Matthew Gravelle, a Welsh actor with a long career in TV, didn’t expect Broadchurch to explode in such an extraordinary way. “Not at all. Everybody on board knew that it was a brilliant script and they definitely wanted to be involved in it, but nobody had any idea how successful this was going to be,” he says.
But then, with creator Chris Chibnall at the helm and renowned executive producer Jane Featherstone his right-hand woman, Broadchurch was always going to be a winner. “We worked on Life on Mars and we did Law and Order together,” says Featherstone. “I’ve always loved Chris’ brilliant combination of character, wit, humour and drama, he has a great craft; I love his writing and I love working with him. He sent me the script and I just saw this incredible ambition to tell one story across eight hours. I love that sort of television; I love immersing myself in something for that length of time and I loved the characters he had drawn.”
That said, speaking off the back of a brilliant first series’ reception, “It’s all a bit of shock really!” she laughs. It’s down to Featherstone that iconic actress Olivia Coleman joined David Tennant in their leading roles as detective duo Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy. “I’m very pleased with myself for having that idea,” she smiles. “I developed the script with Chris and we were sitting around thinking about it and quite honestly I’d had my eye on Olivia to play something for years and was waiting for the right role. I said, ‘Olivia Coleman?’ And Chris was like ‘Oh my God!’ He said that he’d had her in mind too, so we asked her and David simultaneously, as they’re so wonderful. So we fixed that very early and filled the ensemble around them.”
Featherstone likes to keep her actors on their toes – Gravelle, AKA Joe Miller, only found out he was the killer himself with three weeks left to shoot. “I was really tense all the way through!” he admits, though, “I’d like to think that I would have been able to carry on with a good poker face even if I had known from the start…” And if that had been the case? “I would have been even keener to play him – with a certain amount of trepidation!” he laughs.
So can Gravelle, a man on the inside, pin down exactly why this tense Dorset whodunit has caught the public’s imagination? “I think it’s excellent writing, I think it’s actors being brilliant – me excepted obviously – and just everybody being on top of their game. But that’s true of a lot of TV shows and a lot of it is that Broadchurch caught the people’s emotions and the audience related to the horrible prospect of a child going missing. The fact that it was community-based maybe meant that people saw some reflection of where they lived, too. It just seemed plausible.”
With Series One such a success and Series Two trending, both actor and producer are excited – if apprehensive - for what is to come. “There’s definitely a pressure on us, which we put on ourselves,” says Featherstone. “You make something you’re proud of and that the audience have responded so well to, you want if you do it again to give the audience something that they love as much. We’re all fairly obsessive, control freak perfectionists and part of being really good is taking risks.”
“From my and Chris Chibnall’s point of view, we were able to take the story in quite a surprising direction, rather than do another crime with a body at the bottom of a cliff, and that’s quite a risk, but we are drawing on the fact that the audience has fallen in love with the characters and are interested enough to continue on the road with them. There’s lots of new stuff thrown in too, all sorts of elements.”
Both Gravelle and Featherstone are full of praise for the current state of British TV. “British drama has always, for as long as I can remember, been up there with the best. I can remember series from the 80s that were terrific,” says Gravelle. Featherstone is similarly positive. “I would never say this is the ‘Golden Age,’” says the producer, “but there’s no question that the quality and range that’s on now is fantastic. We have the opportunity to work with such great talent from both on and off-screen and the lines between film and TV have now been blurred to such a degree where any great talent can work in either medium and tell those stories. There’s no doubt we’re having a good run of it, drama is in a good place so I’m very grateful for that.”
Watch Broadchurch on ITV Mondays at 9PM.