Gareth Smith reviews the opening episodes of highly anticipated Welsh-made BBC One crime thriller, The Pact, in which a mysterious death and consequent pact of silence change the lives of four friends forever.
The Pact radiates a sense of déjà vu. From its opening shot of a frightened woman being pursued through the woods to its ‘group of friends haunted by shared secret’ narrative, very little feels original or novel. The characters, the plot and the tone will be achingly familiar to anyone who regularly watches televisual thrillers and, unfortunately, others have pulled it off with considerably more panache. The fact that there’s a sense of ‘going through the motions’ with The Pact isn’t necessarily a terrible quality — the overuse of these mysteries is a result of their dependable ability to entertain — but it does mean that there’s very little to get excited about.
The first episode does a lot of narrative heavy lifting in which characters awkwardly establish their relationships to one another for viewer benefit (‘You’re his Aunty for God’s sake’ is a particular highlight). We’re introduced to designated Main Character Anna (Laura Fraser) and her workmates Louie (Eiry Thomas), Nancy (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and Cat (Heledd Gwynn) at a brewery in South Wales. Their cartoonishly unpleasant boss Jack (Aneurin Barnard) manages to annoy each of them at a boozy works do, shortly before he attempts sexually assaulting Tish (Abbie Hern). The decisions that Anna and her friends make following this event cause their personal lives to unravel.
The central performances are strong, if occasionally let down by clunky dialogue, and bolstered by several familiar faces in supporting roles. Eddie Marsan is factory owner Arwel, although his appearance does commit the cardinal (and recurrent) TV sin of casting English actors with questionable accents to play Welsh characters. Rakie Ayola as the determined and unconventional DS Holland brings a playful humour to the drama that’s often lacking. Anna’s husband Max (Jason Hughes) and children (Aled ap Steffan and Gabrielle Creevy) aren’t given much to do yet, but Max’s position as a local police officer is bound to inform later episodes.
Expect all the cliches of a domestic noir thriller — threatening anonymous texts, secret woodland meetings and rampant paranoia — but there’s no sense of being tongue-in-cheek about the whipping out of these tropes. Some of them border on the unintentionally comical, such as the wealthy family living in a portrait and antique-laden house that looks like it belongs to the National Trust.
There is, of course, time for things to improve and for this false sense of security to be dramatically undermined. There are several characters who might provide surprising revelations over the remaining episodes. Cat, by far the funniest and most engaging character, has a background which remains vague besides a stretch in prison. The other is Nancy, whose happy-go-lucky persona might be hiding something more sinister.
It feels mean-spirited to criticise a show that makes great use of a predominantly Welsh cast and features local scenery to beautiful effect. Sadly, this makes everything all the more disappointing. These sorts of dramas aren’t going to disappear from our screens for a while yet but finding fresh angles on the genre does at least keep things interesting. In comparison, The Pact is a little stale.
BBC One‘s The Pact begins at 9pm on 17th of May.
Gareth Smith is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.