Chris Chibnall is bringing down the curtain on his hit whodunit after three seasons. Crimescene quizzes the Broadchurch creator for clues about the show’s last case.
Chris Chibnall might be the most famous TV writer in Britain right now. When Crime Scene is granted an interview with the 46-year-old behind Broadchurch, he’s about to regenerate into the showrunner for Doctor Who. But for a man who has to satisfy the expectations of millions of viewers – of both the ITV crime drama and the BBC sci-fi institution – he’s remarkably laid-back.
Our conversation even deviates into Downton Abbey names – a security precaution used on the scripts in case they fell into the wrong hands. Apparently Series 3’s fake title was Returning Home by Margaret Cedars. As Chibnall explains, his Downton name formula is grandmother’s first name followed by primary school. For the record, Crime Scene’s is “Joan Paddock”. “You can then figure out whether you were upstairs or downstairs – and I think you were downstairs in the kitchen,” laughs Chibnall.
But the security on the shoot was a serious business: Chibnall is determined to protect his TV thriller’s secrets. “The purpose is to try and get a show on air that is essential live viewing and has got surprises,” he explains. “I think what the audience brought to Broadchurch was a sense of communal experience, they made it that for which I’ll be forever grateful. So that’s the aim, a good old-fashioned sit in and watch the telly.” Millions of Broadchurch fans are already doing just that...
Was it important to write about a rape case for Series 3?
I really wanted to give the issue of sexual assault the weight and attention and detail that we gave to a murder in Series 1. Broadchurch is always a show about the aftermath of crime and it’s a show about the victims of crime, as much as it’s a show about investigation. We spent a lot of time researching with Dorset Rape Crisis, Dorset’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre and specialist police. I asked them: should we be telling this story in Broadchurch? And they all unanimously said that not only should you, you have to, because it’s on the rise.
Were you impressed with Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of a rape victim in this series?
Julie is an amazing actress. She understood the responsibility of taking on the part and she embraced that. All the people that we talked to in our research are advisors on the show, they advised on all the scripts, they were on set, they’ve seen edits and came to a screening. We’ve talked to survivors of sexual assault. They have been our partners in the whole process and they’ve really supported Julie through the whole thing. I think Julie has really put in so much work and care and precision. It’s a really strong, beautiful performance.
After the Series 2 resolution, will we learn more about the original characters?
Yeah, one of the deliberate decisions was to set it three years later, because what’s always interested me in writing the show has been how people’s lives continue to go on in the aftermath of emotional trauma and life-changing events.
Does Series 3 feel like a bit of a fresh start too?
Yeah, I think if you’ve never seen an episode of Broadchurch, the first episode of this series is a really good place to start. And if you’ve seen both previous series, then there are extra rewards and resonances that you will get.
How was it returning to work with Olivia Colman and David Tennant?
It’s the biggest privilege of doing Broadchurch, seeing this cast work and being able to write for them. Olivia and David never stop working, they never stop shaping the characters. They’re brilliant at finding humour, they’re brilliant at finding warmth and empathy, and I think so much of this year’s story rests on their shoulders in terms of the dynamic with them and Trish, Julie Hesmondhalgh’s character.
The casting has always been strong. Tell us about Lenny Henry in this series…
He’s amazing. He’s a very acclaimed stage actor – he does Shakespeare at the National. What I really love to see as a viewer is actors in roles you wouldn’t necessarily expect, doing things you haven’t quite seen them do before. People are going to see a different side to Lenny – and he is magnificent.
How do you get big names like Sarah Parish in supporting roles?
We’re always as surprised as anyone, to be honest. I think it’s a slightly different character to those she’s played recently, and she is magnificent. The thing about Sarah is she’s so funny, she’s so emotional, but she’s also not afraid to go to the dark places and the bleak places.
Are you proud of the casting over the three series of Broadchurch?
I look back and can’t really believe it. I was really proud last year to have Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Jean-baptiste and Meera Syal as the three pillars of British justice in the courtroom. It will be a long time before you see that again on ITV. The cast we have across the 24 episodes, I think that’s going to make a nice, rich box set at
It’s about the victims and aftermath as much as investigation
the end. That’s what people tune in for – great performances by great actors. You can talk about the writing, but actually what people love are characters and actors.
Was Broadchurch always planned in your head as a trilogy?
Well, it makes it sound like a masterplan. As I think any writer will tell you, we just wanted to get the first series made and onto air and then hope that it stayed on air for eight weeks and wasn’t pulled after episode two. At the back of my head, I was thinking if we got a second series I’d want to do the trial. So when we started to have that conversation, I said to ITV, “I think there are two more series in this – one is the trial and one is the story of a sexual assault – and that’s it”. But it makes me sound like more of a masterplan genius than it actually is in reality.
Did you want to end the show leaving people wanting more?
At the moment, I don’t have another story in the world of Broadchurch. So it feels like the right time to stop.
Can we expect an emotional finale?
I hope it is an emotional ending. The aim is to be emotional and satisfying for the journey this year and for the three-year journey, really. So you will have to tell me once you’ve seen it. I wasn’t wrestling with two or three [ endings], it felt quite clear to me where we’d be ending.
Going back to the first ever episode, the opening scene was quite Agatha Christie.
Yeah, absolutely, I think we wear our Agatha Christie-ness very proudly. That scene you’re talking about with Mark walking down the street is exactly that: it’s telling you that you’re in a whodunit. It’s also setting up the community – you have got all of these suspects in and out of each other’s lives. So the engine of Broadchurch has always been the whodunit or thriller or page-turner, plus things that the series wants to say, and great performances.
Do you still shoot episodes in order and keep careful control of the scripts?
Yes, we were more paranoid than ever. We password-protect everything, we put fake title pages on by fake writers, we use Downton names for the writer. It’s just being careful, really. Everybody has their own individual password on the cast and crew for their document. We don’t write certain things down, we film alternative scenes, we film stuff we don’t put in cuts.
Is Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds’ soundtrack a big part of the show?
It really is, and I think Ólafur has redefined what soundtracks are and what they do on television in this country. Because I hear a lot of soundtracks now that I think: “Oh yeah, that’s very post-arnalds”. He’s one of the key creative collaborators on the show. He has such a massive impact – the sound and music is so important. I think he’s done something really special and he’s done a really beautiful new end song. We do a different one every year and I think this is the best of the three.
Will you be able to combine any other projects with Doctor Who?
I’ve got a play on tour [ Worst Wedding Ever]. I kept writing theatre throughout my career, and I really love that. But no, I feel relatively confident in saying Doctor Who will take up most of my energy.
Finally, did you enjoy the French version of Broadchurch, Malaterra?
Oh, my god, yeah. In fact, somewhere in it I’m on a wanted poster in the police station. Yeah, I loved Malaterra, they did such a great job on it – beautifully shot, set on Corsica, amazing cast. And Béatrice Dalle is Pauline Quirke!
Lenny Henry plays solitary shopkeepered Burnett, widowed 12 years ago.
Chris Chibnall (facing camera) on set.
It’s three years later, and Di hardy has spent some time away...