‘Y Gwyll/Hinterland: Twice-told Noir,’ Bronwen Thomas, University of Bournemouth, UK.

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Y Gwyll is a four-part crime drama first broadcast on S4C in late 2013.  Hinterland, the English language version of the series, aired on BBC One Wales in the spring of 2014 and was also made available on the BBC iPlayer around that time.  From the outset, publicity for the show (in both English and Welsh) stressed its noirish credentials and drew direct comparisons with the Danish hit TV drama The Killing. Rights for the English language version have been sold to the Danish broadcaster behind The Killing (BBC News Wales, 2013), and the series is widely reported to be scheduled for broadcast on BBC4, home to other Nordic dramas including The Bridge and Borgen later this year.  Describing the show as ‘part Wallander, part Broadchurch, Ruth McElroy (2013) set the tone for critical analysis of the series, though some in Wales might balk at the title of her piece (‘What can Wales learn from Nordic Noir’) implying that Wales is late to the game when it comes to crime drama. Author Malcolm Pryce has established a successful long-running series of noirish tales beginning with Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001), while Robert Lewis’s darkly humorous Robert Llywelyn trilogy portrays a troubled PI struggling with alcohol addiction and personal hygiene issues.  Granted, the Welsh do not yet have the equivalent to Tartan Noir, but that does not mean that we have no tradition of crime writing and crime drama. 

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As a Welsh speaker living and working in England, and a big fan of Nordic Noir, I was intrigued by Hinterland from the moment I heard about it. In particular, I was interested to see how some of the conventions of Nordic Noir would carry over to Wales.  I was also intrigued by the fact that the series was shot first in English, then in Welsh. This has been trialled in Wales previously, with a detective series from the 1990s featuring the late Philip Madoc, called A Mind to Kill in English and Yr Heliwr in Welsh.  Likewise, one of the fascinations of BBC4’s  Scandinavian drama The Bridge is that it crosses borders and features both Danish and Swedish actors. However, with English subtitling, sadly much of the impact and politics of this linguistic mix is lost.  While the main language of Hinterland is English, some of the characters speak Welsh to one another (subtitled for non-Welsh speaking viewers).  The easy slippage from one language to another is something that I recognise as a bilingual speaker growing up in Wales, marking out different sets of relationships with friends and family, and of course being handy for excluding non-Welsh speakers from your conversations. In Hinterland, one of the uses of Welsh is to signal to the viewer how far certain characters are integrated into the local community or are perceived as outsiders.  In particular, the character of DCI Tom Mathias (played by Richard Harrington), newly returned from a stint at the London Met, seems to be deliberately isolated from his work colleagues in the English language version as they address each other in Welsh but always speak to him in English (it’s as yet unclear from the English version whether or not he can in fact speak Welsh).  I still haven’t seen the Welsh language version where Mathias definitely is a Welsh speaker, and it would be interesting to compare the two versions in terms of the role language plays in characterising the protagonists and their interrelationships.  But it is clear that the English version of the show is not afraid to play on the politics of language, nor to rely on its viewers to read between the lines: I had no idea what either ‘y gwyll’ or ‘hinterland’ meant prior to watching the show, and was somewhat gratified to learn that this obscurity and othering of the viewer was deliberate (McElroy 2013).  Whether this othering would have been more effective had the show been broadcast in Welsh with subtitles remains to be seen. It certainly would have been cheaper, but probably wouldn’t have attracted anything like the same attention, and perhaps would not have been taken as seriously.  

I was a bit apprehensive that Hinterland might turn out to be full of cliché, both in terms of the representation of the Welsh, and in its borrowing of the conventions of Nordic Noir.  The world weary character of Tom Mathias (‘a man cast into a wilderness of his own making’ according to the S4C website) is clearly reminiscent of Scandinavian detectives such as Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole or Henning  Mankell’s Wallander, particularly when it comes to his problematic domestic relationships (we fleetingly see photographs of his daughters and references are made to a  failed relationship).  Like many noirish tecs, Mathias is shown living a semi-masochistic existence, trying to keep body and mind in order, with several shots showing him out jogging, or staring broodingly at the landscape.  Visual echoes of the BBC adaptation of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh alsoabound. There are lots of panoramic shots of the countryside stretching for miles with only the odd sheep to break up the monotony, while four-by-fours and suspect outhouses, another staple of the genre, are aplenty.  Meanwhile, the faded Victorian splendour of Aberystwyth, as well as its vulnerability to the elements, provides a strong sense of place and a whiff of social unrest.  The series does a good job of conveying class as well as linguistic divisions in the town, and hints at the problems caused by its transient population.  The Killing and other Scandi dramas have been praised for allowing the plots to unfold slowly, and Hinterland likewise isn’t afraid to spend time building atmosphere and developing its characters.  So there is plenty here to satifsy the Nordic Noir aficionados, but what is reassuring is that this borrowing proves very effective, and works well adapted to the landscape, both physical and cultural, of its new setting.  

