If you had never been to Wales, never met a Welsh person and knew only what you could gather from re-runs of Gavin & Stacey, what impression would you have of that country and its people?
I ask because on Monday at 9pm, SC4's hit police drama Y Gwyll, known to English speakers as Hinterland, and aired originally only in Wales, will finally be broadcast to the rest of Britain.
Welsh talent already has a strong presence on British television and internationally. Cardiff-born Matthew Rhys is currently starring as an undercover KGB spy in FX drama series The Americans, Pontypridd-raised Kimberley Nixon is now familiar as innocent undergrad Josie in Fresh Meat and Rob Brydon is oft-heard staking his claim to a place among the Port Talbot acting greats (Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and Michael Sheen) in The Trip. Behind the scenes too, Welsh writers and showrunners like Ruth Jones (Gavin & Stacey, Stella) and Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who, Torchwood) have had hit after hit.
All of these actors, writers and indeed any Welsh viewer who has ever strayed far from the programming of Welsh-language national broadcaster SC4 will be aware of the stereotypical way Welsh characters are often presented to mainstream British audiences. Like Josie in Fresh Meat or Stacey in Gavin & Stacey, they’re sweet, kind and a little naive. Or like the casts of reality shows The Valleys (set in Cardiff) and The Call Centre (set in Swansea) they’re brash, fake-tanned and a little dim. To TV writer minds, the sing-song intonation of the Welsh accent, the lush countryside and the history of English cultural suppression all adds up to one thing: Quaintness.
The Aberystwyth-set Hinterland is different. DCI Tom Mathais (Richard Harrington) and his colleague DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries) are both characterised by their seriousness, sharp intelligence and ambivalent attitude to the cultural history and evocative landscape that surrounds them. At one crime scene, DI Rhys’s eye is caught by a reproduction of ‘Salem’ the famous watercolour by Sidney Vosper showing a women in Welsh national dress: “My grandmother showed it to me when I was small,” she tells DCI Mathais. “It still gives me the creeps”
It seems the BBC Four slot and the subtitles, aren’t the only thing Hinterland has in common with the Scandinavian crime shows that British audiences have taken to their hearts. Like the DR imports The Killing and The Bridge, Hinterland also uses the perceived exoticism of a ‘foreign’ culture to breath fresh life into the same old murder mysteries and the same old cop characters. Details like the ‘Salem’ picture, Welsh mythology and even the Welsh language itself are all used to contribute to the show’s creepy atmosphere. Viewers who live in Wales and consider themselves ordinary British citizens may find that surprising.
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