When the historic market town of Faversham was chosen as the location for a major new Channel 4 drama, residents believed they would be starring in a murder mystery whodunit.
But hopes of a tourism boost have turned sour after the Kent community discovered that Southcliffe is actually the harrowing account of a loner who embarks upon a killing spree after being persecuted by local townsfolk.
The four-part drama, which launches next weekend, takes inspiration from the 1987 Hungerford massacre and the Whitehaven shootings, in which long gunman Derrick Bird killed 12 people in 2010.
In Southcliffe, a loner ex-soldier (Sean Harris) is pushed over the edge by his neighbours in an oppressive community, whose members harbour dark secrets.
The series, produced by Warp Films (This Is England) and starring Rory Kinnear, would generate £500,000 for the local economy, claimed the Faversham Enterprise Partnership, which promoted the town’s use as a location.
Residents allowed their houses to be turned into sets during months of filming for the drama, which makes extensive use of the area’s bleak marshland and port setting.
The end product however, is not what Faversham’s residents quite had in mind. “The impression I got was that they were making a crime series like Midsomer Murders,” said David Simmons, Mayor of Faversham. “We had no idea of the storyline.”
Faversham folk do not have a small-town mentality, the Mayor added: “I was born here and people have disagreements and they are passionate but there is no indication of that. I don’t believe people will associate Faversham with the events in the drama.”
Faversham had been hoping that Southcliffe would replicate the tourism boom which ITV’s hit Broadchurch drama has delivered for its seaside location, West Bay in Dorset.
The Mayor said: “We hoped that the filming would be of economic benefit to the town. The crew stayed locally and people let them use their houses.”
Bryan Mulhern, a councillor for Swale, a location used in the series, said: “I generally believe no publicity is bad publicity but it would be a good idea for the producers to screen it for local people and explain why they picked Faversham.”
Tony Grisoni, Southcliffe writer, said: “Southcliffe is a fictional market town inhabited by fictional characters, but with similarities to many actual people and places in Britain today.”
Grisoni, who previously wrote Channel 4’s hard-hitting Red Riding Trilogy, added: “Rather than analyse or moralise about our characters’ actions, we share in them.”
Sean Durkin, Southcliffe director, said he had immersed himself in Faversham to help create the drama’s atmosphere of foreboding. “It was about spending time in the area where we were shooting to see what it felt like to sit in a pub there, what it felt like to walk down the street. There was a palpable atmosphere.”
But Southcliffe was “about how a fictional small town is affected by a tragic event, a shooting. It’s not the story of the killer, it’s the story of the journalist (Kinnear) who goes back to Southcliffe to report on the tragedy and also it’s about the people left behind, the community.”
Sean Harris, who plays the taciturn former solider, marginalised by the local community, said: “I come from a place like that, I knew that mentality, seeing people exhausted by life and what that does to you.”
Kinnear admitted he had qualms about the role. He said: “The first draft I read was even more brutal. My first response was, ‘God, This is kind of amazing, but who wants to watch this?’”
Faversham does have a murderous history. In 1551, Thomas Arden, the Mayor of Faversham, was killed by his wife and his lover in the family parlour, a murder which inspired the first English domestic drama, Arden of Faversham.
Before Southcliffe, Faversham’s claim to fame was the establishment of Britain’s first gunpowder plant in the 16th century.