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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

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.

 

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little