Welsh TV noir: Hinterland (UK 2013)

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

Hinterland is a good example of the global/local. Like some other modern states the UK has statutory requirements and cultural policies that protect the other languages in the Home Nations and this means support for both Welsh and Gaelic broadcasters and film and television production in those languages. Now that Cornish has been recognised as a ‘European identity’ perhaps this provision will be expanded in future?

Hinterland is arguably the biggest Welsh-language production for some time, with a budget of £4.2 million to cover four 90 minutes TV crime fiction films (described as a ‘mini-series’ in the US). Commissioned by BBC Wales and S4C (the Welsh language public service channel set up at the same time as Channel 4 but with its own independent broadcasting authority to oversee operations) and made by the Fiction Factory in Cardiff the films are an example of ‘multiple versions’ production. Dating back to the coming of sound in the film industry this form of production sees two or more language versions of the same script made in parallel. In this case there is an all Welsh version as shown on S4C and a version mainly in English but with some (subtitled) Welsh dialogue that has just been seen on BBC4.

Conceived from the outset in terms of ‘local authenticity’ being a major selling point, the films have been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR (producer of The Killing and Borgen) and are under offer worldwide through the distributor All3Media International which operates throughout the anglophone media market covering Australasia and North America as well as the UK and parts of Europe. The first four films have been so successful that a second set of five have been commissioned and production is expected to start in September 2014.

Welsh noir

Ever since the success of The Killing and Wallander on UK/US TV it has been a commonplace to describe all kinds of police procedural/crime fiction television as ‘noir‘ and to make comparisons with ‘Nordic noir‘. In many cases this is not particularly helpful but Hinterland, while remaining resolutely ‘Welsh’, does have some similarities with the Swedish and Danish filmed dramas and perhaps even more with the less familiar Icelandic noir.

Perhaps the most distinctive noirish aspect of Hinterland is its use of landscape and the sense of isolation. The title refers to the area covered by the stories – roughly a 30 mile radius from the seaside town of Aberystwyth. This ranges from the  valleys of the Ystwyth and a second river the Rheidol (which both reach the sea in the Aberystwyth area) to the mountains of Mid Wales and the coastal strip. The whole area is underpopulated by UK standards: the local population in Aber is no more than 20,000 even counting the large number of university students and the whole county of Ceredigion has only 75,000. Aberystwyth is arguably the most isolated town in Wales and England – some 70-80 miles from the nearest large towns Shrewsbury, Wrexham or Swansea.

The central character in the films is DCI Mathias who appears to have been ‘exiled’ in Aberystwyth. He lives on his own in a caravan but has a wife and children in London – this back story is not filled out. He acts as if he is on his own, distant from the rest of his team. It is noticeable that in the subtitled version of the films he is the only police officer who doesn’t speak Welsh. Ceredigion is one of the parts of Wales where Welsh is the first language of up to half the population.

The physical isolation is enhanced by the climate and geomorphology. It takes time to get anywhere by car/truck on winding roads over hills and moors. The rail service is limited. It rains a lot. Added to this is the sense of the past which bears down on the present. There is an almost mythical celtic past and a more recent past of mineral extraction/mining that has left a legacy of abandoned quarries and mines. Agriculture, partly on struggling hill farms, forestry and tourism form the economic base of the region. The first three stories are set in an isolated children’s home, a hill farm and an abandoned quarry.

I’ve seen comparisons being made to the Swedish TV series Wallander, but this is a much more isolated and rugged area than Ystad in Southern Sweden. The Iceland of the stories by Arnaldur Indriðason seems the best comparison as it is his books that are best known in English translation and one of them has been adapted for a successful international film, Myrin (Jar City, Iceland/Ger/Den 2006). The comparison throws up one interesting question. Jar City is a ‘national’ story in a country with a capital city but other wise sparsely populated. Ceredigion is similarly ‘dominated’ by Aberystwyth but so far none of the stories in Hinterland have had any sense of a national Welsh dimension – even though in cultural terms, Aberystwyth is a national centre housing the National Library of Wales. The University in Aberystwyth has also been largely absent though it plays a major role in the town.

One of the features of isolation is that a local police officer is less likely to be bothered by  interference from senior officers based 100 miles away. However, in Hinterland there is a local police chief who seems to be the most underwritten character – and so far has proved to be simply an irritating presence, generally unsupportive and unsympathetic. Perhaps he will figure more in the future? The other ‘difference’ in this set of films is that there is no sense of ‘social space’ for the police team – no bar where they meet. In fact there have been few social places for anyone to meet. The narrative seems to comprise swift journeys into the hills to visit isolated crime scenes  and then interrogations back in Aber. Somehow, the usual array of SOCO photographers and local constabulary to tape off the area materialise in the wilderness. Where do they come from? Hinterland looks and feels different to most urban-set dramas. Perhaps that is an attractive feature for overseas buyers?

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