As the first episode of S4C’s new crime drama, Dal Y Mellt, hits our screens, Emma Schofield takes a closer look at what sets this new Welsh language offering apart.
There’s been an unprecedented amount of drama on our screens over the past year or two, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was high time for something a bit lighter. Enter Dal Y Mellt, S4C’s latest offering, based on the novel of the same name by Iwan ‘Iwcs’ Roberts and brought to life as a Welsh language crime drama.
Dal Y Mellt takes up residence in the popular Sunday night drama slot on the channel for the next six weeks, but the programming is pretty much all that is orthodox about this latest drama from S4C. The plot centres on Gwïon Morris Jones’ character, Carbo, a young car thief who quickly turns out to be a little less naïve than he initially seems. Fresh from a stint driving stolen cars from abroad for the Anhysbys gang (The Unknowns), an initially unwitting Carbo, finds himself embroiled in a whole new world of trouble when he’s rescued by garage owner Mici and his henchman, Les. It’s a whistlestop start to the drama, with a frankly dazzling array of characters and scene changes in the opening episode, which does require some concentration to piece together. It’s worth persevering with; as the episodes unfold these seemingly disparate pieces gradually start to link up and the net of characters are drawn closer together.
The fact that it’s possible to draw these disparate elements together is, in no small part, thanks to the strength of Dal Y Mellt’s cast. Gwïon Morris Jones makes the most of his first lead TV role and pitches the balance of confused low-level criminal and devious young car thief wanting to do something to change his life, just right to make it believable. Meanwhile, Mark Lewis Jones manages to delve beneath garage owner Mici’s quietly menacing outward appearance to reveal a character fighting his own battle with PTSD. Then there’s a brilliantly understated performance from Siw Hughes as Meri-Jên, the mother of Mici’s henchman Les, who easily lures Carbo into a trap in the opening episode. In the tangled world of criminal activity, taking place just below the surface of everyday life in Wales, it’s difficult not to find yourself secretly rooting for Carbo as he finds himself drawn ever deeper into a crime of a very different kind to stealing cars.
If it’s a violent crime thriller you’re looking for, you’re probably in the wrong place. For a crime drama, Dal Y Mellt is surprisingly low on blood, violence and well, crime. Most of the criminal activity we hear about in the programme takes place off screen, with the few scenes which actually contain some criminal activity mostly undercut by the gentle comedy which ran throughout Roberts’ novel. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, after all, the screenplay for Dal Y Mellt is extremely faithful to the novel. Nonetheless, there is something quite endearing about the way in which humour is used to diffuse scenes which could otherwise have felt quite sinister. Early on in the series we witness Carbo trying to escape from his position dangling upside down from a crane, while a bemused Mici and Les watch on. Likewise, there’s a sense of warmth in the connection which gradually builds between the characters, not least in the mutual respect which develops between Carbo and ringleader Gronw, played by Dyfan Roberts.
When I spoke to Iwan Roberts about the drama recently, he was understandably reluctant to draw comparisons to other dramas, instead wanting Dal Y Mellt to be able to stand on its own two feet. Stick with the series and you might begin to see why Roberts feels this way; Dal Y Mellt really isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen on S4C before. It’s pacy, funny and confident in a way that seems different to other dramas offered up by the channel in recent times. Much has been made of the fact that S4c were hoping to reach out to a new, potentially younger, audience with Dal Y Mellt and at a lot of points, it feels like that hope might just become a reality. Of course, as with most TV dramas, there are a few predictable moments. The plot builds towards what eventually turns out to be (spoiler alert), a diamond heist, hardly surprising given the continual references to “stones” in the planning for this event, which takes place throughout the series. Although even here a conclusion which could so easily have slid into clichéd territory is given a new angle with the heist taking place on board a ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea, against a backdrop of a lurching sea.
The setting may well be what ultimately sets Dal Y Mellt apart. While the action starts predominately on the streets of Cardiff, it resists the temptation to become yet another city-based crime thriller and quickly winds its way out into the picturesque countryside of Gwynedd. Here again, Roberts’ screenplay sticks closely to his original novel, with producer Llyr Morus taking advantage of the opportunity to juxtapose the glamour of an attempted diamond heist with the apparent calm of rolling countryside and rural farmland. The effect is completed by an original soundtrack from Sion Trefor, which adds to the sense that Dal Y Mellt marks a change in direction for crime drama from Wales. The world of TV is an unpredictable one and quite which way that direction might lead us all in next is anyone’s guess, but if it’s half as much fun to watch as Dal Y Mellt, I get the feeling audiences may well stick around for the ride.
You can catch Dal Y Mellt at 9pm on Sundays on S4C, or watch the whole series, with subtitles, on S4C Clic and BBC iPlayer after the first episode. Our interview with Iwan ‘Iwcs’ Roberts, about the series, is available here.