Southcliffe writer Tony Grisoni interview: 'This is not about Dunblane'

Gerard Gilbert meets Tony Grisoni, the writer of a devastating new drama about the effect of a mass shooting upon a small community

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The Independent Culture

Dunblane's most famous son, tennis champion Andy Murray, lives in hope that his continuing success will give his hometown something else with which to be associated other than the terrible events of 13 March 1996. That was the day when 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered the local primary school and shot dead 16 children and one teacher, before turning a gun on himself. Now, however, a powerful new Channel 4 drama series is set to reignite memories of that horrific event – as well as so-called "shooting sprees" the world over, from Hungerford and Whitehaven to Norway and Columbine.

Southcliffe, named after the fictional community about to be devastated by a lone gunman, brings together writer Tony Grisoni, who adapted David Peace's Red Riding novels about police corruption at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, and New York director Sean Durkin, who made the prize-winning Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a girl escaping from a cult in the Catskill mountains. Throw in a cast that includes Sean Harris, Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson, and you have four hours of bold, and gripping drama that left the audience of critics with whom I watched it filing out of the screening room in stunned silence.

The four-parter tells of Stephen (played by Sean Harris), a loner who cares for his sick mother when not indulging in militaristic fantasies. The locals half-accept him as an oddball and dub him "the commander", but the return from Afghanistan of a local Army man sets in motion a chain of events that will lead a humiliated Stephen into taking his revenge on the community.

"The part that interested me most was that the perpetrator was going to come from the community," says Grisoni. "He will be known by the community, and therefore is not a cartoon monster, but a person who does something that is despicable and awful and has repercussions that go on for years and years and years … but still a person."

What surprises me when I ask Grisoni about his attention-grabbing subject is that he didn't set out to write about a shooting spree at all – his intended subject was simply grief. "I wanted to write something about loss," he says. "And the relationship between those who are still living and those who have died."

To that end, he copied a technique he used while writing Michael Winterbottom's 2002 movie about Afghan refugees smuggled into Britain, In This World – finding inspiration in real, first-hand accounts. "I had all these phone interviews and so on and took these stories and started to play with them," he says. But how did Grisoni hit on the idea of a shooting spree?

"To have a community where a number of people die, you've got natural disasters, you've got industrial disasters, you've got war, and you've got a shooting spree – it was about using it as a device in that way." But couldn't that be construed as exploitative? "Once you decide, 'Okay, it's going to be a shooting spree', you have to take it on seriously. You can't just use it like a comic strip. So I did my research – Hungerford, Dunblane, Whitehaven – to see what happened, to see how people reacted."

Though while Grisoni did visit these places, the trips were more about soaking up the atmosphere. "I purely went there to look. I just wanted to see what the places were like, and to have a sense of the community", he says. "I think it's a heavy cross if you come from somewhere nobody knows the name of because it's such a small place and suddenly you become infamous for a miserable thing like a shooting spree.

"No one would want to live in a place known for a shooting spree. It's all right in London – so many sins have occurred in London that it cancels itself out.

"It's not a literal account of something that's happened in the UK. I worry about people saying, 'Oh this is really Dunblane,' or 'This is really Whitehaven.' No, it's not. It just happens to be a fiction that is informed by people's accounts of losing someone close to them to shooting sprees."

Grief within tight-knit communities seems to be very much in the television drama ether at the moment, from the first series of The Killing to Broadchurch by way of Channel 4's exemplary French series The Returned, nominally a modern take on the zombie horror flick, but really about loss and grieving in a small-town setting.

Grisoni begins to discuss the death of Princess Diana as a sea change in people's perception of grief, but breaks off.

"I'm bad at these trend things," he says. "I'm so in danger of making some half-baked theory. But I do think it's important to think about grief and to question our relationship with death."

The setting, on the north Kent coast near Faversham, a spot that he knows well from weekends away, was also important for Grisoni.

"I like the bleakness, I like the salt marshes, I like how the sea filters into the land, I like the pubs and the people around there and I like the fact it's not London," he says. "[Being] able to shoot there was incredible. It's got a real wildness about it." And there's a real wildness to many of the male characters in Southcliffe. During the press screening (taking Red Riding also into consideration), I jotted down that "Grisoni is a specialist in brutal machismo".

"Clearly it does interest me, but I don't know why, because clearly I'm neither of those things," he says. "Recently I've written three stories where the story is led by women. I've had enough of those macho guys."

Among those stories are a film adaptation of Meg Rosoff's young adult novel How I Live Now, set to be released in October, about a young British girl trying to hold her family together after a mysterious apocalypse, and another book adaptation, of Belinda Bauer's Blacklands. In it, a 12-year-old girl (in the book, it's a boy) attempts to mend her broken family by finding the body of her missing (presumed murdered) younger brother. Meanwhile Dream Home, an original, one-off BBC drama that he is writing and directing , is about a young woman, Sylvia, who arrives in a strange town.

"We know she's on the run but we don't know what from. She wants very conventional things: she wants a house and a husband. The problem with Sylvia is she'll do anything to get those things – anything."

This sounds dangerously like another trend – the psychopathic female anti-heroine. After all, Gillian Flynn's bestseller cum crime novel phenomenon Gone Girl is about to be filmed by David Fincher, with Rosamund Pike in the lead. But, once again, Grisoni will not be tempeted into half-baked cultural theories. Do watch Southcliffe however: it is British television drama at its very best.

Southcliffe begins Sunday night at 9pm on Channel 4. How I Live Now is released on 4 Oct.