Vicky Newham

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BBC Crime drama, The Fall series 2 – a few thoughts



Having just watched episode 4 of the second series, I have to confess to having got a bit frustrated with the plot and how the investigation aspect of the drama is proceeding. I have also been wondering how series 2 is going to end. For my MA I wrote a feminist critique of series 1 and this meant reading as much as I could of what’s been written and said about it. There were a number of things which concerned me about the first series, and some of these things have continued into series 2. I also wonder how the plot development and eventual resolution are linked with (if at all) the decision to end series 1 when and how scriptwriter, Allan Cubitt, (or the producers?) did so that the second series could be made.

It is easy to criticise a drama for not getting things right. Having pored over Cubitt’s quotes a while back, I came to the conclusion that he has thought carefully about how to portray the themes and characters he had in mind, that he did care about how he did it and how the drama is perceived, and that he knows his craft and market. Having written some of the Prime Suspect scripts, this is evident: DCI Jane Tennison changed the landscape for female detectives.

I have read articles which make me wonder whether or not we will actually find out in series 2 why serial killer Paul Spector is behaving in the way he is. In the Radio Times piece, Cubitt’s comment about this was to say that “[…] we never know why people do the things they do. And […] you don’t know why you do the things you do, either.”[1] I don’t agree with either of these statements and am a bit concerned that they are setting up an ending in which character motivations aren’t explained. About this, Cubitt says, “You’ll have to wait and see whether you feel cheated or not.”[2] The other question is whether or not Spector will be caught at the end of this series. I guess this depends on whether there is going to be a third series. Personally, I can’t see how the producers can drag out the plot into a third series but if the viewing figures have been good, who knows?

Regarding the explanation for Spector’s behaviour, I hope that this is not going to turn out to be too clichéd. There have been mumblings in series 1 and 2 about children’s homes and in episode 4 Spector mentions that his mother committed suicide when he was a child. Whilst – from psychoanalytic and developmental psychological points of view, at least – most psychopathology originates in early experiences, it is sometimes covered in fiction in a clichéd or stereotyped way.

The issue of whether we learn in series 2 why Spector kills seems to annoy Gillian Anderson too, who in the Radio Times piece asks “But why do we need to know so much about somebody? The simplicity and sparseness [of the script] is what is pulling us forward and is so intriguing, but it’s almost as though we can’t take it at face value. But the reason why it’s as good as it is is because you don’t have all that stuff slapped on all the time.”[3] Oh. Okay. (Except it’s not)

I am also interested in how Cubitt’s motivations and interests inform his script-writing. He has said publicly that his aim in writing The Fall “… was to explore […] violence against the female body”[4], and said that he “find(s) serial killers fascinating”[5]. What I would like to know is what does he mean by ‘explore’ and what aspect of serial killers fascinates him? The answers to these questions are linked to whether the drama wants to understand violence against women or something else entirely.

I still have issues with Spector being portrayed as such an attractive serial killer and why we need to see so much of his abdomen. We know from forensic psychology and criminology that psychopaths can be charming. But I wonder if Spector the Gorgeous Killer isn’t a bit of a fantasy? To my knowledge, few male serial killers (and most are male) are as professionally high functioning as Spector’s character (Harold Shipman is one exception) and cluster analyses of traits show that many are found to have problems with personal relationships (whereas Paul’s character is married with two children and is someone who children seem to trust).

As with series 1, I have found Stella Gibson’s wardrobe distracting. Gillian Anderson is on record saying that she felt that her character would wear glamorous clothes but yet it seems to irritate her that people want to ask her about the subject. “Literally every interview, I am asked about the blouses,” she says.[6] Oh dear. She’s not happy. Again. As with Sara Lund’s jumpers, viewers do comment on character wardrobe, and I am surprised that Anderson, with her considerable experience as an actor, doesn’t understand this. To be honest, I would guess that she does, but that something else is pushing her buttons. Regarding the link between attractiveness-glamour-intelligence-competence, I don’t believe that an intelligent, competent woman can’t be attractive. My problem with Stella’s wardrobe is that although she has a senior rank, she still goes to crime scenes. In one episode we had her walking over a released crime scene in four inch heels. Huh? It’s like Dr Nikki in Silent Witness. If it were me, I’d ditch the heels and pull on my jeans and boots first.

Another aspect of Gibson-as-sex-object which bugs me is why we have to see prolonged shots of her swimming. If we need to know that she can’t sleep or takes exercise, a few brief shots could cover that in my opinion. Despite what Cubitt says about learning from the way that series 1 was filmed, I don’t see too much difference. There is still too much lingering on Gibson’s (Anderson’s?) face and body and cleavage. It seems unnecessary. I have liked Gillian Anderson since the days of the X Files and thought she was/is a good actress so it isn’t a personal thing … although I am curious as to why she wants her character to be so glamorous when she’s a jobbing detective.

When the second series of The Fall was commissioned I wondered if this affected how the producers wanted series 1 to end. I don’t know how much of the script was already written. There have been no murders yet in series 2. This has reduced the sexual sadism, the glamorisation of sexual violence and eroticisation of murder and death which, personally, I am relieved about.

