Welsh landscape key character in crime drama

Sarah King says the atmospheric success of Y Gwyll/ Hinterland was compromised by poor storylines

Y Gwyll/ Hinterland is beautiful. There is no doubt about that. With record ratings, a second series confirmed and rave reviews, the S4C/BBC crime drama can only be described as a roaring success. Having been sold to DR, the Danish network behind The Killing, before it was even filmed, this should be Welsh TV jumping out of its corner fists flying, punches thrown left, right and centre. This should be it.

All the ingredients are there. A brilliant idea, a strong script, excellent directors and actors, money and backing from two big TV networks. The result is a visual tour de force from vast, imposing landscapes to soulless, sepia interiors through mists of rain, frost and windswept mountains. A promotion campaign of epic proportions was staged and the viewer was promised raw, scary, gritty drama in the style of Scandinavian noir.

But does it live up to the hype? Aside from the usual clichés of the genre, and the fact that, actually, it is not that scary, it almost does.

Shot back to back in both Welsh and English, fraternal twin versions of the series were produced. The first, Y Gwyll, was shown on S4C at the end of 2013. The second Hinterland, a ‘bi-lingual’ version, was recently shown on BBC Wales.

Taking the viewer through the four stand-alone stories that make up the first series is DCI Tom Mathias and his trio of dedicated detectives. Richard Harrington makes a handsome and brooding DCI Mathias. He is newly transferred to sunny Aberystwyth from the big smoke of London following (surprise, surprise) a personal tragedy. Having risen through the ranks at a young age through sheer determination and hard work, he is an intense and committed protagonist with a good beard and very tight trousers.

His team is made up of 33-year-old DI Mared Rhys who lives at home with her parents and her emotionally distant teenage daughter. A local girl who rose through the ranks at a young age through sheer determination and hard work. Then there is the blonde one, DS Sian Owens, who gets shouted at by DI Rhys and hit on by the lonely men of Aberystwyth. She is young, pretty and rising through the ranks through sheer determination and hard work.

Finally there is the guy with the glasses, DC Lloyd Ellis. We do not really know much about him, except that he is young, has glasses and will probably be rising through the ranks quickly through sheer determination and hard work. Four hard-working, determined and serious characters. Not a lot of drinking games and party hats with this bunch, but despite the obvious clichés this team really does work. Superbly acted, it slugs its way through rain and mud in search of that ever-elusive holy grail of policing: the truth.

The natural environment plays an important role in Y Gwyll/Hinterland. Almost to the point of being a character in itself, the vast, open landscapes mirror the loneliness and isolation felt by the characters, a theme that runs throughout the series. The wide sweeping shots of long yellow grass swaying in the wind, barren trees and the coiling waves of the ocean, though enigmatic, sometimes overshadow the narrative.

It is in the interiors that we get a real feel for the characters, especially DCI Mathias. In the interrogation rooms, the blood-soaked bathrooms, the caravans and the dilapidated farm-houses, the dialogue seems more natural and the acting subtle and restrained.

The series has created a stylised version of Aberystwyth. Any semblance of Gregg’s or Tesco has been removed and a picture is painted of a lonely, timeless town. Nobody seems to laugh, least of all DCI Mathias. The series revolves around him, and his growing obsession with the cases he works on. Like any good TV detective, this is a character long overdue for a sit-down with the police psychologist.

The cases, unfortunately, are what let the series down. Yes, the series is set in Wales. Yes, it is set in the backwaters of Aberystwyth. But that does not mean sheep, land deeds and philandering university lecturers are very interesting or very scary stories. Escaped Nazis, stalkers and a suspicious, isolated community had potential, but never really took off. In an attempt to make the crimes relevant to the location the writers have ended up pastiching Wales rather than pushing it forward.

The one story with real meat on the bones is the murder of a former children’s home manager. The sadistic abuse she subjected the children to slowly unravells, and in one of the final scenes it is hinted at that the story that will continue into the second series. Fingers crossed!

