Ed Thomas

In Conversation with Ed Thomas, Co-Creator of Y Gwyll/Hinterland

Ed Thomas is a writer, director, producer, playwright and co- creator of the hit Welsh police drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland. Since its debut in October last year, the gritty, gothic offering rooted deeply in the rich soil of the Ceredigion landscape has enjoyed huge success not only here in Wales but on the global stage also. Tapping into the dark vein of the Nordic Noir phenomenon, and building on the success of American series such as True Detective, the drama, filmed in both Welsh and English has been broadcast on S4C, BBC Wales, BBC 4, and shown in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland, has been picked up by Netflix and streamed online to American and Canadian audiences. A second series is currently in production, to be shown initially on S4C and then BBC Wales next year. Cerith Mathias met Ed Thomas in his Cardiff Bay office.

Cerith Mathias: How did the idea Hinterland come about? Was it a Welsh response to Nordic Noir, or does the idea pre-date that?

Ed Thomas: We pitched the idea to S4C some 5 years ago that every grown up channel should have a detective to call their own. They liked that idea and straightaway we said if you’re going to do this properly then it’s going to need a proper budget. S4C were really good partners from the outset, they said we cannot fund it entirely but we would like you to go out into the marketplace and find a co-producer. So that was the start of the journey. Then it took two and a half, nearly three years to raise the finance, that led us down lots of blind alleys, lots of travel, lots of disappointment but eventually we got All3Media on board. We knew if we could pitch to them a genre specific project like a detective, which is the biggest selling genre globally, it might be a way of bringing a cultural specificity we wanted for Y Gwyll/ Hinterland – set it in Ceredigion a place that hardly anybody in the UK knows, which would be authentic in the Welsh language, would be ‘other’ in the English language and then team up with S4C’s support to find a distributor who bought into that and would be keen to pick it up. Since that day they have been terrific partners, they have invested in the project heavily and we would have never made it without them. That brought on BBC Wales and then BBC 4 and then that kind of momentum, which S4C started off. So it’s all about partnership, all about co-production, all about people buying into a thing which had always been historically difficult – anything with Welsh in it or Welsh accents has been for many years a no-no. As drama makers in Wales, we are massively frustrated at the stereotypes that are still pedalled. It’s about giving voice to a devolved cultural identity, being confident about that, exporting an idea of a many voiced Welshness, rather than one kind of national stereotype.

Did you start out with a clear idea of what you wanted from Y Gwyll/ Hinterland? Its style and feel along with the use of the landscape all meld together to act as a perfect metaphor for the characters inner turmoil – how do you plan that?

It’s a state of mind, as well as a physical thing. It’s largely a plan, but then it evolves like any good plan and you have to listen. We definitely wanted to make it in a place in Wales where it was authentic to a Welsh-speaking audience that the key cast would speak Welsh. Within that we protected the Welsh language; for example there are never briefings in Welsh because in the real world the briefings would be done in English. Being authentic is subjective often, but to us we thought we all believe we can set it in Ceredigion and these guys can speak Welsh and when they go into the hills they look like Canadian vets rather than coppers; that was a decision. Ed Talfan is the co-creator with me and we’re not genre freaks but we’d read voraciously in terms of the genre and we’d consumed a fair amount like everybody else and that led to the second decision. We knew our strength wouldn’t be making it procedural; we were using the genre, a cop show, to tell stories about Wales. Really it’s a love letter to a disappearing Wales, so in ten years’ time it’ll feel like Hinterland was thirty years ago because of the link with that timeless landscape. He (central character DCI Tom Mathias) is either in the hills or in Aberystwyth, nobody falls in love in Lidl, it doesn’t exist because that makes it too British and too concrete. So a lot of the key things of how it might be were designed from the outset, which All3Media found quite exciting because they said they didn’t care how gritty the stories became, as long as the scale was big. Well, we can deliver in scale! I told them I’m a Sam Shepard freak, he’s a playwright I really admire, and I envy him because he can work within the American dream. Well you know we can give it that kind of space too, so that was something All3Media proved to be terrific partners with, they weren’t afraid of that.

Is the production itself all based in Ceredigion?

The plan was that we would probably be only able to afford to shoot the pretties, as they’re known, in Aberystwyth and shoot all the interiors in Cardiff and the surrounding area – that would be the most cost effective way. But we’ve done nearly 100 hours of drama in Cardiff and we’ve shot the interiors of that inside out so in terms of a creative option, it wasn’t terrific. When we went and recced locations for story one, the art department and the locations manager all sat down and said everything is here, if we can afford to we can bring the whole job lot here. So the biggest and best decision we made was to think ‘let’s take it all up there’; because, for example, in film two we walk into a farm where the man is still wrapping his rafters in newspaper, in Shoreditch that would be chi-chi now. That’s the kind of collision of ideas that’s brilliant. We walked in, paid the location fee to the farmer and we just shot it there. And that’s happened time and time again. But I don’t think if we’d stuck to the original plan we’d have ended up with the Hinterland we’ve eventually finished up with. A lot of people are comfortable with that fictional authenticity.

How involved in the area are you as a team?

We knew if we were going to locate up there we’d need a lot of support, we’d need support from the council and they were really keen. We use the exterior police station in the old civic office. The University were pleased to have us, we then got access to their cultural building where the interior of the police station is shot and there are other properties in terms of us having access to filming there. In return for that their students get access. They visit the set for a week, they can go to the art department, sound department, camera, acting, so that is a reciprocal arrangement I think is a good one and that’s really developing well. In series two it’s gained momentum, similarly with the extras. In series one, eight people turned up to Aberystwyth rugby club, but now six or seven hundred signed up for it, which creates excitement – there are Hinterland tours. So all those things are breaking new ground.

