Bleak, raw and emotionally taut, there have been few more vivid portrayals of grief and loss than Channel 4’s recent series Southcliffe. For me it was one of the best television dramas in a long time: wonderfully written, intelligent and brimming with flawed characters brilliantly portrayed.
There was a captivating atmosphere to the series, a malevolent stillness in which the sparse, clipped dialogue was allowed to hang. Filmed in and around Faversham, Southcliffe captured the foggy flatlands and marshes of the estuary in a way that was brilliantly evocative and almost spitefully unsentimental.
This was no postcard depiction of the British coastline; the fog and the silence created the perfect backdrop to the unfolding individual stories of the lonely and the lost.
It must have come as a surprise to some, then, that the shipping forecast featured strongly in each episode.
We place a benign nostalgia around the shipping forecast, especially those of us who don’t work on or by the sea. The lilting, rising and falling scales of Ronald Binge’s Sailing By have a warmth about them that compounds the much-loved poetic litany of sea areas, coastal stations and inshore waters. I receive letters and e-mails all the time from people who’ve read Attention All Shipping and share with me their love for the forecast and the warm feeling of safety and security it gives them, even when they live in most cases a long way from the sea.
So what was the shipping forecast doing in a full-on, emotionally eviscerating television drama about the fallout from a mass shooting in a small English town?
I think it was a brilliant idea; a daring subversion of the place we perceive the forecast to have in our society. It was incredibly effective because for all our sentimentalising of it the shipping forecast is essentially about tragedy, or at least its attempted prevention.
On my journey around the sea areas I came across countless memorials to disaster at sea; plaques and stones, statues and bas reliefs, commemorating the loss of trawlermen or a lifeboat crew, the passengers of a sunken liner or a lone fisherman. The shipping forecast, for all our blowing-the-steam-off-a-mug-of-cocoa nostalgia, is in reality inextricably linked to tragedy and death.
I found it notable that when the forecast was used in Southcliffe it was as the background to a person at their lowest ebb, whether it be a man past breaking point and heading into the early morning mist to kill at random or a journalist waking up alone to the realisation he’s lost both his job and his family.
Such deep-set introversion is wholly in keeping with the shipping forecast. The broadcast is stripped back and raw, you hear just one voice whose tone and rhythm is unchanging, the roll call and pattern of the places and information immovable and resistant to change or whimsy – it’s the antithesis of modern broadcasting – and despite the sentimentality with which it’s been doused over the years, the shipping forecast is pointedly unsentimental.
We forget sometimes that the shipping forecast is there to save lives. For all the tea towels, poems and cosy nostalgia with which it’s been festooned over the years, the actual purpose of the forecast is deadly serious.
It’s precisely because we conceal its tragedy and danger beneath a thick blanket of warm nostalgia that the shipping forecast made the perfect soundtrack to Southcliffe.