I cannot write about Y Gwyll/ Hinterland without addressing the role of the Welsh language. Having watched both versions of the series, the fact is they are almost identical. They are not set in a different country or with different actors. No, it is the same actors saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same locations – but in two different languages. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Exactly. Why? Perhaps the 80,000 people who watched Y Gwyll on S4C, and the 350,000 viewers of Hinterland on BBC One Wales cannot read subtitles? Of course they can!

Viewers tune en masse to watch subtitled shows like The Killing, The Bridge and The Returned. Why not Y Gwyll? Making the two versions just adds to the view that Welsh language TV is only for Welsh speakers, and Hinterland unfortunately ends up undermining Y Gwyll whichever way you look at it.

But do not worry Y Gwyll. You are still a contender. It appears it is the Welsh version that has interest abroad, and by far the majority of people who watched it on S4C had the subtitles on.

The European audience are used to subtitles, and if they like it in America they will probably just make their own. So here’s to having a little more faith in Welsh language TV, hitting a little harder, playing a little less safe and looking forward to a second series a lot.

Sarah King is a Cardiff based writer and art critic. She has a background in History and travel writing, and currently contributes to Wales Arts Review. (http://www.walesartsreview.org) where this article first appeared.

7 thoughts on “Welsh landscape key character in crime drama

  1. “by far the majority of people who watched it on S4C had the subtitles on”

    sounds familiar!

  2. This series may not be as satisfying as others in the crime genre, but surely it’s a cut above Midsomer Murders! The important thing about this is that it gives S4C/BBC and Wales a profile in the genre. Scotland has Rebus, Yorkshire has Banks, Norway and Sweden have a slew of detectives. Wales has………..? It’s a start.

  3. I watched it and thought it was average. Perhaps I’d have thought it was a lot better were it not for the barage of hype pre release. Like many things in Wales currently, this seems to be a case of ‘excellence’ being measured in terms of the amount of Welsh language content, rather than the true quality….. education would be another classic example.

  4. ” Any semblance of Gregg’s or Tesco has been removed and a picture is painted of a lonely, time-less town”

    I don’t think there is a Gregg’s in Aberystwyth. Or a Tesco!

  5. By any standard the series was very good. Wales has had other well regarded detective series in the past as well including Yr Heliwr [ A Mind to Kill] with Philip Madoc. That ran for 5 series. So not unique at all.

    To say they were poor storylines is very harsh and simply not true. How we Welsh often hate success in others – it is beyond me why and it finds it’s way to this website more than others.

  6. Recently I watched (for the first time ) the original series of the acclaimed Nordic noir “The Killing”.
    On a Box set which and I got through all 20 one hour episodes in a week.
    Enjoyed it, but watching it over such a short time span meant that the introduction of extra plot lines of variable relevance and holes in the main plot become evident. Both of which if watched over a twenty week period would I expect be far less noticeable.

    I think the Y Gwyll, although there’s scope for criticism stands up well in comparision. And the quality and appeal should have been evident to BBC executives who have chosen basically to trial it twice, on S4C then on BBC2 Wales before allowing it out of Wales and onto a BBC UK wide channel. It’s not something they do with a series produced in Scandinavia.

  7. Nordic Noir actually varies a lot in quality – the final series of ‘The Killing’ was ultimately a bit disappointing but ‘The Bridge’ is better than any contemporary drama produced in the UK since the 1980s – and there is no reason why something just as good could not be made in Wales.

    Indeed, ‘Yr Heliwr’/’A Mind to Kill’ was a classy production that deserved a higher profile – I remember Philip Madoc telling me how he had to telephone Channel 5 to boost the signal. It was in many ways ahead of its time. It may also be cited as proof of the main point of this article, that we need to make more positive use of our natural environment in Welsh productions. The lesson of ‘Midsomer Murders’ is that scenery sells.

    The more basic point is that the recent boom in production in Wales – with the Pinewood Studios development in Cardiff the latest example – remains essentially a back office operation. The serious decisions are still made in London or LA. It is as difficult as ever for Welsh-based writers or producers outside the ‘magic circle’ to get Welsh-themed work on to the big or little screens.

    How much of that thirty million allocated to and then by the Welsh Assembly as part of the Pinewood deal will end up in the hands of Welsh talent rather than English or American businessmen?

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