shops, walking round after her, paying for anything.”
Mother Teresa was “a tough old bitch” and Princess Diana was “no great beauty … she insisted on that terrible hairdo, the one that looked like a wig. She had terrible posture”.
These tales are fun for a while, but become tiresome. The book is the work of the co-writer, Fox, responsible for Life, the autobiography of Keith Richards, using interviews with Bailey, who says he hasn’t read it.
So you can hear his authentic voice, but you also cannot escape the deafening emptiness at the book’s heart, which is Bailey’s lack of self-awareness or self-reflection, even at 82. He remains narcissistic, sexist and competitive to the end. “My basic attitude to children (he has three), and to marriage, is that it’s nothing to do with me.” Great photographer, though.
In the autumn of 1893 in Nice, the Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch returned to a scene he had seen some time earlier while walking at sunset with two friends in Ekeberg, a neighbourhood of Oslo with a sweeping view of the city and its fjord.
As the sun went down, the artist recalled, the sky was “all of a sudden crimson red” and he stopped, “leaning into the fence of death” as his friends walked ahead. Munch saw “the blue and black fjord and the city of blood and tongues of fire” and found himself “shaking with anxiety”. He felt as if he was witnessing “a large infinite scream roaring through nature”.
The artwork that emerged from Munch’s vision, The Scream – a nightmarish, distorted figure clasping its face and screaming under a writhing orange sky – is now one of the most recognised images in the world.
The alien-like mien of the figure has prompted much projection and speculation. Some hypothesise that the image conveys Munch’s horror at his manic-depressive sister’s fate after she was committed to an asylum; others see in it a more universal howl of human misery.
The Scream has since been immortalised in emoji form, replicated by Andy Warhol, used to illustrate textbooks on Primal Scream therapy and referenced in thousands of popular artworks. It is among the most recognisable and replicated images in the world.
But long before his painting assumed its iconic status, Munch himself made a number of copies of it – in pastels, oil and as a woodblock – suggesting that even the artist felt its thrall.
This week’s poet, Meredith Wattison, evokes Munch’s totemic scream in the title and opening poem in her sixth full length collection, The Munchian O (Puncher & Wattmann), which collects close to four decades worth of poems.
As a collection, it is interested, broadly, in the question of how to know and express the self through language.
In the titular poem – a response to WH Auden’s classic poem Musée des Beaux Artes – Wattison interprets Munch’s artwork as an expression of a suffering that exceeds language. The poem begins with a vignette of a circle of revolutionaries gathered around Che Guevara – “in philos. fatigues, anti-poetry, / machismo, luplacido, simpa tico” – as he reads poems by Pablo Neruda.
Here, the poet reels off a string of Spanish words ending in O before landing on “Olvido”: alternately oblivion or forgetting. It’s a complicated opening without an easy interpretation, though there is an intimation the poet is alluding to the mixed legacy of the Cuban revolutionary, who is alternately viewed as a secular saint, a Byronic hero, or a violent executioner, depending on one’s perspective.
“It was the assassin’s undressing, notch by lyrical notch. Me, cane field; / you, machete,” the poet writes, finding a metaphor that pinpoints Guevara somewhere between the three.
As the poem progresses, more Os proliferate: poesy rings and love knots, but also the explosions of the white phosphorous bombs in Syria, which leave “quail-ribbed, excoriated orphans” in their wake.
The poem closes with a complicated riff that juxtaposes the suffering in Syria – “the philosophical phosphorous O; / the peace deal walkout” – with the height of shallow Western materialism: “The West Kardashian 5million-dollar / diamond ring (and parted-lip, deific / selfie grille) crisis, O. Sympathique. Trajectoire. O.”
The ultimate meaning of Munch’s silent scream in Wattison’s poem is mutable. The O made by the figure’s mouth is an invocation, protestation and lamentation all at once. It is an expression of suffering and of callous indifference to it. But most importantly, it announces Wattison’s interest in grappling with the almost-unsayable, the moments where language meets silence.
Speaking, writing and conversing are central concerns in The Munchian O.
Many of the poems connect with Wattison’s engagement with other writers, including Virginia Woolf, who is ventriloquised in the startling epistolary poem If Life Has a Base That It Stands Upon – purportedly a letter from Virginia to her husband Leonard – and Sylvia Plath, whose poem The Applicant is given a subtle nod in the poem Application.
