Warning: contains Broadchurch series 1-3 spoilers.
David Tennant and Olivia Colman may have been Broadchurch’s leads, but Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan were its heart. As bereaved parents Beth and Mark Latimer, those two formed the drama’s emotional spine. Their poignant performances were a constant across three series telling a long-form story about grief and resilience.
With Broadchurch series three out now on DVD, I spoke to Jodie Whittaker about the role of Beth, different responses to grief, the importance of female friendship and the hope contained in the Latimers’ final scenes…
Would you say Beth’s story—which shows that humans can survive the absolute worst happening to them—is essentially the story of Broadchurch? That through it all, there are ways to keep going?
Yes. The journey of that character was really clear, the way Chris wrote it, in the way that she wanted to work with other people who had suffered through traumatic circumstances. I think that she had to move in a different direction than in the first two seasons or otherwise there’d have been no point in keeping that storyline alive because it needed to evolve. She was trying to… not move forward in the sense of forgetting or feeling less grief—it was never a question of that—it was just trying to put it somewhere rather than allowing it to be debilitating. That was really interesting, particularly because the parallel of that is Mark, obviously.
There are also parallels between Beth and your character from Adult Life Skills [2016, dir. Rachel Tunnard, executive produced by Whittaker]. That was terrific, by the way.
Thanks, that was a massive passion project for me!
For Beth and [bereaved twin] Anna in Adult Life Skills, the first channels her grief into something constructive by helping other victims, and the other lets it keep her from really taking part in the world.
I think the thing with Anna in Adult Life Skills is it’s the fear of letting go of it and what that means for her. Because her entire world is… there’s a huge study on twin-loss in the sense of how it can trigger an identity crisis like no other kind of loss because it is essentially half of you that goes, and your childhood reflection, which has been there from the womb, is no longer present. I think for Anna, moving on and stepping out into the world felt like that then killed who she was before and in particular, it meant that [her twin] really was dead and that she couldn’t live within her imagination any more. That kind of position and fear of moving forward is similar to Mark [in Broadchurch].
Grief is so unique and individual that it can be played in so many different ways and all of them are right and none of them are wrong. I never felt like ‘well, I’ve played a bereaved mum, now I’m playing a bereaved twin’. A lot of stories cover it in different ways, in Broadchurch it’s a drama over eight hours which turned into three seasons, and in Adult Life Skills it’s a ninety minute comedy, but it’s still exploring the same theme.
Talking about Mark’s grief, when he climbed out of that boat and into the water at the end of episode six, I so wanted him to survive. Everyone was telling me ‘he’s dead, get used to it’ but I couldn’t accept it, it didn’t seem what Broadchurch was about. Was it his intention to die, do you think?
Chris and Andy [Buchan], playing Mark, are the only person who can answer whether he did it to intentionally kill himself. Beth believes he did because when she asks him, he says so. She asks him twice, she asks him in the hospital and then again in…
…the hot chocolate scene?
Yeah, the hot chocolate scene I asked him ‘Did you not want to live?’ and he said ‘Yeah, I didn’t want to live’. That’s his truth, like.
It would have been unfair on Beth to have killed Mark off at that point. When you’ve created a character like Beth, as you and Chris Chibnall have done, after everything she’s been through, all that suffering and strength, you can’t put her through that!
[Laughs] Sometimes that is life though, isn’t it? That’s what was interesting about it, in the final few episodes in their storyline, there is a lot of sadness and empathy towards the person who feels suicidal, but then also Beth’s character felt a lot of anger and frustration about it as well, because of their daughters. So I think the fact that the writing explored everyone’s attitudes and feelings towards it is really good because it meant that not every character felt the same about events.
Beth’s anger is legendary.
It is! You’re brilliant at it. Beth has shouted at everyone in Broadchurch I think. She threw crisps at Becca, she went into labour shouting at Ellie, there was that magnificent scene with Paul in the church this series…
That’s what’s great about it – as all of us in Broadchurch aren’t just one thing. We aren’t just someone who just sits and cries, or someone who just shouts about everything. It’s so realistic that you go through all those range of emotions, particularly in heightened situations. I got to play all versions of anger and grief, whether that being numb, quiet, crying, laughing sometimes because you find the oddest things funny, loneliness… and we have the time and space of those three seasons to explore it all.
The whole spectrum.
I am quite an angry person so I love a shout [laughs].
Of all those emotions you list, which is the hardest for you to reach as an actor? If you have a scene where you have to shout until you’re red in the face, is that easier to access than say, weeping?
The only things that are difficult for me are when I don’t understand why the character’s doing it. If I get why they’re doing it then all the hard work’s done, it’s in the writing.
But as an individual, I find the scenes where you’ve got to genuinely laugh at something but you’ve been shooting it for two hours [laughs]… By the end of two hours and you’ve got to find it funny and brand new every single time, I find that really hard. By hour two my laugh sounds so fake. I find that probably the hardest out of everything. If the writing’s good and the writing’s giving it to you, all the hard work’s done.