Speaking of new ground, as we’ve already touched upon the series has set many precedents in terms of broadcasting partnerships and co-working. Do you think this could be a new model for drama production in Wales?

I’d love it to be because broadcasting is changing so quickly. There was a period about ten years ago where all shows, if you made them in France or Italy, New Zealand or America, they all looked the same. Now there is a niche. We’re happy in the niche we’ve created, but that niche can be followed, because I don’t think the world’s scared anymore of something which is culturally unique or specific. As long as the stories and the characters and the world of the story is attractive enough, then it will have a universal appeal. The trick is making sure that Wales itself understands the possibility of a global market. It’s fair enough talking that we could speak to Netflix, to HBO, to somewhere in France or Germany, we’ve done all that, but the real matter is the investment at home has to be realistic and partnerships on our home turf in our cultural industry from broadcasters to the Welsh Government and other parties have to really work together and understand the value of it culturally and the cost of it financially. It would be disastrous if Hinterland was the only thing we did and it stopped and we couldn’t get anything else off the ground. The opportunity is there, it’s got to be cohesive and it’s got to have vision and it’s got to have proper investment. It would be great to understand what a devolved voice means in terms of a cultural voice on telly, film, theatre. We won’t grow unless local partners are aware of the possibilities we have.

The series is filmed in both Welsh and in English, what kinds of challenges does that present?

Well, I’m directing tomorrow morning. So, 8am start, I’ll come in, block the actors then literally we do it shot by shot. So, shot one is for argument’s sake in English; when we’re happy with that we’ll do that shot in Welsh, and when we’re happy with that shot then we’ll stay in Welsh for shot two and then when shot two is completed in Welsh then we’ll do it in English, staying in English for shot three. So visiting actors find it quite tough and our four leads found it difficult in the interview room scenes that are dialogue heavy – that’s a real challenge, but now they’re up to speed with it.

Is there a difference between the Welsh and English versions? And do you have a preference?

I think there’s a difference. Personally I like cutting the shape of it in English. Then I put the Welsh version into that shape and massage it into place. Similarly then, when that’s done and when I then come back to the English one it feels different, even though it’s the same cut. If you look at them both I think the English language is far more concrete and direct, there is a knowledge of this genre in English from the Americans. So straightaway a cop show equals English. So there is a gear change when you see a cop show in Welsh, but instead of looking at that as a handicap if you accept that our attempts at authenticity and not doing things in Welsh that would suspend disbelief too much then it’s just a different shift. The kinds of stories we can make in Hinterland is quite narrow. It’s not going to be a massive international drugs bust story or fast moving. It’s dictated by the locals and that’s blood, belonging, history, families, loss, loneliness and the landscape.

What are your cultural influences and how do they play out in Y Gwyll/ Hinterland?

I wrote a play years ago called House of America, I’ve always been obsessed by space. I lived not far from Banwen and it just looked like a flat kind of Utah to me and I’ve never forgotten that. And the obsession with Sam Shepard I mentioned, so I knew that sometimes when you put these people, the rural poor, in some stories and into this landscape and take the volume down – are we really in Minnesota, Missouri, Ceredigion or Fochriw? Because, put a wide lens on it – it’s interesting. And because we’ve had our tropes and our heroes, that’s inevitably going to feed into how we perceive our own culture. We constantly reference The Searchers, High Plains Drifter and more. Some people call it myth – if we avoid any references to the now and avoid shopping malls, inevitably we’re trying to make it timeless. Timeless fits into space; space dictates pace of story and those kind of things. We wanted it to feel like – here’s an iPad, here’s a farmer who’s 92, put the contradiction together. So we’re not anti-modern, but it’s a contradiction we want to use, because it is the contradiction of the modern world. We’re not gloomy about the future of Wales, but probably Mathias is.

And you’re currently filming the second series now?

There’s a special Y Gwyll that goes out on New Year’s and then BBC Wales will follow that, have the same film in English and the second series will come out in September. We’ll be filming until June, it takes six weeks to shoot one film and we’ve got five of them to do so we’ll have done two before Christmas and then three after.

What can we expect from the second series?

We didn’t want to give everything away about the characters all at once. We will reveal a little more, but there are surprises in the new series because it needs to evolve – it’s a second album, it needs to evolve. We’ll bleed in more details of the characters as we go along. We had a plan with Richard (Harrington – the series lead) at the outset to do thirteen of them and series two will bring us up to nine episodes and we’d love to be able to see it through.

So there is an endpoint? You know how it ends?

There is an endpoint. There is an arc, there are ideas but this is a people show, so when actors come in with a great idea, we can’t burn that. Richard gets the script early, because he is the lead and he always wants to know what’s happening. And you always want to collaborate with the actors, and if they’ve got a part in one of the films where they’re not the killer but we really liked them, inevitably that sticks in your mind and the thought of is there a way of welding in that stuff? So we’re always on the look-out for that and making sure that as much as our plan is good, that we never sacrifice great ideas on the altar of that plan. The plan can change. It’s got be organic. But we have an ending, yes.

Y Gwyll returns to S4C for a special episode on New Year’s Day.

 original illustration by Dean Lewis