How green was my crime scene? Welsh noir comes of age with 'Hinterland'

Welsh TV dramas are thin on the ground. So hurrah for brilliant thriller ‘Hinterland’

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Television is perhaps the artform we most see ourselves reflected in. From long-running localised soaps to reality shows, from gritty dramas to sitcoms, it offers minutely detailed portrayals of the places we call home, that deliver a satisfying feeling of familiarity: a confirmation of one’s place in the big wide world.

Yet not all parts of the UK are well represented on the small screen: I grew up in rural mid-Wales, a place that is hardly a staple of the schedules. But a remarkable new series, starting on BBC4 tomorrow, might be about to change that…   

Hinterland takes the police procedural genre and grounds it firmly in the Celtic country. “Every nation needs a detective show to call its own – and in Wales that was conspicuously absent,” explains creator Ed Talfan. It was filmed in the midwest county of Ceredigion, a locale that is rural and remote, where vast hillsides meet the wild coast. Where the landscape seems to contain its own ancient, windswept mystery.

“We got to know places and people and local legends, and we tried to grow the stories out of things we’d found on the patch,” explains Talfan. But the production isn’t just about turning the camera on an unfamiliar view – it also sounds different. Welsh is the first language for many in the area, and so the creative team took an innovative approach to filming, recording scenes first in English and then, shot-for-shot, again in Welsh.

There are three versions of Hinterland, with varying degrees of bilingualism – an approach which brought a range of backers and broadcasters on-side. The wholly Welsh version – titled Y Gwyll (which more accurately translates as “the gloaming”) was transmitted on Welsh-medium channel S4C last year. Then, in January, BBC One Wales showed a bilingual version – largely in English, with some scenes between characters who are first-language Welsh speakers subtitled. It is this that the rest of the UK will finally get a chance to see.

Meanwhile, a purely English version was made for international audiences: Danish network DR (the company that gave us The Killing) came in as an early buyer, and the most recent good news for the production team is that Hinterland has been picked up by Netflix for North America – quite a coup.

The four 90-minute, stand-alone dramas centre on DCI Tom Mathias – played with brooding brilliance by the Welsh actor Richard Harrington (familiar from period dramas Bleak House and Lark Rise to Candleford). He’s the obligatory gruff detective-with-a-past, who returns to Wales from London to investigate murky murders: an old woman thrown into a ravine, a man bludgeoned to death in his farmhouse, a body found on a seaside marshland…

The plots are taut, the atmosphere dense, and the scenery stunning… It’s as moody as any Scandi-noir and thanks to that trend – which burgeoned quite coincidentally while Hinterland was being made – this rural drama now feels thoroughly on-trend.

And while the crime stats for Ceredigion may be on the low side, it’s a wonder no one had previously thought that lonely Welsh hill farms, creepy caravans, empty B&Bs and faded seaside arcades might make brilliantly eerie locations for a detective drama. “The initial angle was to tell a story of remoteness, really,” explains Harrington. “I thought it was an undertaking: but actually so much stuff does go on in the hinterland, [it’s] a lot more colourful than a metropolitan city.”

The area may be presented as darkly mysterious, but in reality, local people were very welcoming. “There’s a wonderful lack of cynicism away from cities: everybody is excited, hugely supportive – we got great access to locations,” says Talfan. “People are happy to have a crew there, turning the camera on their place.”

Even as someone who’s made the opposite journey to the fictional DCI Mathias – a Welsh girl now living in London – watching Hinterland brings a hum of recognition. It is a thrill to see the spooky, mossy waterfalls at celebrated local landmark Devil’s Bridge on-screen, even if the beautiful spot becomes a crime scene. Hinterland’s cinematography captures sideways-blasted thorn trees, the 50 shades of grey of stone walls and roof slates, sea-foam and shingle, but also the shimmering pale taupe and gold of dried-out coastal grass and sheep-bitten hillsides. Harrington points out that when shooting in “these fantastically, gloriously beautiful locations… the landscape became the main character.”

Not that it was always an easy place to film: they were shooting from November till June, and that stereotype of freezing wet Welsh weather? It’s true. There were days when they were shooting in -8 degrees, recalls Talfan. “You could see, in the rushes, that the actors’ faces weren’t behaving as you’d expect. It turned out they were freezing to death!”

“If a plague of locusts had flown in one afternoon, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. The weather was almost biblical,” says Harrington, with the bone-dryness of someone who got regularly soaked. “People talk about four seasons, but Jesus I saw at least eight or nine of them. It was hard to get your jaw to move sometimes.”

And yet, those pesky producers made him jaw each scene twice – in English and yn Gymraeg. “When it worked it was gloriously liberating, but when it was troublesome it was like trying to scramble an egg with your tongue,” jokes Harrington, who had to seriously brush up his rusty Welsh. Did scenes and characters feel different in another language? “The Welsh language is much more poetic, there’s a musicality to it. I’d find scenes more moving in Welsh; in order to speak it properly, it demands an emotion.”

However, in the version airing on BBC4 Mathias doesn’t speak Welsh at all, making the character more of an outsider in the community. “He’s a foreign body, almost segregated from his own force because he doesn’t speak the language. It makes him more of a voyeur,” says Harrington, who prefers this version.  It is a fascinating dynamic which, admittedly, you lose in the all-Welsh version.

With our new-found familiarity and ease with subtitles, thanks to all the Scandinavian imports, should they have made just Y Gwyl, and shown the Welsh-language subtitled show on mainstream TV? Neither Talfan nor Harrington hanker after that, explaining that living in Wales really is a bilingual experience. Only 19 per cent of the country speak Welsh, and those that do are likely to spend their lives quite naturally slipping between both languages.

Even so, it’ll still be the most Welsh ever heard in a BBC drama. “It’d be nice to think that one of the legacies of this show might be that people outside Wales would see there is more than one indigenous language in the UK,” says Talfan.

Hinterland should travel well, but it’s been such a success in Wales already that they’re filming another series in September. “When it went out on S4C and BBC Wales it was quite clear that there was a real hunger to see Wales on screen,” says Talfan. “It’s the holy grail, getting a re-commission. We’re doing five episodes rather than four – they seem to want more of it, and who are we to say no?” 

Harrington puts it in rather more blunt terms: “The first to do themselves down are always the Welsh, and if this was a bag of shit the Welsh would have told us. I was really surprised by the reception it had within Wales, in Welsh and English [language] in equal measure. That is a thrillingly optimistic thing.”

‘Hinterland’ begins on BBC4 tomorrow at 9pm