Tag Archives: TV Drama

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?

Those Who Kill – the Danes come to ITV

The murder squad with Katrine on the left and the chief, Bisgaard, in the front.

For readers outside the UK, ITV3 is the third digital channel for the main terrestrial UK broadcaster ITV. A quick glance at the BARB audience figures reveals that it is actually the sixth biggest UK TV channel, outgunning any of Sky’s channels or its sister stations ITV2 and ITV4. It achieves this by targeting ‘over 35s’ (and probably more women than men – ITV4 is ‘bloke TV’) and offering them re-runs of popular drama series. ITV chiefs have no doubt noticed the big success of Scandinavian drama series shown on BBC4 which have attracted record audiences of over 600,000 per episode. BBC4 is usually invisible to the tabloid press writers on TV but The Killing and Borgen have attracted a great deal of coverage in the broadsheets.

Now ITV3 have begun broadcasting Those Who Kill, their new Danish import, at 10pm on Thursday evenings. The big questions are: will the BBC4 audience migrate to ITV3 for their fix of ‘Nordic Noir’ and what will the existing ITV3 audience, fed on a diet of Wycliffe, Morse, Poirot etc. make of a show with murky lighting and subtitles? It’s probably thirty years or so since ITV stations (then regionally owned) put out European art films in late night slots. Can they make a success of it again?

On the basis of the first 90 minutes episode, Those Who Kill appears to be a more American-style crime series – or perhaps the grittier end of UK crime series such as Wire in the Blood. It has one of the tropes of the BBC4 Danish serials – the intelligent, fearless and strong-willed female lead. In Episode 1 Katrine (Laura Sofia Bach) takes the initiative in leading a police team investigating a serial killer of young women. She co-opts a profiler of ‘dissocial’ characters who has been previously used (and discarded) by the Copenhagen police and she has a close relationship with another young woman who is a forensic scientist. This trio solve their first case and despite his initial misgivings, the homicide chief (played by The Killing I‘s ‘Troells’, the actor Lars Mikkelsen) decides to promote Katrine. We also get to see at least two other actors from The Killing II and Borgen.

The four characters listed above (and a fifth junior police officer) are presumably going to be central in the series but so far we have learned only a little about their family backgrounds. I don’t get the impression that we are going to get the family melodrama offered by the serials nor their political narratives. The serial killer story is rather too familiar from US and UK series (even if, as we are often told, they are not in Scandinavia – though Jo Nesbø has just written one). This one was quite well done and was certainly grisly, but it didn’t have that usual Nordic Noir element of some kind of social comment on the collapse of social democracy or the impact of globalisation. It could easily have been a British or American story. Finally, there hasn’t been much sign of an overall serial narrative developing – a ‘story arc’ that will run through each episode. Still, this was the first episode. The big question is whether the audience will find the show on the schedules. The Guardian, home of blogs on The Killing and Borgen, doesn’t list ITV3 programmes, only trailed this show on the day of broadcast and hasn’t reviewed it so far.

More Danish delights!

Sidse Babett Knudsen, in her first TV series, plays coalition Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg.

This is just to add to a chorus of praise for Borgen (Denmark 2010), the BBC4 political-thriller series set within Danish coalition politics. It’s produced by the same company that did The Killing 1 and 2, though the virtuoso combination of both a focused (one killing) and a spiralling set of plot lines over 20 episodes is not repeated here. ‘Borgen’ (‘castle’) is the Danish equivalent of Westminster in the UK – the general term for the centre of government. See the UK trailer on BBC website.

There’s lots of plot buzz about it, especially in blogs (see The Guardian’s) and they are understandably focused on the convincingness of plot lines, which caused controversy for The Killing 1 and 2. What Borgen does well is to mix a ‘glossy’ often thriller-ish narrative form and look with what feels like a properly complicated account of coalition politics involving a woman Prime Minister.

Also involved are journalism, ‘spin’, and familiar gendered issues around the work involved in bringing up a family, work outside the family, and sexism for many modern working women. It has been casually brilliant in its restrained construction of sexual relationships and their aftermath, or the trauma of abortion for the woman who has to take the decision. And its treatment of sexism at the highest levels of negotiation, which a woman in such a post would enter, is likewise restrained: the muttered ‘Mummy’ behind her back as she leaves a discussion with military top brass, for example.