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Scandinavian crime dramas such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or Jo Nesbo’s  The Redbreast looked back to shameful episodes in their countries’ pasts, such as collaboration with the Nazis or the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, while also demonstrating that these darker sides to the seeming social democratic idylls were also very much a feature of the present.  With Wales, it would be more difficult perhaps to unpick political crimes from those attributable to Britain as a whole, but the series is certainly full of suggestions of long buried family secrets as well as crimes that remain hidden within localized communities.  

The storylines and crimes featured in Hinterland offer the same mix of extreme violence tied to social injustice that has become such a defining feature of Nordic Noir.  In one episode, child abuse at a children’s home is uncovered, with the suggestion that the mistreatment and abandonment of problem children was a systemic failure of Welsh society in the seventies and eighties.  I have argued elsewhere (Thomas 2012) that Scandinavian crime writing is characterized by a tone of social campaigning, linking the personal and the political, and suggesting that we all bear some responsibility for the crimes that take place in our societies.  Hinterland does this subtly but effectively: Mathias’ boss is a looming presence throughout the series, with a strong suggestion that his links to freemasonry may have implicated him in as-yet-unknown crimes and misdemeanors.  There is also a suggestion that not only is Welsh society far from welcoming to outsiders, but it is prone to scapegoating those who do not easily fit in: this is most evident with the character of Wyn Bratton in Episode 3 who lives in the woods, wracked by guilt after a house fire he started in an attempt to get back at his estranged wife goes disastrously wrong.  

Wyn Bratton is played by Matthew Gravelle, who also starred as the family man turned killer in the hit ITV crime drama Broadchurch.  Similarities have therefore inevitably been drawn with that series, inevitably perhaps because of the seaside setting, but also because of the flawed and vulnerable detective (David Tennant in Broadchurch) and the feeling evoked in both shows of communities about to tear themselves apart.  As is inevitable for a Welsh speaker who has grown up with shows like Pobol y Cwm, many of the actors in Hinterland are very familiar faces, albeit inhabiting sometimes quite radically unfamiliar roles.  Likewise, references to Welsh myths and legends, and glimpses of iconic cultural reference points like ‘Salem’ (a painting of the Welsh lady with the face of the devil in her shawl), could easily have missed the mark and been the subject of ridicule, but they add to the feeling described by writer Ed Thomas of the audience discovering in this version of Wales an ‘unknown hinterland’ (Moss, 2013).  

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For the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales, looking beyond the UK for connections with European counterparts has become a way of trying to assert independence and distinctiveness. It would be lazy and perhaps facile to try to draw too many comparisons between the Welsh and the Nordic nations, but in many studies of Nordic Noir, the importance of religion has been noted, in particular a Lutheran belief in the idea of  ‘hidden God’ (Saarinen, 2003:132) and a view of evil as ‘the incomprehensible darkness lurking in all societies’ (135).  In Hinterland, the climax to one of the episodes takes place in a remote chapel, reinforcing the notion conveyed so powerfully in ‘Salem’ that piety, respectability and evil may not always be so very far apart.  

Joe Queenan (2008) has argued that the vogue for Nordic Noir owes much to what he calls a kind of ‘reverse exoticism’ whereby it is the very bleakness of the landscape and the moroseness of the characters that form part of its appeal.  Perhaps with Hinterland, there is also the sense in which the drama challenges cultural stereotypes, showing the Welsh to be capable of malevolence and violence not just whimsy.  At the same time, far be it for the Welsh audience to take the brooding drama or itself too seriously: Welsh language online news site Golwg 360 mischievously proposed a drinking game for viewers of the show where a sip is taken every time the devil is mentioned.  

A second series of Y Gwyll is planned after a ‘phenomenal’ public response to the show (BBC News Mid Wales, 2013), helping to bolster Welsh language programming at a time when its modest audience figures have come in for attack and ridicule. 

References 

BBC News Wales. (2013)  Welsh Drama Hinterland sold to Danish ‘The Killing

TV’.  3 January. Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-20906436 

BBC News Mid Wales. (2013) Aberystwyth police drama Y Gwyll gets second series. 27 November.

Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-25118460 

McElroy, R. (2013) What Can Wales Learn from Nordic Noir? CST Online.

Accessed 11/3/14 at http://cstonline.tv/what-can-wales-learn-from-nordic-noir 

Moss, S. (2013) Hinterland: the TV noir so good they made it twice. The Guardian. 30 July.  

Nesbo, J. (2000) The Redbreast. London: Vintage.  

Pryce, M. (2001) Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  London: Bloomsbury.  

Queenan, J. (2008) The Nordic Mystery Boom. Los Angeles Times. 25 May.  

Saarinen, R. (2003) The surplus of evil in welfare society: Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction,

Dialog. 42(2): 131-135.  

Thomas, B. (2012) Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: The rhetoric of social campaigningin Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Language and Literature. Vol. 21, No.3, pp. 299-310.

ABOUT

Bronwen Thomas is Associate Professor in the Media School at Bournemouth University. Originally from Llanelli in South Wales, she has published widely on fanfiction and online communities, and is currently PI for the AHRC Digital Reading Network. Recent publications include Real Lives, Celebrity Stories: Narratives of Ordinary and Extraordinary People Across Media, co-edited with Julia Round, and New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age, co-edited with Ruth Page.