I remember talking to Marcus Garvey, who played the Latimer family police liaison Pete in series one.
Yeah! He had some great moments! “Cup of tea?”
Constantly with a bit of toast in his hand eating the Latimers out of house and home!
Garvey said that because Broadchurch was such draining emotional drama to film, between takes there was a real sense of levity?
Yes! Definitely. We’re really close as a group of people. Everyone in all three seasons, whether they were recurring or new characters, they all came in with the same attitude that they wanted to work hard and be part of something really good. We all gave each other the space to work but also in-between there has to be a bit of lightness. Well, there doesn’t have to be—for some people staying within that character the whole time is the way they work—but on this one, we were all similar in the sense that without taking yourself completely out of the mood of the day, you have good banter with each other. We’d all have a brilliant but difficult, exhausting time of it. It should be hard, because it’s portraying things that have really happened to people and that should be taken seriously.
The show itself is also funny at times.
David [Tennant] and Olivia [Colman] in particular have these amazing scenes where they’re funny. It comes off the back of something terrible, sometimes, but that is life, you often find things funny at horrible times. When someone dies or something awful happens, you don’t have a lobotomy, it changes you as a person but there’s still humour in the world. It can’t just be misery. It’s not realistic.
The chemistry between the cast really makes all that work, those shifts in tone.
The chemistry that David and Olivia have is just incredible. Me and Andy worked really well together, and with Charlie Beaumont who plays our daughter Chloe. We’ve just been really lucky in these families we’ve been plonked into and also as an ensemble. Even when new people come in, Julie [Hesmondhalgh] was amazing.
Beth and Mark are a great duo, as are Hardy and Miller, obviously, but Ellie and Beth is one of my favourite pairings in the show.
It’s such a nice sisterhood. Season two was really difficult for me and Olivia to play because I hated doing the scenes where our characters weren’t getting along, I found it heart-breaking. As Jodie, obviously I know that Ellie didn’t know [about Joe Miller having murdered Beth’s son] but Beth truly thought she should have known, so during season two when there was so much animosity from Beth to Ellie that was hard to play. It was horrible knowing what friendship they’d lost. But then it coming back around throughout series three, them still remaining close and having that united sisterhood… that’s wonderful to be portrayed on screen, because it often isn’t. You’re sidekicks in things and very often the wife or the mother or the affair, but this was a friendship and a love. Beth and Ellie’s relationship has gone through so much, as much as Beth and Mark and as much as Hardy and Miller.
That’s what made that final scene so important between Beth and Ellie, sharing a meal with their families, no men there, just an image of female unity.
Yes. The loss and the sadness never goes, but for Beth and for Ellie it was where you channel it, whereas for Mark, his journey is just going to take longer.
I could watch an entire series of Beth and Ellie gossiping about vibrators in coastal bus shelters.
[Laughs] Actually, you know what, I’ve said I find it hard to laugh for real but every time we did that scene I was absolutely pissing myself! The direction too, Paul Andrew Williams directed those first two episodes [of series three] and he was amazing. It was just really funny and giggly and real and it felt like this is a conversation people have. We were talking in a professional context, but you have those kind of chats with your girlfriends and genuinely find each other so funny. That’s what’s lovely about it, that women are friends in this, because there’s not a lot of parts that I’ve played where I’ve had a friend [laughs], it sounds ridiculous but…
I know exactly what you mean, not another woman written as a sexual rival or…
…yeah, not a sexual rival, not a boss who’s not very nice to me, or a relative, but a genuine friendship. That’s something that was really important to me as well when we did Adult Life Skills, the friendship between me and Rachel Deering who plays Fiona, is, I mean, she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met so every scene with her was amazing, and it’s like that in itself is a love story, it’s just a different type of love.
What would you say you’d take from working with an actor like Olivia Colman?
There’s no denying David and Olivia are the leads of the show, they’re in every single day and there is not one person in that cast and crew that doesn’t really respect them as actors and genuinely like them as people. They know everybody’s names and they’re up to putting in the hours and the work as well as having a really good laugh. So if you’re going to lead a show, lead it like that.
Having worked with them two, if ever I was on a job and someone was kind of difficult, I’d be like, ‘why? They’re not difficult, why are you difficult?’ Just know your place! We’re only good if we’ve taken direction from the people there to direct us, if we are put in the right costumes, have the right make-up, are shot from the right… it’s a massive ensemble, the writer, the creatives, the crew, Jane Featherstone, who exec-produced it amazingly, but we get all the credit! It’s just like, know where credit’s due, that’s how you lead a show. It’s been such a special five years.
Looking back over those five years and all three series, there are so many scenes I’ll remember as a viewer–Beth collapsing on the beach on episode one, for instance, is an image I think that will stay with me.
As an actor as well, that was so… for everybody involved was tough and it should have been, rightly so. And for those people that were actually just on the beach on holiday because they shot it in the summer, I can’t think what watching that was like for an entire day.
