It’s the first day of a new term and I’m sitting outside the Glengower on the prom, having a lunchtime lager, watching the new students unpack kettles and duvets from their parents’ cars. Three of them - two women, one man - are eyeing me sideways, nudging each other. Eventually they approach.
“I love your books,” the young man tells me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“We’re drama and literature students,” one of the young women says. “This is our first day in Aberystwyth. Was that Ed Thomas I saw you talking to earlier?”
I tell her it was.
Niall Griffiths experiences the tremendous orchestration of people and machines - on the set of S4C’s award winning, Aberystwyth based, drama Hinterland/Y Gwyll
This strange language,
this strange landscape
“And was that Richard Harrington?” The second woman asks. “Is this what Aberystwyth is like?” She says, and gestures to the blue sky and sea, the relaxed liquid-lunchers, the big green hump of Consti, the pier, and the group of well-known playwrights and actors nearby, filming outside the old law courts. There’s wonder in the three students. I laugh and tell them that it’s not always like this, no…
And yet there is, undoubtedly, a feeling of something afoot; something large and important is happening. That’s the sensationI always get on film sets; the tremendous orchestration of people and machines; a sense of great endeavour. And this is Hinterland, that much-needed dose of Cymru-noir, the Welsh answer to the Scandi-gloom of The Killing and Wallander, although what’s being made today is a one-off episode, to be broadcast on New Year’s Day, a no-doubt salty taster for the second series to come. Series one was a huge success; the national press took it up and, as I write, Netflix are streaming it in the USA and Canada, and it is currently being shown on Australian telly. The Anglophone world, which
is strange, really, considering what the project is doing to sustain and promote Cymraeg, but maybe that’s one of the keys to its success; the examination of a part of the country that, til now, has been little explored.
Ed Talfan - co-writer with Ed Thomas - tells me: “What’s been brilliant about this is the discovery of an appetite for Wales beyond Wales itself. The programme is not embarrassed about being rooted in this part of the world. There’s a menace here that we tap into; the genre sits very well in this place.”
These are phrases and words that get my own creative juices bubbling: ‘an appetite for Wales beyond Wales’, the menace that lurks. Such are the founding blocks of the work I’m drawn to, as they are for many others, it seems, given the viewing figures for series one. People have apparently appreciated the sense of otherness in the programme; this strange language used by these strange people in this strange landscape. Such ideas lie behind much of the translation (and credit must go to Caryl Lewis here, who translated into the nuanced Welsh of the local dialect); ‘y gwyll’ becomes not the more literal ‘dusk’ but, of course, hinterland, which, Ed Thomas tells me, is what Wales is for the rest of the UK, an area remote from cities, a kind of edgeland: ‘a state of mind’, in his words. The initial plan, he says, was to film the interiors - the interrogation scenes etc - in Cardiff. But, he says: “After the first recce, we realised that the mood was here. The wisest decision we ever made was to film everything in the area.”
I understand this, having surreptitiously gone to gawp when an episode of the first series was being made in Cwmsymlog, the odd, old mining village just down the valley from where I live. Mood is essential; even if such things will not be referenced on the final cut, you need to know that, outside, the wind is sobbing in the close-packed trees, the mist has settled like a veil on the sharp peaks, drizzle trickles down the mossy sides of the monoliths and, on the ridges and in the dips, the damp old cottages seethe with secrets and shadows. “It’s Edward Hopper,” Ed Thomas says. “The laughter in the hopelessness, the dignity in the lonely people… blood, soil, belonging. Mathias has cornered
“The programme is irredeemably Welsh, but it’s our Wales, this is the Wales we love”
Ah, Mathias; the protagonist, the core, the central point, his name the working title for the entire project (although personally I’m glad they dropped it for Y Gwyll). Rich Harrington seems to have absorbed the character, despite, as he tells me, their personalities being very different. “Making this entails nine months of not smiling,” he jokes.
He’s slight, after his recent trek across the Sahara, but I imagine that this will add to the intensity of Mathias when he re-appears on the
screens, as if whatever it is that burns inside him has a heat strong enough to melt flesh. The fact that the drama is not dialogue-heavy appealed to Rich, demanding the setting up of camp inside the character’s psyche, his personality being largely unavailable through his speech; this leads to a kind of mental co-habitation, the need to imagine what the character will be getting up to when not on the screen.
Again, the bi-lingualism is important; Rich learnt Welsh, it’s not his first language, but he prefers performing in the English version as
‘Mathias is an outsider in his own country’. Doing the same scenes twice over, in different languages, he says: “Allows me to explore further. Each language reveals different aspects of the character to me. I have to throw away my ego a little bit.” Playing Mathias is, for him, a moving experience. “He’s the kind of person who cries at adverts,” he says, and he uses that propensity in his performance. “The worse I feel, the better my portrayal,” he declares.
And the character of Wales, to him? “We wanted to show the Wales that we see through our eyes,” he says. “The programme is irredeemably Welsh, but it’s our Wales, this is the Wales we love. It’s a Wales where people have blood on their hands, even if they’re just a butcher.”
I love that word ‘irredeemably’, in this context. And I fear that I’ve made the entire project seem unpalatably dark, too lightlessly intense, because that’s not the impression I got. I laughed a great deal on the set, and the infectious commitment of Richard and the two Eds to their creation, their impassioned focus on it, was all of a lovely piece with the arriving students, wide-eyed and thrilled on the first day of the greatest adventure of their lives so far. I felt proud of my adopted town, and the country beyond it that has produced and nurtured such talent.
Back at the pub, I observed the industry, the busy-ness; figures in high-vis jackets directing traffic and people, cameras, booms, machines I
didn’t recognise. All Aber life was there; joggers with tattooed necks, street drinkers, dogs, cyclists with beards down to their belt buckles. Lots of selfies being taken. I went inside to fetch another drink from the bar; Brains dark, this time. It seemed appropriate.
© Niall Griffiths 2014
Y Gwyll/Hinterland returns to the screen with a brand-new one-off special episode on S4C at 9pm on 1 January (with English subtitles available for non-Welsh speakers)