Casting for a kind of glamour in its leads, it plays questions of appearance, for both men but especially women, superbly well. See discussion of Laura Mulvey and others in Representations chapter of MSB5. In particular it keeps complicating our sense of how scenes and imagery of women will go. I loved the high angle shots of a de-glamourised Katrine, tousled rather than infantilised-by-tousle, getting out of bed to answer the (dangerous) call at her door. The jokes, as well as the difficulties, in the sex life of a married, powerful woman with children are done with a light touch. Maybe decades of experience of Scandinavian social-democrat education and equality debates is sedimented here? And the treatment of small-nation dependency, with the hard political questions that raises, as well as the brute force of certain kinds of US power—all this has wide resonance and was superbly constructed in episode 4.

Enough! Glad to hear in this Independent article that a 2nd series has just been shown in Denmark, and a third is due. And a US version, involving the BBC, and aimed to be a kind of successor to The West Wing, is in development.

See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/14/borgen-danish-tv-thrillers for an account of ‘the thriller factory’ within Danish public service broadcasting, from which such series emerge. The rules: ‘Commissioners insist on original drama dealing with issues in contemporary society: no remakes, no adaptations.’ I’ve also heard the cold winter evenings in Denmark make the 8pm slot popular.

And finally, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Kinnock for some real world British connections to the first Danish woman Prime Minister—said to have enjoyed the series, broadcast a year before her election victory.

The People’s War?

On the set of Joe Maddison's War with Robson Green in a scene on the bowling green. (Click on the image to go to an interesting blog by a freelance cameraman who took this still.)

September has been a month of commemoration and nostalgia in the UK marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. There have been the usual high profile celebrations and focus on the important leaders, but it has been good to see some excellent TV coverage of the stories of ‘ordinary people’ and how they coped in 1940. As might be predicted, the best material was mostly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC4/2. More surprising was the appearance of a ‘popular drama’ on ITV1 on Sunday night starring two of the most familiar faces amongst the channel’s ‘contracted stars’, Kevin Whately and Robson Green.

This was a story based on Tyneside and it was no surprise that it was so good because it was written by Alan Plater (1935-2010), one of the best TV writers of the last 40 years, returning to the Newcastle of his (early) childhood. This was presumably the last script that Plater wrote and it included many of his trademarks. Robson Green plays Harry, a chippy shipyard worker who is also a crooner in a band and Kevin Whately plays the titular hero, Joe, who is a welder. Both men had been in the infantry in the Great War in 1917 but this time they are in ‘a reserved occupation’ as shipyard workers and so they are persuaded to join the LDV (later to become the ‘Home Guard’).

At the beginning of the film, Joe sees his daughter married and his son off to flying school. Soon after, however, his wife leaves – partly we assume because the passion has gone out of the marriage. Joe seems troubled by both his memories of the Western Front and the oppression he feels from his wife’s Catholicism. (The local priest isn’t much help.)

Kevin Whately is perhaps typecast as a rather passive character and this is used in the film to contrast with Robson Green’s aggression – because he feels similarly about his wartime experience. What follows is a ‘home front’ story that picks up on several of the real social issues of the war years, many of them detailed for the first time for a popular readership in Angus Calder’s The People’s War in 1969. Calder was a socialist who exposed some of the propaganda myths of the wartime years. Plater’s script, though seen as ‘rosily nostalgic’ by some critics, includes an incident in which the shipyard workers in the LDV go on ‘strike’ because Harry has been charged by the squad’s officer – the local chemist, whose commission was in a non-combatant service in 1914-18, something he has concealed which angers Harry. This is effectively a mutiny, but it is quietly forgotten and Joe becomes an NCO. Strikes and military incidents of this time were not uncommon in wartime and the great social changes of 1945 didn’t come about without resistance from the establishment.

But Joe changes in other ways and becomes more assertive in his personal life. The film covers the whole wartime period and in 1945, Joe admits that he has had a ‘good war’ and that he feels that Britain is a better place. That wasn’t to last of course, but it’s important to recognise what working people achieved in wartime, both on the frontline and at home. The scene in the film when Harry and Joe are placing a wreath on the local cenotaph on Armistice Day 1944 was more moving for me than all those Whitehall ceremonies involving the Royals and senior politicians.