Chris Chibnall has done as much to raise the profile of Dorset in the nation’s eye as anyone in recent years. The creator of Broadchurch, which was shot on location largely in and around West Bay and is now back with an eagerly anticipated second series, moved here some 12 years ago to settle in Bridport.
Since then he has made his name as one of television’s most in-demand writers, scripting episodes of Doctor Who, Torchwood and Life On Mars among others before hitting on the idea for Broadchurch, an unsettling adult drama that focused on the death of an eleven-year-old boy and the impact which grief, suspicion and media attention have on the titular coastal town.
‘I walked along the cliffs and on the beach and up and down to the town for seven years, all the time falling in love with the area, and I used to think that someone should come and shoot something here, someone really should set something here, it’s so beautiful,’ he explains, ‘then I realised that’s my job; it could be me.’
The show was an instant hit – more than nine million people watched the final episode in which the killer was revealed as the husband of detective Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Coleman in a co-lead role with David Tennant as her senior officer, DI Alex Hardy). Both are back in the second series alongside some new cast members including Charlotte Rampling, Meera Syal and James D’Arcy.
‘Taking Charlotte Rampling down to buy a coffee off Margaret in the shack at West Bay was a thrill,’ reveals Chris. ‘That’s proper cinema royalty right there in West Bay, but all the cast have grown to love Dorset – they wanted there to be more location shooting.’
The new cast members were all anyone connected with the second series would reveal about it in advance, in fact had it been possible to hide the location filming around the county they surely would have.
‘The audience actually discovered Broadchurch for itself, they came to it almost accidentally and then they started talking about it and speculating and it grew from there. I hate dramas that when you come to watch you kind of feel like you know what’s going to happen. Audiences deserve better so we’ve not said anything about series two at all – although I can tell you that if anything there’s even more Dorset this time. I’m not saying where, but we go to more places, new locations; it’s there all the time.
‘Broadchurch could never have been set anywhere else. Those are the cliffs we had to use, they’re the only ones in the world and there’s just a mile and a half stretch of them. Lyme Bay is absolutely integral [to the plot] and I fought long and hard in the face of production logistics to get it here. Part of the problem is there is no film infrastructure in the West Country and we’re a big operation so we have to bring it all here, take over all the B&Bs, get in the way and generally be disruptive.’
It’s impossible for any drama set in Dorset to escape the long shadow of Thomas Hardy, something that Chris Chibnall embraces readily: ‘Hardy is very much in there – I mean we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. Hardy captured the nature of Dorset, the weather and its landscape as well as its people and those huge emotions. That’s why David’s character is called Hardy, that’s why we have Wessex Police and why David Bradley’s character is late because he was reading Jude the Obscure.
‘It’s also why we use our camera as Hardy’s omniscient narrator, overseeing everything, those big high angled pan shots we use, looking at how things are playing out. That’s straight from Hardy.’
As the original story was percolating in the Chibnall mind, so too was his understanding of life in a West Dorset market town – a crucial factor in the success of Broadchurch, be believes: ‘In scene one of episode one of the first series we see Mark Latimer [the murdered boy’s father] walk down the street and in one long shot we basically introduce all the characters. I had London journalists telling me that would never happen and that it was unrealistic, but I think they understand cities and they understand villages on screen, they don’t understand towns, or rather market towns. But anyone who’s walked down to the Saturday market in Bridport with my wife knows it can take ages because you keep bumping into people and stopping for a chat.’
That walk to the market also helps keep Chris’s feet planted firmly on the ground. He’s fiercely protective of Broadchurch, but even more so of the community in which it is set, a community that he loves being a part of: ‘Everyone I’ve met in Dorset has been really supportive, it’s like they’ve become part of the crew and that genuinely surprised me because you just never know. I’m always saying to the cast and crew that when they go on the Friday night I’m still here on the Saturday morning – it’s me that walks down to the market and people do stop me and tell me what they think. So we’re incredibly respectful of residents and the community.
‘There’s a lot of us you see and we cause chaos – we had roads closed, we’re out on the cliffs and down on the beach when people want to sunbathe, but people have been very accepting and really upbeat about what we’re doing. People can be suspicious and with every right, but the local people in Bridport and West Bay and the businesses down there, they’ve taken us to their hearts, it’s like they own a bit of it.’ In a sense, they do: ‘I love that you can buy a ‘Broadchurch Burger’ from one of the shacks at West Bay,’ says Chris. ‘I think that’s great.’
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.