Plot-wise I find the investigation aspect of series 2 rather amateur and incompetent. I know it’s fiction but I was surprised that a detective of Stella’s rank – and presumably, competence? – would not realise that she had put Rose Stagg in danger? And in episode 4 of series we see the Police tailing Spector when he visits his family. I am not convinced that the Police wouldn’t pick him up. He knows they are on to him, and has been playing a game with them all along. They have sufficient evidence on some of the associated or more minor charges (than murder) to arrest him. It seems that aspects of the plot have been treading water. There have been no more murders yet, just the kidnapping of Rose – although why most of this new development is happening off-screen is unclear. Spector dragging in Katie-the-babysitter as his accomplice is an interesting twist but I have concerns that aspects of this dynamic play to rape fantasy. Furthermore, I cringed at some of his lines to her about whether she is ready to embrace the darkness, and at his musings about whether the world is a place of suffering, of greed and despair. The funniest and strangest line ever, however, was delivered by pathologist, Professor Reed Smith, that she couldn’t go to Gibson’s bedroom for post-snog activity because she came from Croydon.

In sum, though, there have been some very dramatic and scary moments, for example, when Rose turns over to find Spector in her bed, and I like the technique that both Jakob Verbruggen (director of series 1) and Cubitt employ when a scene cuts from one thing to another quickly and the second scene is not what you expect. I also think that the acting is exceptional from every single character: intense and honest. However, whether series two has suffered from the departure of Verbruggen as director, which Chris Harvey in the Telegraph seems to consider is the case[7], I don’t know: I think some content and thematic aspects have improved in series 2 but then we haven’t had any murders yet. YET.

Vicky Newham © 2014

[1] (accessed 5th Dec 2014).

[2] Same as 1.

[3] Same as 1.

[4] (accessed 5th December 2014)

[5] Same as 4.

[6] Same as 1.

[7] (accessed 5th Dec 2014).

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Endings in drama and fiction

(Warning: contains spoilers)

After watching the last episode of The Fall last night I was motivated to consider endings in drama and fiction and what we expect from them. This has come up a few times recently with high profile British television dramas, including Broadchurch.

For years it’s been the norm with long-running television series to end on a cliffhanger. I find it frustrating but it does make me tune in for the next series to find out how the story progresses (although by then I’ve often forgotten the plotline and/or lost interest). However, with crime dramas, my expectations are a little different. With long series like The Killing I, with twenty four episodes, there was a self-contained story which was resolved at the end. In the next series, we were given a new story line. And I think that this is how it should be. What I found annoying about last night’s concluding episode of the Fall was that I expected the same, and it didn’t deliver. Halfway through the series it was announced that a second series had been commissioned. What I am now intrigued by – given last night’s finale – was what would have happened if it hadn’t been? Would the programme have ended as it did? Or did the producers chop it off so as to be able to keep part of the story back for series two?

The Fall also prompted me to review my understanding of fiction and ‘story’. It was a television drama rather than a novel but should it still conform to the the rules of fiction? I would argue, yes. It wasn’t a real life drama. In real life things often aren’t resolved, they’re are lots of coincidences, and people often do things for strange reasons. Fiction is very different and norms vary depending on whether a novel is genre or literary fiction. In crime fiction the convention is that the criminal is caught and justice is seen to be done. People refer to the ‘moral nature’ of crime fiction, and, although I don’t see it as such, I do want to see people punished or treated (sorry, I believe in treatment!), depending on what has motivated their crime. I don’t necessarily want to have every detail sewn up and interpreted for me. Did I expect the killer to be caught at the end of the first series? Yes, I did. Were the producers perhaps worried about not having another story and lead character for the second series which would measure up to the one with Jamie Dornan as the very attractive serial killer? If this is the case, it means that the plot was governed by commercial rather than storytelling principles. I can quite see how, having started with such a dramatic opening storyline, and if they had resolved it at the send of series one, they might worry about this. But surely this just means that they need to invest in scriptwriting to ensure that series two could be equally strong… no? To chop it off in the way they did, to eke out the existing story, is bound to lead to claims by the audience that they feel cheated.

With The Fall, I think that something else contributed to the last episode being a failure: we knew who the killer was from the start, and the story was about why he was committing the crimes. The viewer was only given a little information about this in the final episode. We discovered that he’d been in care and had disrupted attachments. Personally, I wanted a bit more than this. It felt a little cliched, and I wanted some detail to show me how his developmental experiences had led him to sexual violence. After all, not everyone who has been in care becomes a serial killer.

With the last episode of Broadchurch I remember all sorts of articles, interviews and tweets about ‘having to watch right til the end’ and this led to speculation about a killer twist. Then it turned out that there wasn’t one at all. Had I not read those comments, and been led to expect something, I would have been happy with the ending of Broadchurch. For me the ‘why’ is almost more important than the ‘who’. But I felt that I’d been manipulated slightly into watching til the credits just so that the programme makers could tell me that Broadchurch would be returning. Whose benefit was that for then? Ahem.

