They say with television drama you need to ‘hit the ground running’ and, in the opening episode of BBC Four’s Hinterland (Monday, 9pm), this was certainly the case but not quite in the way you would expect.
The opening shot of the series helped to set the tone of what is already being referred to as ‘Welsh Noir’. DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) is seen out for a run alongside the rugged Welsh coastline; brooding hills a wash of brown and grey in the background. Quite what Mathias is running from remains to be seen, but his surly demeanour and the occasional hint of a troubled past have helped to set the character up as a recognisable lead in what is becoming a popular breakaway genre of police procedurals – pathetic fallacy drama that draws on its environs for tone as much as it does grisly murder and bath tubs filled with blood.
It would be easy to draw comparisons to recent Scandinavian imports such as Wallander, The Killing and the The Bridge, yet creator Ed Thomas’ ‘Hinterland’ pre-dates the meteoric rise of these shows having existed first as a Welsh language drama on S4C (Y Gwyll), and later in English and trialled on BBC One Wales before making the hybridised move to BBC Four. As with the series that have since typified this kind of drama, the use of dual languages and the grim landscape help to build an intense sense of place and foreboding as the story unfolds.
The story begins relatively slowly with a script that relies on sparse dialogue and a gradual ratcheting up of tension instead of necessarily hitting every story beat that modern audiences have come to expect. Indeed, the fact that this episode is unveiled throughout the less used 90 minute slot helps in this careful layering of unease and the confident, slow pacing which results in captivating viewing. The body of the victim, Helen Jenkins – the retired tyrant of an old children’s home – takes some time to be discovered before the investigation proper can even begin and this delay jars what we have come to expect of our police dramas, helping to develop a sense of unease about the case.
Once the pieces start to fall into place, there is an inevitability about the murder that is deftly handled so that it doesn’t lead to too much predictability. The ending still has the potential to shock, even though the most disinterested audience member will have been able to determine that the worst crime in the episode is not necessarily the murder that is being investigated.
Hinterland’s opener is a bleak and dark tale that packs a stylistic punch. Tonally, it is up there with the series that have been aired before it but in the context of how audiences are now already becoming familiar with this style of storytelling, there is a need in future episodes for the show to find a way to distinguish itself further. As wonderful as it is to see and hear Wales on the screen in a way that mainstream audiences have not seen before, the episodes that follow need to avoid being gloomy to the point of caricature. There are very few opportunities for relief from the darkness of the investigation this week, so I find myself hoping that the matronly disapproval of Mali Harries’ DI Mared Rhys finds more of a role in the episodes to come and that, now established, the landscape and mood of the series are the background rather than the foreground to well-developed and complex cases for the characters to uncover.
Contributed by Jane Harrison
Hinterland Continues Monday’s at 9.00pm on BBC4