On the subject of grief, I felt that Beth’s first trip to the supermarket after Danny’s death rang so true. The sound, everything felt as though she was underwater, which is exactly how it can feel emerging into the real world after you’re bereaved.
Yes. It’s like being in thick mud, isn’t it?
The metaphor in the first episode too, where the Latimer house clocks all stopped at the time Danny died, touches like that really elevated the writing. Which particular scenes stand out to you?
That’s what is so clever. In season two, we’d get a couple of episodes at a time just before we shoot it, and to realise that things that were small moments in season one, like Mark going to see Joe in prison at the end of season one and realising that will play a negative role in the court case, knowing that was a plot point for something that was going to happen in episode five or something of season two, that is clever, putting those things in knowing where they feed. I think it’s brilliant.
The beach day where we find Danny’s body was one of the most… actually, one of the toughest shoot days I found emotionally was my first day which was when they came into our home and confirmed that it was Danny’s body. That scene, you didn’t want to do that very often!
There were moments that for the viewer were maybe thirty seconds but took hours to shoot, like when the hearse pulled up in season one and the funeral director gets out of the car, he was real, he wasn’t an actor, and he talked to us as if we were a real family. Obviously, that only played maybe for about twenty seconds as we’re getting to the church, but that was two hours of shooting of him pulling up outside, coming in, explaining what we’re doing, being led out and put in the car and that was… that was a harrowing day.
Broadchurch has always been a feminist drama
But I think series three was particularly so. I really admired the context Chris Chibnall built up around the central rape investigation, the porn and pin-ups and casual misogyny that fed into it.
Yeah, but I think as well, it was important within that last episode where Hardy says “these guys are the minority, this is not men” and that’s important as well, but yes, within this horrific sexual attack, it’s unearthed a culture that is present.
Is it important to the theme of survival in the story that Beth doesn’t end up with Mark or someone else, that she finds strength in herself and her family?
I just think, she’s lost a child, she’s raising a toddler and she’s got a teenager, for her to be dating – where’s she got the mental capacity to do that? Or the time? It wasn’t necessary for the story. And she loves Mark, that’s never gone away and she doesn’t want to find someone else, she just doesn’t want to live with the same feelings that he was living under.
There always seemed to be a little something between Beth and [Arthur Darvill’s vicar character] Paul…
[Laughs] Never! No! Someone else asked me that, it’s like, no! [Laughs] Do you know what it is, I think when people genuinely like each other of the opposite sex, it computes to that. I just think maybe our brains do that sometimes, but they are genuine friends, and friends that disagreed and argued and were both kind of lonely. There was nothing sexual between them but they had a love for each other because they kind of were united in a sense of isolation a lot of the time. No, there was nothing like that, but I get it. I didn’t realise anybody was going to think that until after season one came out and I was like ‘eh? Steady on, they’re not like that!’ Never mind!
In the hot chocolate scene between Beth and Mark, when she tells him they can’t be together “at least not at the moment”, is that her saving his feelings, or do you think there really is hope for the two of them?
When I played that, I played that completely genuinely because it was so heart-breaking to say something is definitively the end. Also, we don’t know, they just didn’t know. They couldn’t be together at that moment and it wasn’t healthy for him for there to be hope in that way. I think for her, she can’t look at that man and say I will never be anything other than an ex to you, but her point was, at this moment in time what you want is not going to happen.
Personally, do you believe Mark will be able to do as he says in the series three finale and put himself back together?
Who knows? I think the thing that’s clear and is really important to show is that there’s no happy ending for Beth and Mark because there isn’t. There isn’t a happy ending, they lost a child, that’s it, that’s out, but there’s a way of surviving and doing it differently. Mark has shown in previous episodes and seasons that he had the strength to cope, so if he can find that again, then that would be wonderful. I hope him leaving was a way to do that.
I saw it as a kind of hopeful ending for him because it meant he was doing something. It didn’t show him just sat, by himself, in his apartment, it showed him moving on in a way that could lead to something positive.
Imagine in ten years maybe there’s a revival series, a Broadchurch reunion. What ending would you like to see for Beth and Mark? Perhaps they’d be grandparents by then, from Chloe?
Absolutely! Whether they’re together or not, their love is still there. They’ve gone through so much, they’ve been together since they were fifteen. I’m the same age as Beth so in ten years she’d be forty-five, that’s a lot of life to suddenly… whether they’re together or not, I’m sure they’re a massive part of each other’s lives.
Finally, if this is the end, thank you for Beth. I’ve loved watching her and Ellie – my inspirations in all things. I think I even started running partly because of Beth…
Do you know what, Chris had her as a swimmer in an early draft and I was like ‘I can’t swim very well! I’m rubbish! I can only do breast-stroke!’ I’m a runner though—it’s great, running, isn’t it? It’s free!—so I said, put me in some running scenes, but I’m not going in that bloody sea!
Jodie Whittaker, thank you very much!
BROADCHURCH SERIES 3 AND BROADCHURCH THE COMPLETE SERIES 1 – 3 BOX SET IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND BLU-RAY