It was a strange day on Wednesday this week. We watched the last episode of The Bay on ITV only a few hours after returning from a day out in Morecambe where the ITV series was set and the final episode ended on the promenade and Stone Jetty where we had lunch. The crime serial (6×52 mins episodes) proved to be a winner for me overall, although I felt it lost its way a little around episode 3 and there were still a few loose ends flapping about at the end.
When the serial opened on UK screens it received some positive critical reviews for the first episode but then something of a backlash on social media. A common complaint was that it was just another inferior version of Broadchurch, one of the biggest crime fiction hits of recent years. It’s not difficult to see why this response might be forthcoming. Both serials feature missing children in a seaside setting with an emotionally involved police investigator. But there are major differences too. Broadchurch featured three major stars of British film and TV (Jodie Whittaker, Olivia Colman and David Tennant) as well as other well-known supporting players and in the second serial, several more notable figures. It was set in a fictitious town on a relatively unknown but beautiful part of the South Coast with London seemingly a long way away. If The Bay was more interesting for me, it was probably because of its setting.
The Bay refers to Morecambe Bay, a large geographical feature and one of the largest natural bays in Europe. The seaside resort of Morecambe is the largest settlement on the bay. As a resort, Morecambe reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century. It attracted large numbers of holidaymakers who used the direct rail route from Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire (and which we used on our trip – in far less comfort than travellers sixty years ago!). In its decline Morecambe has suffered like many other seaside resorts in Northern England and one of the social problems associated with that decline is an important element in this crime fiction drama.
The serial begins with the disappearance of 15 year-old twins Holly and Dylan. The officer who is assigned to Family Liaison duty is DS Lisa Armstrong who is not best pleased to be taken off a drugs investigation and asked to mentor DC ‘Med’ Kharim. She has a double burden to bear. In Episode 1 she does something that will compromise her position later on in the investigation and she is also a single parent for her own teenagers Abbie and Rob who go to the same school as Holly and Dylan. I’m not going to describe all the plot elements because the serial will be available on the ITV Hub and has been sold to several other TV broadcasters around the world.But I would like to comment on the production more generally.
Unlike Broadchurch, The Bay doesn’t have any major stars in the cast. That doesn’t mean that the cast is in any way inexperienced, but simply that the lead players are not so well-known that an entire episode is spent wondering what will happen to them based on their status. I don’t watch a lot of TV so perhaps some of the cast are more familiar to some viewers but I don’t think there are the same expectations of major acting tussles like Colman vs. Tennant etc. The star of The Bay is Morven Christie as Lisa Armstrong, who does indeed have a long list of TV credits and some interesting film roles. I must have seen her in Lilting (UK 2013). In The Bay she is excellent, managing, as a Scot, to produce an acceptable North of England accent. The cast overall are very good, drawn from across the North and as far afield as the North of Ireland (linked by ferry to Morecambe/Heysham). The Bay was written by Daragh Carville, the writer and playwright from Armagh who has written radio plays and films and the six episodes were directed by Lee Haven Jones and Robert Quinn, both of whom have experience of other UK crime fiction series.
One of the most important questions for me is how well do the creators of this serial make use of the locations offered by Morecambe and its environs? Morecambe’s claim to fame in film and television rests on three or four high profile narratives and associated stars. In 1960 it was the setting for Tony Richardson’s film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier and in 1975 Stephen Frears’ TV film written by Alan Bennett, Sunset Across the Bay. Bennett, the Leeds boy knew Morecambe from his childhood. Thora Hird, often Alan Bennett’s go to actor is one of Morecambe’s best known celebrity figures alongside Eric Bartholomew, a.k.a Eric Morecambe, now a statue on the Promenade and immortalised in a biopic TV film by another Morecambe fan, Victoria Wood. Finally Morecambe Bay became the site of the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004 represented in Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts (UK 2006) and Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010). The cockle-pickers died just north of Morecambe in the bay close to Hest Bank.
Thanks to my local contact, I’m fairly sure that all the scenes in the serial were shot in the Morecambe area except for one in the closed outdoor swimming pool across the bay in Grange-over-Sands and another in a marina or fishing dock (my guess is Whitehaven or Glasson?). My impression is that the production tends to focus on the seafront and the few streets behind the promenade. There isn’t as much made of the beach and the bay as I thought might be the case and nothing of the hinterland of suburban housing which stretches inland and eventually merges with Lancaster.
The serial narrative is very complex. In terms of narrative structure it presents two families, both, in different ways, with mothers struggling through the teenage years of their children, both aided (or not) by their own mothers. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll say simply that the eventual family melodrama that becomes the dominant mode of the serial is melded with a crime fiction narrative mainly by the presence of drug dealing in the town and the access to Morecambe by sea is important. Morecambe as far as I am aware doesn’t have a fishing industry or a dock as such although it is a popular spot for amateur sea anglers. The only commercial fishery is across the bay at Flookburgh so for The Bay, a Morecambe-based fishing boat in the Irish Sea is an invention. The story does make sense though as an example of the ‘County Lines’ drugs operations whereby Manchester drugs gangs can bring drugs into a town like Morecambe and find/coerce locals into dealing.
As I’ve indicated there are some loose ends in the narrative and that might mean a sequel is a possibility. (It could also mean that I couldn’t make sense of the narrative in a single viewing or that there are mistakes in the script.) I think I would be up for another go. One last comment might be about the casting. The police force in this film seems diverse to a greater extent than might be expected in North Lancashire. I’m all in favour of diversity of gender and race in both the police and in TV drama but I wonder if it is also an indicator of how both the police and the presence of ‘organised’ crime represent urban Manchester reaching out to the ‘periphery’ of the North Lancashire coast? Morecambe is arguably a candidate for ‘left behind’ status in the current Brexit mess that has paralysed UK political action.