21 July, 2016
Rhodri Talfan Davies
Director for BBC Wales
Dear Mr Talfan Davies
While not disagreeing entirely with your views on the lack of Welsh cultural projection (BBC News website, 21 July), given that you might be responsible for some of it, I should like to make two or so points.
Wales is a far more multicultural place now than it was when I arrived as an ‘economic migrant’ from London, via Gloucestershire, fifteen years ago (today, as it happens!). Sometimes it seems as though there are more natives of Birmingham here than there are of Wales; Polish and other languages are heard on the street, we have a new Bangladeshi community; while cars seem sadly to have replaced sheep as the most multitudinous of the non-human population.
I appreciate therefore the importance of celebrating, preserving and promoting the Welsh dimension through its cultural institutions – although that sounds possibly like a museum curator talking, but perhaps there is more of a need to accept change and celebrate diversity, projecting a more fluid social dynamic?
BBC Drama, especially on Radio 4, seems to go through patches where all the scripts seem to be about the minutiae of life in Pakistani families (corner-shops, honour killings), Irish or Scottish (heroin-related, or someone has come back depressed from Afghan) – and then from time to time Welsh, when one sometimes feels perhaps a little patronised by a certain forced comedic dimension.
Welsh characters are too often caricatured as, well, a bit helpless. I have myself acted the Welshman in several local dramatic productions because not enough Welsh male actors will put themselves forward to join in. We recently had to rewrite the script of a Dylan Thomas bio-drama because the only real Welsh actor we had to play him was six feet tall, whereas the giant of Welsh modern Lit. was only five feet five in his holey socks.
In a sense this mirrors the dilemma of ethnic diversity in drama in general: you want to cast black actors, but where are they? Fortunately there is now a growing pool to draw on, and perhaps the same will be said of Welsh actors the more success the Rhys Ifans’, Michael Sheens’ and so on enjoy internationally. But we have yet to celebrate a black, Chinese or east European Welsh actor, I think!
I feel too there is an element of defensiveness in a lot of what you and others have been saying for many years; and it is perhaps that which is preventing the wider promotion and presentation of Welsh culture, as it is so inbred in its nature. Wales punches indeed significantly above its size in terms of cultural celebrity; but those artists and performers all recognise that their success depends on them becoming, first and foremost, internationalist. Somewhere there needs to be a balance; and, more importantly, relevance in a busy world where so much ‘culture’ is vying for attention
Which brings me to Hinterland….
Apart from the obvious scheduling problems and apparent budget shortage (why can’t Tom have a proper detective car, a vintage Jaguar like Morse or a (Welsh!) TVR, a battered old Mk1 Land-Rover he obviously cherishes, rather than that humdrum Volvo?), I and many of my friends here feel that Hinterland presents a remorselessly negative picture of life (and death) in Ceredigion. Most of us watch it largely because we enjoy the continuity errors!
If you will pardon an anecdote, last year I came across the cast and crew filming around the marina. I stopped and asked Mari when the new series was coming out; she thought ‘maybe’ in the autumn. ‘And will it be as gloomy as the last?’ I asked, jokingly. ‘Probably gloomier’, she replied glumly. It was!
I have to say, despite it winning an international award, I feel Hinterland is derivative, inward-looking and lacking in plot variation, precisely because of its overly Welsh one-dimensionality: the brooding landscape, thinly populated by embittered loners setting fire to one another’s houses over ancient feuds, seems almost satirical. The characters don’t seem fully developed in comparison, say, with The Bridge or other Nordic noir dramas on which the mood and feel of Hinterland are clearly based; they seem emotionally stuck, with what are thinly doled-out (does ‘Lloyd’ even exist, off-set?), cardboard-cutout back-stories.
The lack of a realistically diverse ethnic and cultural dimension portrayed in this teeming university town and seaside resort does not at all reflect the life we know. (Yes, you did have a couple of Polish girls in one episode, well done! I have yet to identify a single English or Scottish character, who make up fully a third of the population… and where are the endless traffic snarl-ups?) There is so much more richness of history, intrigue and event in Aberystwyth than your writers seem willing to mine for stories. Why not set an episode in our university? It is a real one, at least!
There is of course no reason the show should reflect real life, it is drama after all, but if you are going to complain about the lack of Welsh cultural projection outside Wales, one viewing of Hinterland would be enough to convince most people of its severe limitations.
What is stopping you making more accessible programmes for the outside world? Apart, that is, from Dr Who? I suspect it is in fact the paucity of subjects; the narrowness of the Welsh dimension, that is holding things back.
To be frank, Shetland is a more reliable series; more openly reflective seemingly of its island life, more rooted in its community yet open to the wider world; and is more intricately and densely plotted, better produced and more naturalistically written, with interesting, three-dimensional characters showing vitality and progression.
Hinterland by contrast is an unwelcome study in Welsh claustrophobia; introverted; stuck in its miseries*; under-cast, short on locations, short on plot and character development and trapped in its own narrow country lanes.
A national depression narrative…. How good an ambassador is that for Wales’ diverse culture, I wonder?
*’Miseries’ sounds like ‘miniseries’. An odd word you often come across in TV columns. It was honestly years before the penny dropped and I realised that the word meant ‘mini-series’. ‘Miniseries’ sounds ecclesiastical, perhaps from a prayer: ‘Lord, forgive them their miniseries’; a part of the Tridentine mass (Let us now proceed to the miniseries), or a description of some priestly vestments: ‘He appeared at the altar in fetching pink miniseries’….