TV review: Southcliffe might not be cheery, but this is rare and brilliant Sunday night viewing

Southcliffe, Sun, Channel 4 //  I Love My Country, Sat, BBC1

The best thing about Southcliffe – a new drama about a man who goes on a killing spree – was its disturbing silences: the fizzing quietness of electricity pylons at the start mixed with the dull patter of rain, just before a woman, tending to her garden, was shot dead by the invisible gunman. Or the silence in between the gunshots that rang out as Stephen (Sean Harris) – the village’s handyman who lived with his ill, ageing mother – sprayed bullets across this hitherto faceless English seaside town. Or the small silences in the pub, where he sat with an air of a man who had spent a lifetime being slighted, wincing even at the everyday mockery of his nickname there – “Commander”. Or the final, terrible quiet just before he went on his murderous rampage, when he switched modes from loving son – fetching his mother’s breakfast – to armed assassin, standing in front of her, minutes after he had given her the breakfast tray, to shoot her dead (“close your eyes, mum”).

Dramas about mass killings such as this one are often told in reverse – we see the violent act first, before we go back in time to unravel what could possibly have led to this moment – and Southcliffe followed this format. It did not try to enter into Stephen’s head. It gave us the steps that built up to the event in a deadpan, almost documentary style – rather like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which had its own quiet, over-the-shoulder view of a massacre of Columbine High School proportions. There was no explanation, no emotional overload.

Of course, there were the terrible and distant echoes of Dunblane, Hungerford and more recently, the Cumbria shootings, yet the strength of Southcliffe was how specific this slaughter became. It was about Stephen’s specifically skewed sense of reality, his delusions of SAS greatness, which were punctured by an Afghan war vet who saw through them; and his bitterness, too, at being the odd one out, nurtured by the small indignities at work and the daily tragedy of tending to his mother’s disability. 

The various sub-strands and smaller characters are set to be  fleshed out in coming episodes into slices of life from a village struck by such a surreal and horrific event. There is the squaddie, Chris (Joe Dempsie), for example, freshly back from Afghanistan, who in his short-lived friendship with Stephen exposed the scar – and blood-lust – that war has left on him: “Combat, there ain’t nothing like it,” he said, revealing the sense of purposelessness that a returning vet might feel back home. Rory Kinnear is the adrenalin-fuelled TV reporter (“fuck John Simpson”) who, we guess, will be called to cover the seaside town  tragedy. It might not be the cheeriest TV, but as far as bleakness goes, this is rare and brilliant Sunday-night viewing.

I Love My Country tried to recapture that Olympics feeling of British pride that we are all finally able to express, but managed to summon it up with all the fun of a Citizenship Test. Take some of the tongue-in-cheek questions that host, Gabby Logan, hit  her panellists with: “What is the capital of Wales?”  and “The British takeaway, fish and chips, is served with what and vinegar?” There was talk of the Queen,  J R Hartley and much hilarity from the studio audience who were dressed in red and blue wigs, for that added Britishness, you understand. David Walliams was originally set to present the show but was replaced by Logan who conducted her job with the charisma of a newscaster reading an autocue. Even more inexplicable were slow-mo repeats of quiz-meisters Frank Skinner and Micky Flanagan laughing with celebrity team-mates. Huh?

Among the various heats was a quiz for remembering tunes that began old TV shows. The starting jingle of the long-forgotten children’s TV show Why Don’t You? comes  to mind: “Why don’t you switch off the television set and  go and do something less boring instead?”