The history of Welsh television drama has few golden moments. Even recent “hit” shows such as Ty Gwyll/ Hinterland failed to maintain the energy and focus of its earliest episodes. Team Wales often mistakes huge marketing budgets for critical acclaim, and sometimes even equates ubiquitous poster campaigns for reciprocated love of the product. So it is particularly interesting to see a genuine diamond emerge from the coalface in the form of Keeping Faith when it has been announced with little more than a parp and some pavilion applause. Social media opinion has been a little more approving. There is a chance that it may become a hit forged in that great unknowable realm, talked about with awed suspicion by all marketing professionals: the land of the word of mouth.
Keeping Faith is a modest little thriller, the story of which busies itself around the compelling central character, a bravado performance by Eve Myles – one of those characters an actor will have been waiting for all their life. Perhaps a cliche, but it works here, that Myles has breathed life into Faith, not just delivered her lines and met her cues.
But let’s chuck out all of the rubbish first before we get to why Keeping Faith works so well. Keeping Faith is a dreadful title. The Welsh language version (this has been shot twice, as seems to be the way now in this age of austerity), is titled Un Bore Mercher – a much better invitation that suggests some literary weight, a simple subtle title. Keeping Faith means nothing. But it is more prime time television-ish. It is more bold, and a bit dumb. Eve Myles is Faith. Her name is Faith. Does she also have faith? If she does, it’s not really part of the story. Is she being kept? If so, how is she being kept? She is a compelling, witty, intelligent career-woman and mother. Is she hemmed in by life’s circumstances? Trapped? Imprisoned? This is a verb. Is the programme a manual or a call for help? Is it a loveless marriage? Everyone seems very interested that it is a sexless one. Is the “keeping” of the title referring to the obligations of a marital contract? Just what is the title supposed to mean? Is Faith keeping faith? In which case how does that work as a title? It’s a play on words. What what exactly is it playing with? The suspicion is, Welsh language viewers can be trusted to come to a drama with a lightly literary title, whereas BBC Wales viewers need something more in line with their simple needs. This is the story of a woman who has a role in the community. She may or may not be happy with the way things have worked out. We have a woman for you. We have a pun for you. Clever, isn’t it? What more could you ask for?
So it’s a bad title – no small thing in this day and age where so much elbows for attention. But this bad title is not misjudged or lazy, it is coolly calculated.
Secondly, the story is something of a MacGuffin. Faith’s husband, Evan, leaves for work one Wednesday morning and does not return. The drama is slow – it all happens in real time, a flip clock keeps us in line with where we are – and not entirely gripping or interesting. The support characters who flutter around Faith are at present poorly drawn – unless this all comes together into one big town-wide conspiracy at the end, then some characters’ behaviour is peculiarly insensitive and crass. Catherine Ayers as Lisa, Faith’s best friend, is the worst kind of shoulder to cry on whose answer to everything is to pour more wine. Luckily Faith resists this alcoholic desperate for addict comradeship, otherwise the programme would never get out of Faith’s kitchen. Evan’s family are an appalling bunch (apart from wise old dad-in-law Aneirin Hughes). Junior partner in the law firm Cerys Jones (Hannah Daniel) is playing the hard-faced-bitch stock character with such aplomb there is a danger of it slipping into pastiche.
In contrast, Eve Myles’ Faith is full of the colour of real life. She is flawed and brilliant, swirling between the tangible accomplishments of a fulfilling life and the draining realisation that life is about finding contentment and not happiness. As an audience we could not care less about what has happened to Evan, who he is mixed up with or what typically male failings he may have succumbed to. None of that matters. All that matters is how Faith reacts and grows and rises to the challenges as they develop. We would be just as compelled were Faith to be competing on the Krypton Factor. The plot of Evan’s disappearance is just a device. And so this well-drawn character, fully embodied by Myles, is a stark contrast to the avatars that otherwise inhabit her day.
So perhaps Faith is trapped after all; trapped in a small town full of one dimensional supporting characters. Perhaps the second half of the eight episode run slips into a delicious Pirandellian parable, about how Faith breaks out of the so-so drama she has been written into. Perhaps that’s where Evan is? We don’t see much of him before he disappears, so maybe he is just as nuanced and compelling and good company as Faith is, but he found a way to break out of the television set and escape. Perhaps we’re to find that Faith really is being kept after all, imprisoned by the lazy faddish production techniques of a British industry that has taken much of the style and little of the content of the American golden age.
Keeping Faith is a S4C and BBC One Wales production and is available now on BBC iPlayer.