Do readers and viewers want a last minute twist? Do they want everything explained? If a crime has been committed, do they want to see the perpetrator apprehended? I wonder if the medium affects how we might feel about this. Surely a publisher wouldn’t publish a crime novel where the perpetrator isn’t caught at the end? And if the publisher said to readers “Oh, just buy book two to find out”, those readers wouldn’t be happy. And that’s fair enough. I’m not bothered about last minute twists in novels. Sometimes they seem gimmicky and can ruin an otherwise brilliant resolution. But I just don’t want to feel cheated.

What do you think?

Vicky Newham © 2013


Is violence being glamorised in drama?

When I watched the first episode of The Fall on BBC2, I began wondering, not for the first time, about how violence is portrayed on television. I’ve felt conflicted about this programme because I admire many aspects of it whilst others have made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. As a writer of crime fiction, I don’t want to be hypocritical about the topic of violence but I do want to reflect on how it’s portrayed, including how I do this in my own novels.

One of my main problems with The Fall is why The Team had to over-emphasise the glamour of Gillian Anderson’s character, DS Stella Gibson. My beef isn’t with the actress, whom I’ve adored since The X-Files. She is attractive but I don’t understand why The Team had to accentuate this aspect. Her hair seems overly-coiffured, and her lips are glossed to perfection. Why? I know it’s TV but – come on. In the opening scenes we see Stella’s backside from behind, whilst she leans over a bath. She wears low slung pyjama-type bottoms and no bra, and has a face pack on her skin. I was wondering why the directors wanted to start with this shot. As a tone setter, what do these opening scenes suggest?

Most working women with busy jobs do their hair and make-up in the morning and maybe have a glance at it in the loo during the day, or after they’ve scoffed a sandwich. It looks like The Team has re-tonged Stella’s hair in between shots. One of the reasons why this bugged me was because women are so often portrayed in dramas as helpless victims, or as femmes fatales. If it’s the latter, this reinforces the notion that women cannot be successful under their own steam, and need to use their sexuality to get on. I did get the impression that The Team wanted Stella to come across as a femme fatale. Her sexual encounters are shown as leaving men in tatters whilst she is shown as being able to compartmentalise. Yes, it’s a reversal of a certain stereotype but doesn’t it also perpetuate another one? Her senior officer, with whom she has had a backstory fling, tells her in the toilet, where they’re having a meeting, that he would have left his wife and kids for her. It’s as if they are trying to create a parallel between Stella and Paul: they’re both hunters, albeit with different prey (most of the time).

My second problem with this programme is the way that it glamourises violence and appears to sexualise murder. When the man is doing his ritualistic ‘things’ to his corpses, we see him half-naked, and the corpse naked (albeit semi-covered). I think that the actor (Jamie Dornan) plays his role as chilling serial killer Paul Spector very well. However, although I think he’s an excellent actor, I have just read that he is an ex-underwear model so The Team was clearly keen to have the character played by someone attractive and who would bring glamour and sexuality to the role. In episode one, scenes with half-naked Paul with his corpse often cut backwards and forwards between shots of Stella having sex. I am not prudish. I don’t watch TV to see people having sex, but as long as it’s not too graphic I don’t mind. But these shots bothered me: it was as if they were suggesting a link between murder and sex. Worse, as if they were suggesting that Paul was considering necrophilia. This theme comes up again in a later episode. As a crime writer, and psychologist, I am aware that a lot of crimes are sexual in either nature or motivation (and sometimes both). At the time of writing this, we still haven’t been shown what the motivation is for the murders and I’m interested to see how his behaviour is explained, particularly since a second series has been commissioned. Gillian Anderson is listed as executive producer for the next series.

I am aware that dramas are very expensive to produce and that programmes tend to try and compete with ones which are popular by emulating style, themes, atmosphere, amount and type of violence, and cinematography. What I liked about Scandinavian The Bridge, however, was that Saga Noren wasn’t made to be overly glamorous in terms of hair, make-up and clothes and the same was true for Sara Lund in The Killing. I see that The Fall has been directed by Flemish Jakob Vergruggen. I am all in favour of cross-pollination of talent and experience and perhaps British crime dramas can learn from continental Europe. By all accounts he’s a name to watch.

Another programme which I’ve liked for years is Silent Witness, on BBC1. I watched it when it first started with Amanda Burton and have continued to watch it with Emilia Fox. Episodes are written by different writers and some are considerable more violent than others. The very violent ones have resulted in me switching off. A regret about Silent Witness is similar to what I’ve said about The Fall: why did The Team have to make Dr Nikki Alexander so glamorous? The scenes with her teetering along in four inch heels (actually she walks in them very well indeed), with wedding hair and wearing designer clothes to crime scenes, strike me as ridiculous. Why can’t they have her wearing plain jeans and flat boots? It makes her look like some kind of Barbie doll. As with Gillian Anderson, I really like Emilia Fox, so my issue isn’t with the actresses at all. It’s with the production teams and, presumably, directors.

So, my questions are: do you think that drama is glamourising violence? Does it matter? What about if murder is sexualised? And what effects might these things have … on people and society? I would love to know what you think.

Vicky Newham © 2013