In the poem Germaine’s Postcard, the poet reflects on Germaine Greer’s “full-looped” handwriting, which is surprisingly “large, feminine, connected, unconnected”. Wattison concludes, “The sweet analogy is not lost on me. / Even Boadicea wrote like a girl.”
Throughout, there is a great density of literary allusion. In World’s End and Gadigal, the poet seeks to describe the demeanour of a comcido, panion in a cafe, and in the process references Francis Bacon, Vivienne Westwood, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
The energetic accumulation of these references is often playful and satirical, as in Better Boy, Early Girl and Green Zebra, where Wattison imagines a swathe of teas named after literary counterparts:
“The Toklas Stein is a rosebud and French Vanilla infusion, also known as Alice B. Gert, Picasso With Hair or Come To Tea. ‘If you like this, you’ll also like Lawrence’s Fig, recommended for secluded picnics.’ There is The Lone Woolf, ‘best served cold’, it is simply river water with a glittery scoop of grit and pebbles. Slessor’s Bells is oily, black and reflective, with anise and licorice.’’
Many of Wattison’s poems are deliberately slippery; they defy simple interpretation, and seek to complicate, rather than simplify, the movement of language. This effect is most evident in the prose poems, many of which read like extended allegories yet ultimately frustrate symbolic interpretation.
Stylistically, Wattison’s poetry is marked by a vivid impasto of imagery and surreal flourishes; Virginia Woolf wears a “leaden fur coat effervescing like an otter’s” in one poem; in another, the poet describes salads “garnished with slow bees, twigs with lichen, tufts of alpaca wool, clover and wild violets”.
More often than not, Wattison uses language impressionistically, in an almost painterly fashion, rather than literally; colours, textures and objects suffuse her poems and are gathered together for their atmospheric effect as well as their meaning.
The key to Wattison’s approach seems to reside in a simple, aphoristic poem, Domain, set in Sydney’s Speaker’s Corner, which reads in full: “Speakers in the park / speak from boxes / and experience / piled high in the dark; / stepping on people’s fingers / and intelligence.’’
Unlike the hectoring and abrasive rhetoric of soapbox speakers, Wattison’s poems do not step on the reader’s intelligence. Instead, they encourage the reader to puzzle over the strangeness and mystery of language.
This quality is evident in this week’s poem, I Start. It’s a slender, simple-looking poem, seemingly about a straightforward encounter with a skink that creeps into the poet’s hair while she is sleeping.
The lizard is described as “Godzilla in miniature” and “an embroidered alchemy”, two metaphors that evoke a visitation of something magical and uncontrollable.
Yet in the final stanza, we move beyond the literal: the lizard’s arrival is likened to the arrival of a thought, a “freed serpent / caught like a thought / in my hand”.
Here, the poem’s title, I Start – a phrase that is echoed in the final stanza – suggests to me that the poet is not only startled, but also starting a train of thought: the precursor, perhaps, to the visitation of poetry.
Given the astonishing popularity of the podcast, a relatively new broadcasting medium dating back to the invention of the iPod, it is not hard to understand why television is being inspired by audio hits.
The word “podcasting” was first used by the journalist Ben Hammersley in The Guardian in 2004, and there are now well over 800,000 active podcasts around the world, with advertising revenues growing at what insiders call “gold rush” rates. Industry turnover is expected to top $US1 billion through this year.
The podcast emerged from the virtual broadcasting fringes with Sarah Koenig’s Serial, the 2014 investigative true crime podcast that reopened the case of a 1999 murder, forever shifting the course of the medium. The first season alone was downloaded around 175 million times. Koenig went almost instantly from near anonymity to creator of a cultural phenomenon, a game changer in history.
But many like Oliver Skinner fear for the future as the podcast is inevitably swallowed by the media conglomerates of mainstream entertainment. As Skinner points out, however, audio is now firmly in place in today’s media landscape and, less than two decades old, podcasting is still riding out its teenage years.
Among the TV shows spawned by podcasts there’s Dirty John, an interesting hybrid drama, the dramatisation of a podcast of the same name garnering more than 55 million listeners, which itself was adapted from a Los Angeles Times true crime investigation, written by Christopher Goffard. It’s really the story of how monstrous men can still so easily find ways to exploit women to express their destructive wills to power.
