Crime writer Alis Hawkins reviews the new Welsh TV cop thriller.
At first glance, Bang, S4C’s recently aired 8-part thriller (produced by Jojo and Artist Studio), looks like just another crime series. A murder. A gun. An investigation. Some cops. Their issues. But that isn’t what Bang is. Bang is more subtle and interesting than that. Bang is really an exploration of what happens to a weak man when he comes into possession of a gun.
When we first see Sam Jenkins he’s a boy on a beach watching his father surf. A boy who then sees his father shot dead by a hooded gunman. Fast forward twenty years to Sam the man. Except that he isn’t. Because Sam’s never really grown up. He escaped his mother’s second marriage to a bullying Scottish property developer to live with his grandmother – the wonderful Gillian Elisa – and he is still there in his late twenties, with no girlfriend, a dead-end warehouse job and an inability to take responsibility for his own life. And it’s his cowardice that provides the wholly believable set-up for the drama when he allows himself to be bullied by new neighbour Rhys Morris – played with skin-crawling brilliance by Matthew Aubrey – and, in a more subtle, seductive way, by Rhys’s girlfriend, Mel.
Mel brings a package to Sam and asks him to look after it for her. We know – because we’re seasoned crime show watchers – that it’s a gun. Mel, smarter than her grunge wardrobe and vicious boyfriend might suggest, decides on Sam not just because he’s weak and vulnerable to her overt sexuality but because she knows nobody will look in his house for a gun. Not with the Nan he’s got. Nor the sister. Because Sam’s sister, Gina (Catrin Stewart in sassy, savvy mode) is a police officer. And an ambitious one.
I’ve watched more crime dramas than is probably good for me, so it was obvious from the start that the series was going to come full circle and answer the question posed, at the very beginning, by Gwyn Jenkins’s historic, unsolved murder. Everything that happens as a result of the narrative’s precipitating event – the murder of dodgy car dealer Stevie Rose – is neatly caught up and tied off in the final episode.
But it’s not this narrative arc from lies and mystery to truth and understanding that’s the most interesting thing about this series. Nor is it the somewhat under-resourced and ineffectual police investigation. No, the most successful elements of Bang are more subtle.
First, there’s the series name. Apparently simple to the point of idiocy (you can imagine the hair-trigger, coked-up Rhys Morris coming up behind Sam and shouting it in his ear, then laughing like a hyena) the monosyllable speaks of the way in which single, uncomplicated actions can have multiple, unforeseen consequences. The bang of the single shot which kills Gwyn Jenkins – Sam and Gina’s father – has dictated the course of the siblings’ lives, while the shot which kills Stevie Rose and propels the murder weapon into Sam’s hands drives the whole 8-part narrative.
Then there’s the setting. Bang does that Scandi Noir trick of making the setting another character in the action. The grittily urban Port Talbot landscape represents the sordid ephemerality of the affairs of men whilst the sand dunes that simply shrug off their industrial hinterland and run down to the beach and the sea beyond stand for the immutability of nature and its implacability in the face of human corruption and death. In the first scene of episode 1, little Sam lays his head on his dead father’s chest and, with him, the camera looks out over a beach which has been there since the last Ice Age and will be there long after the steel town behind them has fallen into dust and ruins.
And the language. Perhaps I should have raised this first because, whilst the mix of Welsh and English used in the series is nothing more than a reflection of every day life for some of us, it’s not been done on S4C in quite this way before. Gina and her fellow DC Luke speak to each other in Welsh, with a fair sprinkling of English words and phrases. Their boss, the superintendant, speaks English to them, as does bully-boy Rhys. Sam’s nemesis, his step-father, Ray, not only speaks English but does it with a Scottish accent while most of the criminals, interestingly, speak Welsh. But theirs is ‘actual’ Welsh not ‘proper’ Welsh. And using that demotic in TV dialogue is a brave move because it seems likely to annoy the language purists while simultaneously running the risk of failing to pick up viewers from the huge swathe of Welsh speakers who say they never listen to Radio Cymru or watch S4C because they don’t understand half of it. It’s ‘media Welsh’ not the Welsh we speak.
I hope writer Roger Williams’s bravery has paid off in viewing figures because I think he’s done something important. Bang’s dialogue reflects a linguistic complexity and richness that’s only seen when a language is living and growing, filling new spaces in the world in an original and flexible way. Purists may abhor the way Welsh is changing but I love it – it means it’s alive and adapting to the way people live now, at the cutting edge.
But, for me, the most interesting thing, by far, about Bang is the weak and broken-spirited Sam. A man-child pushed about by everybody, even the Nan he loves.
Until he gets that gun.
Like all weak people, Sam is in awe of the powerful. And Jacob Ifan’s performance makes it tremblingly clear that the power of this gun is horribly, terrifyingly seductive. When it’s first thrust upon him, Sam hides it under his mattress, as if it were old-fashioned porn. And, just like a teenager with porn, he simply can’t help himself. He keeps taking it out and looking at it. Then he graduates to touching it, holding it, pointing it out of the window at Rhys Morris, its unacknowledged owner. In Jacob Ifan’s face, you can see Sam wondering what it would be like to squeeze the trigger and blow Rhys’s sneering head off.
Soon, Sam is carrying the gun around with him, increasingly reliant on the feeling of power and agency that it gives him. Like an addict, he becomes dependent, has to have the gun on him at all times. But its power is illusory because Sam is not prepared to use it and, in the end, the gun turns against him, setting him up to be hunted.
Despite the tidy end of episode 8, I have hopes of a Bang 2. A makeover for one of the characters in the final scene implies that more will be heard of her. And I’m sure that, if Roger Williams has any say in the matter, we won’t have seen the end of Catrin Stewart’s feisty Gina, either.
Bang is available with English subtitles on BBC iPlayer until the 7th of January.
Alis Hawkins is chair of Crime Cymru. For more information see: https://www.facebook.com/crimecymru/