Chris Chibnall interview: Broadchurch, Doctor Who, & more...
We chatted to Broadchurch, Doctor Who, and Torchwood writer Chris Chibnall about success, fan theories, orange cagoules, and more...
Spoiler warning: this interview reveals the identity of the Broadchurch killer, and other series one plot details.
Years of keeping Doctor Who and Torchwood’s confidences must have been excellent preparation for the secrecy Chris Chibnall had to maintain throughout the run of his successful ITV drama, Broadchurch.
Part whodunit and part exploration of grief and loss, the David Tennant and Olivia Colman-starring series came to occupy a rare position in early 2013. Critics praised it, viewers watched it in their millions, and in its final weeks, online theories on the killer’s identity were just as widespread and meticulously constructed as anything you’d find in a Doctor Who comments section. Broadchurch fans united on Monday nights and poured reactions onto Twitter and Facebook during every ad break. Episodes were watched, and re-watched, freeze-framed and scoured for clues. In-jokes and finger-drumming impatience for the next instalment took hold amongst its viewers. In short, the intense fandom usually reserved for niche sci-fi and fantasy was applied to a primetime ITV drama. The secret to Broadchurch’s success? It turned its mainstream audience into geeks.
We chatted to Broadchurch writer/creator Chris Chibnall about the fan response, series two, maintaining the balance between mystery and emotional truth, and more...
So, fast-forward to this time next year and you’ll be sitting talking to me surrounded by Baftas…
Oh God. Genuinely, I am still recovering from the experience of transmission. I’m kind of in this post-transmission state of shock that people watched it, so the fact that people liked it is really great, but I don’t think we’re thinking anything like that. Also, Olivia’s frankly cleaned up already. We were all punching the air for her at the Baftas even now it was nothing to do with Broadchurch, but there was a lot of whooping and cheering from the sofa that night.
I think she’s going to have to clear a bit more room on the mantelpiece next year…
It’s funny, the lovely thing is to have to have gone through this process with the show, where we had something that we were really proud of before anybody saw it - sometimes you are and sometimes you aren’t and sometimes you’re not sure - and we just thought, do you know what, even if nobody watches it, it’s what we wanted to make. Then to see it take on this mad life was really shocking and exciting. Bewildering is the word I’ve been using, so we’re all still processing that in a very delighted and humbled fashion.
About that ‘bewildering’ path Broadchurch took, from the first episode to the last, did it seem to you that the audience hoopla changed the series into something it wasn’t? I sat down for the last episode buzzing with ‘What’s the twist?’, ‘Is my theory right?’ and then the finale felt like a bucket of cold water, reminding me that it wasn’t all a big fun game, but actually about child death and human grief. Do you think the popularity of the whodunit warped it somehow?
I don’t think it was warped. I think it’s an inevitable process of a show going to the screen. Having done it a few times now, you never know where the audience are going to take it. As a series, it feels like a fixed object until it transmits, and then it becomes this malleable shifting shape-changing thing in the hands of the audience. It becomes like mercury. I saw it happen with Life On Mars, you see it with every season of Doctor Who, you saw it with the various seasons of Torchwood, I saw it with Law & Order UK… whatever you think it is before it goes out, it’s never that thing when it goes out. So I didn’t really have any expectations, because that’s what I’ve learned: you go in with no expectations and just hope that you believe in the work you’ve made.
I think I understand why the whodunit became a big obsession, because it was playing with that genre and those tropes. The water cooler thing that everybody was saying it became, you can’t control that. There were a lot of cliff-hangers and a lot of plot points, but equally, I think there were lots of signifiers and clues we laid down saying, ‘Just be careful’, because it’s working within that genre, but it’s hopefully saying, but there is a cost. At every point in Broadchurch you’re continually told and pulled back into the emotional cost. All throughout I was trying to say that nobody gets let off the hook in Broadchurch.
When I saw the premise initially, my immediate reaction was ‘Oh no. A dead child. Is this going to be an exploitative hook for another sexy cop drama?’ It wasn’t of course, the tragedy wasn’t a sensationalist hook, but a jumping point for pathos.
It was absolutely the aim, to take an emotional character-driven approach to a genre that is often dominated by plot, and to go, hang on, what would it really be like if you lived through this. Because we’ve all watched those cases unravel in real life, it was really through them and the drama at the centre of that for everyone who was touched by it.
What was the genesis for the idea? You mention watching a media circus unfurl on a real-life murder case… were you watching Leveson by any chance when you came up with it?