Its two seasons have been big hits for Netflix, as has Homecoming for Amazon Prime, based on a hugely successful experimental-fiction podcast of the same title. It’s a political thriller that centres on Heidi Bergman, played by Oscarwinner Julia Roberts in her first starring role in a TV series.
The latest TV series emanating from a successful audio broadcast is Limetown, a fictional true-crime mystery with elements of both science fiction and the psychological thriller, with some lovely horror story moments that might please Stephen King. It’s based on the 2015 podcast, released at the height of the post-Serial boom in the newish medium, and created by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie and their studio Two Up Productions. Its creation is a wonderful showbiz story of serendipity meeting up with patience and creative endurance.
The pair met at New York University, sharing dreams they say of making memorable entertainment together. But Akers became a producer of sports documentaries and Bronkie ventured to Silicon Valley directing and producing commercials. They got back together over an idea pitched by Akers: What would happen if a town full of people simply disappeared? It became their self-funded passion project, as they told the Hollywood Reporter discussing their journey from podcast to screen.
The questions around the initial concept consumed them: What was the town? What were its people doing? Why did they disappear? Eventually Akers took the “whole Google document fill of questions and answers” and wrote a pilot script and, with their combined experience in entertainment, they gave the eventual resulting podcast the same kind of production values they would a feature movie.
They released the first episode on iTunes in 2015 themselves, the beginning of a complex story in which an investigative journalist with a microphone begins to uncover the mystery of why 300 people disappeared from a town involved in a neurological experiment. And practically overnight they had a hit. For an emerging industry not yet overly familiar with the fictional podcast, it was a lesson in self-distribution as all major companies had turned them down.
Inevitably and successfully they adapted Limetown into the drama series of the same title. It stars Jessica Biel and Stanley Tucci, with Biel as executive producer and Rebecca Thomas, best known for festival favourite feature Electrick Children but now making a name in TV, directing.
It’s all rather knowingly clever too. As Variety suggested with some admiration, “Limetown is about as meta on the persistent true-crime phenomenon as it gets. The podcast within a podcast has become a podcast within a TV show based on a podcast – a dizzying trajectory.”
The show was picked up by Facebook Watch, an interactive video-on-demand streaming service which reaches more than 400 million people monthly and 75 million daily spending time with their original videos. It’s all new to me, living as I do in dread of Facebook’s algorithms taking hold of my life, but it’s certainly a fascinating world for anyone interested in how TV is now created.
Built into Facebook, the service allows creators to upload their own short- and long-form videos, but it also includes original professionally produced comedy, drama, and news programming Facebook pays to have produced. After successfully launching on Facebook, Limetown is now doing the rounds of various international streamers.
Like the podcast, the TV series centres quite viscerally on Lia Haddock, played superbly by the highly focused Biel, an intense journalist with American Public Radio who becomes determined to investigate the disappearance of more than 300 scientists, researchers and their families from a self-contained company town in Tennessee known as Limetown.
And it begins with an extraordinary sequence that sets the tone of dread which pervades the highly cinematic series, “that sort of hair-raising, off-kilter vibe” as Bronkie calls it, superbly realised by Thomas and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood, who did such a noirish job on the Nicole Kidman action movie Destroyer.
Lia is in what appears to be a dark motel room, doing something in the bathroom mirror, lit only in the corner of the composition, when there’s a loud pounding on the door.
Knowing this might be important, Lia gets out broadcasting gear, and confronts the disturbance. “I’m recording this in case it’s something important,” she whispers into her microphone. It sounds like a man is crashing his head against the door. “This is your warning,” he shouts. “You don’t scare me,” Lia yells back. “You. Don’t. Scare. Me.”
The background to the story of her investigation unfolds with various flashbacks. The way a 911 call was made to the police requesting help for the town and then began to yell in fear, “Shut it off; shut it off.” How when first responders arrived they were confronted by a heavily armed private security force. After a stand-off of several days, the militia inexplicitly stood down and SWAT cops entered the town in their Jeeps finding the place eerily deserted but for the corpse of Dr Oskar Totem, the lead neuroscientist of Limetown, tied to a lamppost and burned to death. A pile of dead pigs is discovered by the authorities, along with an intricate network of caves running underneath Limetown, which have since been sealed off.
