A new TV crime drama debuted last week here in the UK. Hinterland is a series split up into four dark crime stories set in Aberystwyth – a seaside university town on the rugged west coast of Wales. What sets Hinterland apart is that not only is it set in Wales and made there too, but it is also performed entirely in Welsh.
Crime drama has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance of late, thanks in no small part to Sweden’s adaptations of the Wallander crime novels, the French supernatural thriller The Returned, and Denmark’s wildly popular The Killing. The success of these programmes has also increased the appetite for subtitled drama, too. Could Welsh be the next to transcend the global entertainment language barrier?
The argument among Welsh-language campaigners for decades has been that if the language itself becomes a museum piece – something preserved and reminisced over rather than shared and lived – then it will surely slip into the shadows of history, and die, like so many other native tongues before it.
The signs are promising. Before day one of shooting on the series began, Hinterland (or Y Gwyll, to give it its Welsh-language title) had been snapped up by DR – the Danish network that produced The Killing – for its international broadcasting rights.
That not only whetted the interest of media watchers here in the UK but also raised the hopes of those who have fought for the survival of the Welsh-language for half a century or more.
Initial viewing figures suggest that just over 100,000 people tuned in to watch Hinterland’s first episode. That in itself makes it one of the most-watched Welsh-language TV programmes ever made. More remarkable about the numbers, though, is that almost a third of those watching did so outside Wales.
These dramas work best when they tap into a broader mood prevailing in the place that made them. The Killing evoked the unease at immigration issues in Denmark, Arne Dahl – another Danish offering – included a brutal string of murders as a response to Denmark’s economic woes. Hinterland is no different. The opening story revolves around the case of a missing elderly woman who owned the local children’s home decades before. The woman, it turns out, routinely abused the innocents in her care. This is a sure acknowledgement of the real-life scandals that have emerged recently at children’s homes across locations in north Wales – an ever-looming shadow over the national consciousness.
But those same moody landscapes make a grimly compelling backdrop for some pretty fine performances from the core cast. If Hinterland’s popularity does help, in some small way, to spread knowledge of the Welsh language – my mother tongue – then I for one will be tuning in every Tuesday and Thursday.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.