No, I had the idea way before that. Obviously all those Leveson hearings couldn’t help but play into it, but actually in a way the Leveson stuff and the journalism made me want to show those different levels of journalism and press more fully. I don’t think any of the journalists in Broadchurch are villainous. I think they’re all trying to do their jobs under difficult circumstances. It’s about how you control the narrative, and who controls the narrative of a death like this, that was really at the centre of it. Who gets to own how that story is sent out into the world and controlled? Is it the police? Is it the media? Is it the family? That was one of the central questions I’d started with.
The character of Jack Marshall was something of a morality tale though wasn’t he?
For how the tabloids particularly can take ownership of someone else’s life and use it for their own purposes, regardless of personal cost.
Yes. Jack, very deliberately was in there to explore how innocent speculation and innocent reporting can put pressure on people. It’s not to say that his death was absolutely caused by that. The whole point of the show is to hopefully explore the shades of grey and not to go, oh that was responsible for that, and that was responsible for that, but to go, where does the culpability lie and where does the ownership lie?
You wrote Broadchurch as a spec script for yourself, but after its success, I’m interested in how you’re going to get back into that head space to write series two. Will you have to block out the behemoth that series one has become in order to do that?
Yeah, I think you don’t write for success and you don’t write in response to success. When ITV green-lit the first series, we had a meeting and I said to Peter Fincham and Laura Mackie (ITV’s Director of Television and Drama Commissioner, respectively) ‘Look, if it works we could do this afterwards’, and they nodded very politely, like ‘In your dreams, in all our dreams’. I’d been percolating on that and making notes about that all the way through this process, so it’s been sitting inside me for quite a while.
The process I go through will be exactly the same. Nothing changes through success. It’s about being surrounded by people who challenge you and who are tough on you, and we have a team who are all tough on each other. We’re all good friends and colleagues so it’ll be about making the second one better. It will be very different. We understand what the challenge is but I think the plan hopefully plays into… I’m just trying to formulate a sentence without giving anything away! The plan is so that there are things about the next one that are hopefully just as exciting and fresh and different as the audience felt the first one was.
There was no pressure from ITV to do things because the first one was a success. The pressure from all of us is we have to do something that is as creatively interesting so it’s not about getting ten million viewers again, it’s not about that at all, it’s about doing something that is worthy of the name Broadchurch.
There’s very little you can tell us about series two isn’t there? Is that about the extent of it?
That’s probably too much already!
You talk about the team that’s going to be involved around you, but you don’t yet know in terms of cast what that’s going to mean?
I know what I want to do. [Laughs]. And that’s all I can tell you.
Will at least we be seeing the orange cagoule again?
[Laughs] It is way too early to say. I think that’s the general thing with what we’re going to do next, is that it’ll be a little while off, and in a way there’s sort of no point talking about it now because then by the time it gets to the screen it feels like old news. I think the hardest thing to do in a second season is keep our secrets, because frankly, when we were making the first one, nobody knew who we were and nobody cared and obviously people will be a bit more interested this time.
I’ll say. It’s like the BBC’s Sherlock isn’t it? They made that first series largely untroubled, but now they can’t shoot a thing without an enormous crowd turning up.
Yeah. We’ll see. The main thing will just be to have a story that people can really connect to. There’s no ratings pressure, but there is a pressure because we all love the show and we want to do it proud again, so the ambition is incredibly high, probably higher than before, because we’ve set that bar.
Am I right in thinking that of all your past work, Broadchurch is the one that had the smallest gap between your original vision, and what the audience eventually saw on the screen? You weren’t saying, 'Oh well, we had wanted to do this but couldn’t afford an army of Silurians, so we had to make do'…
Yes, it’s the thing where I was in charge from start to finish, so I was there putting the final caption of ‘Broadchurch will return’ in the online edit suite with Richard Stokes the producer. I wrote what we had, and what we had remained constant because we managed it. It’s my show from start to finish so yes, that is a fair thing to say.
That must have made it more satisfying than perhaps some of the other things where you've been constrained by the likes of prosthetics and explosions…
Well, there’s a great joy in having prosthetics and explosions but I think by its very nature, when you’re going and doing an episode of Doctor Who or something, you’re not just at the whim of your episode budget and limitations, you’re at the mercy of what’s been spent elsewhere in the series and what’s just happened yesterday on another episode and so on. So yeah, it’s always very nice, and I’ve done it on a few shows now, it’s nice to be in charge and to make those decisions and to really have that kind of coherent vision all the way through and run that and know how to compensate because every TV production involves some form of compromise.
As you bring up Doctor Who, can you tell us what your commitments are to series eight?
Steven [Moffat] has asked me to be involved with series eight, it’s just going to come down to schedules. If we can make the schedules work, I’ll do an episode, and if we can’t make it work I won’t, it will be then how it fits in with Broadchurch commitments, so it’s a planning issue really.