Fifteen years later, as Lia investigates, there is no explanation for the disappearances and no one has any idea of what Limetown was for apart from a vague illusion of hope.
As the first episode unfolds it’s easy to see the influence of the X-Files on its creators and possibly that of Damon Lindelof’s brilliant The Leftovers, which revolved around the mysterious disappearances of two per cent of the world’s population, who abruptly disappear at the same time without explanation, and the world struggles to come to terms with what happened. As does Lia in Limetown, linked personally to the incident as her Uncle Emile, played with all his characteristic urbanity and empathy by Tucci, was one of those who vanished.
She becomes increasingly obsessed and perplexed, simply not coping with the absence of rationality with which she is confronted.
As she begins to uncover secrets, we are increasingly drawn into her investigation and into her obsession with the notion of people actually “erasing” themselves, “before anyone understands why”.
She seeks out the FBI boss Calhoun, a phlegmatic Chris Shields, who led the bureau’s investigation of those 326 disappearances. Reluctantly he raises the philosophical framework of the mystery further, the abstract, metaphysical, and fantastical underpinnings of this story, when he unexpectedly raises the notion of the Library of Babel.
This is a reference to a short story by prophetic Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, written when he was employed shelving books in a city library. The hexagonal rooms of this library contain every book that has ever been written, and every book that could ever be written, so vast that people wander it endlessly. Calhoun tells Lia, “The answers might be there but that doesn’t mean you won’t go crazy looking for them.”
It’s unlikely that Lia will be dissuaded, driven as she is by the righteousness of her quest for meaning and just as she is hooked on the unanswered questions of Limetown, so are we as the first episode ends on a startling cliffhanger.
SBS On Demand.
After a two-year wait between seasons, the first of which may still be viewed over on the Stan streaming service, the solid and satisfying British crime drama The Bay is winding up its second series with back-to-back episodes that will finally reveal the killer or killers of prominent lawyer Stephen Marshbrooke (Stephen Tompkinson) at his front doorstep as his terrified young son Oliver looked on. Solid and methodical, The Bay is anchored by Scottish actress Morven Christie’s quietly assured performance as capable yet haunted Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong.
In the coastal English town of Morecambe, Armstrong was first introduced in 2019’s series one as a Family Liaison Officer for the fictional West Lancashire Police Service.
Responsible with a minimum amount of additional training but no extra pay to provide a link between police and families victimised by violent crime, FSO’s are most commonly deployed to provide advice and emotional support to grieving relatives.
Though she’s very good at her job, some dodgy conduct in that first season has gotten her busted to just a regular cop as series two gets underway, and it’s in that capacity she’s assigned by watchful boss Detective Inspector Anthony “Tony” Manning (Dan Ryan) to accompany superior officer Ahmed “Med” Kharim – who, irony of ironies, she trained as an underling before her downfall – to investigate the seemingly senseless killing.
As the case unfolds, Armstrong’s instinctual empathy takes over and she’s instrumental in solving a crime that grows to involve Marshbrook’s wife, Rose (Sharon Small) and father-inlaw, local businessman
To at least one set of eyes, the standout player of this series has been, and will here continue to be, Ryan as Armstrong’s gruff but vulnerable supervisor. Looking for all the world like a slightly younger Ricky Gervais on a bad day, the British-born Ryan has worked steadily in theatre and television since the early 1990s.
Of his hard-charging yet appealing, vulnerable and altogether human commanding officer, Ryan says, “you invest so much in the characters. You really believe in them … I don’t know how a writer manages to do that, but there’s a humanity and depth to each of them.”
“I hope people will watch it and take it to heart,” said that writer, creator Daragh Carville, just before the series’ first season debuted almost
Bill Bradwell (James exactly two years ago. He needn’t have worried, as the first half-dozen episodes drew nearly universal critical acclaim and an average of over seven million viewers.
Numbers aren’t readily available for the second series now-concluding initial performance in the United Kingdom, but if the glowing reviews are any indication, they’ll bode well for a third season that should begin shooting in a few months’ time.
“It was always conceived of as a show that could return and there are certain other stories I want to tell in The Bay,” Carville enthused recently to various press outlets. “I certainly hope it will run and run.” From all available evidence, that is entirely possible.
The Bay, Wednesday, 8.30pm, Seven and 7plus.