Ah, the banality of planning.
See what I mean? Really dull, and the actual thing is, it comes down to schedules and weeks and when they’re filming and all that kind of stuff.
Broadchurch was written on spec. Do you have other spec scripts in drawers waiting to be made?
No, I don’t have spec scripts in a drawer. I have a couple of projects that I’m slowly noodling away on and working up and story lining just in the background while we’re doing the other stuff.
Is any of that a return to sci-fi?
[Laughing] Do you really think if I’m not going to tell you anything about Broadchurch series two, that I’m going to tell you about something that might be five years in the future!
You can’t blame me for trying. Returning to the week-by-week reaction to Broadchurch, were fans going down lines of investigation you hadn’t even intended to be red herrings?
Not really. There were lines of investigation that we had but didn’t fit in because of time and also because although it feels like a police procedural it’s actually not a police procedural, there’s deliberately very little procedure in it, even though it feels like there is a fair bit. We have a very brilliant police advisor, and we’d been through the investigation with her quite thoroughly. We didn’t tell her what the outcome was, so she worked the investigation as it would be done in real life, according to what we had.
Yeah, we were really thorough. ITV responded to the scripts and the storyline first of all as surrogate viewers, and they certainly didn’t know what the ending was until it came. We’d worked through the investigation pretty thoroughly and I don’t think there was anything where people went really, really off-track. I mean, I think there were very deliberately red herrings and cul-de-sacs in there which people went down but in a very creative way.
How closely did you follow the Broadchurch forums and online theories?
I didn’t really look that much at that stuff. I had a little bit of a look around, but only in the sense that there seemed to be a nice response going on. What’s lovely is that people are creative in their response to it, and had all those brilliant theories.
There were some amazing ones, the viewers got really into the minutiae of it all. There were people convinced that the Broadchurch Echo photographer who didn’t turn up for sports day was involved somehow…
Oh! Yes, I did see that. Reg! Yes, it was going to be Reg. I thought that would be the most horrific cheat of all time, but also kind of brilliant.
Imagine if Reg just turned up at the end and said, ‘Oh, it was me Guv’.
Yeah! That’s sort of why, in the run-up to episode eight, I took pains to say ‘Look it’s not a cheat’. It was never supposed to be a conjuring trick or something where I was cheating the audience, it was supposed to be, ‘You can work this out, we have laid it out for you’. That dawning, creeping realisation of dread really should be the thing that plays through, very deliberately.
It’s interesting now because it’s being shown in other countries and at festivals, to watch those opening episodes again after the transmission here because it does play as a drama. Even if you know what happens at the end, you can watch it again and it feels like a very different piece. It was very deliberately designed like that so it’s no less compelling on a second watch.
We never found out why Tom had text messages from his mum at three in the morning, did we? There were a lot of theories circulating about that.
I have to say that was not a deliberate thing [laughs]. That was never a deliberate clue but I kind of loved it. I also thought ‘You’re all assuming that Tom has his mobile phone clock set correctly’.
If you work out the time difference from Florida [where the Miller family had recently holidayed], his phone could still have been set to EST time. You introduced this kind of mania in us.
He may not have reset it from Florida! There you go!
There were whole threads discussing things like Danny saying on his social media profile ‘I know what he’s doing’ and whether that in relation to his dad’s affair, or to Joe? It was flabbergasting how ingenious the theories were, and with how much of a fine-toothed comb everyone went through your script.
Yeah, yeah. Well I think a lot of those are deliberately for that. That’s the great thing about social media, is that it becomes more talked about perhaps than it ever used to be.
About that resolution. Indulge me for a minute, but in my episode four write-up I included a direct appeal to you. I’ll just read it quickly if you don’t mind, it starts: “Please Mr Chibnall, let the culprit be anyone but Joe”
Yeah. I read that.
[Laughs] I read that, and immediately rang my script editor and went ‘Brilliant!’
You still ignored me though?
I did. It was a bit late, let’s be fair, it would have involved quite a lot of reshooting. I think why you’re right sort of goes to the core of what the show is, which is about the cost. It was always Ellie’s story and it was always Beth’s story, and that was very deliberately bedded in there right from the moment you meet them on the street in that big long tracking shot, everything’s there. It was also to show that it’s not just one family who are the victims of that death and that murder. So, sorry, I didn’t deliberately do it to upset you, but as I say, it was too late to take remedial action.
Granted, it was a bit late by that point to change. I forgive you. Well, I will as long as the orange cagoule makes a return, I’ll be happy.
I’m promising you nothing!
When, specifically, did you find out that series two had been ordered?
It was probably a couple of weeks into transmission, I can’t really remember, but we’d had very encouraging noises from ITV and Peter Fincham very early on, he and Laura Mackie were real supporters of it way before it went out. I can’t really remember the timeline, but Peter Fincham had always been very keen on it and the big campaign and the big pre-broadcast coverage was very much down to him deciding to push it, so it was probably around week two or three that it was confirmed by the viewing figures.
Ironically, it was never a show that was designed to get viewing figures, the brief from Peter right at the start was just to make something really good and bold and authored, they wanted that piece on ITV and that’s the brief for the second series. It’s not ‘Go and replicate what you’ve done’. I can’t remember the exact moment, but it was a couple of weeks in to the run.
You had a couple of secrets to keep from us then, not only the identity of the killer, but the fact it was coming back?
By the end, the recommission was the harder secret to keep, because everybody was on my tail, especially that Monday of the finale, I had to tell a few little fibs because it felt like the audience had taken it as their own show, we really wanted to tell them that it was coming back first, rather than announce it in a trade magazine or something. It was really lovely to be able to communicate directly because it felt like it was the audience’s show, so it was very deliberate.
Was that also the thinking behind the extra scene, to reward the audience with something immediately rather than wait for the DVD release?
It was very much a way of going, here’s the episode, which was longer anyway, and here’s an extra scene that may answer some other questions. We had a couple of others we could have done that with as well, but that felt like the richest scene. I think often you get that sense of mourning when a show finishes and you’ve really loved it, and we were just aware that might happen after the final episode, so it was great to be able to go, ‘Look, here’s an extra moment for the comedown’.
So Danny’s wake originally intended to be part of episode eight then?
It was in the original script yeah, but it disrupted the rhythm of the episode. You can be slightly too literal with your endings sometimes and it just feels like lots of endings on top of each other. That’s a very difficult balance to strike in a big ensemble show, so it was richer without it. The great thing now is these scenes take on a life of their own and you can place them so people get access to them.
It was a similar thing with P.S., the wonderful Doctor Who extra scene that came after The Angels Take Manhattan. Is it right that that came about because it was lobbied for by fans?
No, no. When I was writing, oh let’s think – different show, different timeline – when I was writing The Power of Three, no it was before that, it was once we’d done Dinosaurs On A Spaceship. Steven [Moffat] knew how the Weeping Angels episode was going to end and we knew that Brian would come back in The Power of Three, and Steven was saying look, ‘I feel terrible, because I really want to finish off what happens to Brian but it just will not fit in Angels and it would feel really odd to put him in that’, and I just said, ‘Look, I’ll write a scene for the DVD’. So I was writing that for the DVD box-set for that part of the season, and I probably wrote that at the same time as I was writing [series seven mini-prequel] Pond Life, so it was way, way, way before the season went out. Because we knew, when we saw the rushes of Mark Williams in Dinosaurs, what a beautiful performance he gives, and how he feels so connected to those characters, we knew how important he’d be in the cubes episode. Only we didn’t manage to shoot it because Mark Williams was off doing Blandings for BBC One, and that was the only reason it didn’t get shot.
So it wasn’t budget, just availability.
Yeah, it’s always the most bland thing that really knackers you in the end. It was just that Mark was filming in Northern Ireland, and he’s wasn’t going to come back for a two-minute scene. Then, as this season was going out we said, ‘Ooh, I wonder if there’s anything to be done about that?’ and they put it into an animation at a later date, which was really lovely, but I’d written it six months before.
What were some of your other choices for that Broadchurch extra scene then?
There was a scene with the postman in episode eight, explaining what that was. To be honest, once you get to episode eight, all you care about is finding that emotional through-line. Jack, who plays the postman, is a great actor and it was a lovely scene between him and Olivia explaining what was going on and what Jack Marshall had seen, but it just disrupted the narrative, which is very pure in episode eight, it just felt that you were going off on a tangent when you didn’t want to.
The postman argument was one of a number of unanswered questions by the finale, because the focus in that last episode was purely the emotional aftermath. Things like how Joe Miller got the keys to the hut, for instance…
Getting the keys to the beach hut was again in the original cut of episode eight, it was explained in act two of that episode as they’re just kept under a stone, but actually you’re so tight for time that you have to go, ‘What’s more important?’ The little plot pick-ups - some of which are important and we answered a lot of them - and some of which you just have to take a deep breath and say, ‘We have to let that one go’.
The emotion has to trump the fans’ little nerdy obsessions I suppose…
I think that’s true, you make that decision, which is it: emotion or plot? And emotion is the thing.
Chris Chibnall, thank you very much!
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