Matthew Hall, writer of Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), tells DQ about his journey to bring the series to air and the importance of intimacy and location in television drama.
If ever proof were needed that water-cooler TV still exists in today’s streamer-dominated television landscape, Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) is it.
The eight-part Welsh-language series debuted on S4C in November last year, before a version combining Welsh and English launched on co-commissioner BBC Wales in February this year.
The series drew 300,000 viewers to its weekly episodes on BBC1 Wales, the highest audience for a non-network drama shown in Wales for more than 20 years. It then went on to become a record-breaker on BBC on-demand service iPlayer, with 9.5 million requests to view the series so far – the highest ever recorded for any non-network show on the BBC – leading the broadcaster to extend the availability of the show online.
Such was the demand that the series was then promoted to BBC1, launching last month to 2.9 million – beating this summer’s other must-watch series, Love Island.
Un Bore Mercher, an eight-part drama set in Carmarthenshire, stars Eve Myles (Torchwood) as lawyer, wife and mother Faith, who fights to find the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her husband. She comes to discover that her idyllic hometown harbours many dark secrets that threaten the lives of her and her family, while her ordeal transforms Faith rom a stay-at-home, fun-loving and carefree mother to detective, action hero and lover.
The show’s shift to BBC1 and its iPlayer statistics are very much a bonus for writer Matthew Hall, who spent more than four years developing Un Bore Mercher for S4C, with producer Vox Productions securing additional financing from BBC Wales, Nevision and distributor About Premium Content (APC).
But throughout the writing and production process, Hall was adamant the show would retain two things: its intimacy and its geographic specificity.
“The US shows I’ve admired the most are all incredibly intimate, in that you’re up close with the protagonist most of the time,” the writer says, highlighting series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, two seminal shows that he describes as being both gangster drama and intimate study of family.
“In Britain our tradition is theatrical, so television is ultimately a descendant of the theatre, and everything is more arms-length and dialogue-driven [than in the US]. I just wanted to get away from that and because I worked with Pip Broughton, the director and producer, from the very beginning, we understood each other exactly. We had a completely joint vision by the time it came to filming.”
Meanwhile, the South Wales location “is very much my part of the world,” Hall says, explaining that setting a drama in a specific place adds credibility and a universality to the storytelling. “So much of television takes place in a generic location, particularly in Britain, and we’ve seen London and Manchester so much. I was just determined it would be in a small town. Some of the drama I’ve admired has that small-town setting, so Fargo was very much on my mind during the writing. And the moment you do that, you’ve got idiosyncratic speech patterns, which adds another layer of authenticity and belief in where you are.”
The series and the character of Faith herself emerged from Hall’s desire to dramatise the conflict many women face when trying to balance their home life and their career. “I’d wanted a character in Faith who had done some of that, who was a professional and capable of achieving a huge amount in the world but was also incredibly maternal,” he explains. “I just felt that was not a dilemma I’d seen much of.
“Mythological stories often end with women living happily ever after – but what if she already is living happily ever after and we take that all away from her? It’s kind of like, what does a woman want from life? That’s one of the questions the series is asking. What does she want from life and what is she capable of? I’m not making a political point, I’m just making a character who’s in the middle of a dilemma.”
Development was a year along when the ambition surfaced to follow Welsh noir drama Hinterland’s two-track production process, producing the series both in Welsh and bilingual Welsh-English versions. But it was a further two years, Hall recalls, before the BBC and APC were secured and the budget was raised to a level to support both ‘home’ and international versions.
The jewel in the crown, however, was Myles herself. The actor – whose other credits include Broadchurch, Victoria and recent miniseries A Very English Scandal – was “an absolutely critical part” of getting the production off the ground. “We have this issue where there’s only a very small pool of Welsh-speaking actors and the commercial reality is you have to have some headline name in the show to sell it abroad,” Hall admits. “Eve was absolutely critical and she completely embodied the spirit of the character. The major obstacle was she didn’t speak Welsh at that point, so she had to learn it.”
Similarly, Hall is not a Welsh speaker, though he is learning too. Anwen Huws oversaw the Welsh translation of the scripts, which Hall had had the luxury of writing all at once, rather than in two or three batches.
“That’s virtually unheard of in television. Normally something gets commissioned on the back of a couple of scripts and the rest get written in a rush,” Hall admits. “But I was able to write eight fairly carefully and plot them through. It was actually quite a rigorous development process. By the time Pip and I had been through that – you’re talking 500 pages of scripts – we had a very close understanding of the tone of the thing. The scripts resemble movie scripts more than traditional TV scripts – there’s fewer words in them but that’s because the surer you are of tone, the fewer words it takes to express it. It should be absolutely effortless to read a screenplay, and that was my objective.”
Such was the popularity of Un Bore Mercher on iPlayer that BBC Wales announced in April that scripts for a second season were in development, with Hall once again overseeing the story. But it’s not the story for a follow-up that he has had in mind since before the first season aired. Rather, it is the characters’ emotional arcs that he has already worked out and will now flesh out before filming restarts this autumn.
“I’ve had emotional arcs for season two and season three, which are more important than story arcs,” the writer adds. “Story is something that facilitates your emotional journey. If you know emotionally what you want your character to go through, where they begin and where they end, then you can strap a story to it to deliver that. There are a few things in my mind where I can see where Faith could go.”
Filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English, eight-part drama Keeping Faith (Un Bore Mercher) tells the story of lawyer, wife and mother Faith (Eve Myles) as she fights to find the truth behind the sudden disappearance of her husband.
She comes to discover that her idyllic hometown, set on the estuary, harbours many dark secrets that threaten her and her family’s lives. Faith’s ordeal transforms her from a stay-at-home, fun-loving and carefree mother to detective, action hero and lover. She takes risks and gambles and finds a new inner strength.
The series debuted on Welsh-language channel S4C before launching on BBC1 Wales. Work is now underway on a second season, with BBC Wales putting a script into development.
In this DQTV video, Myles reveals the appeal of playing a flawed character such as Faith and talks about how she prepared for the energetic role and built relationships with her on-screen family.
The actor also talks about how she had been disillusioned with acting until the chance to star in Keeping Faith came along, and how director Pip Broughton kept her out of her comfort zone during the production.
With an eye on the future, Myles outlines what she looks for when she accepts a role and explains why she enjoys being challenged when she goes on set.
Keeping Faith is produced by Vox Pictures for S4C and BBC Wales and is distributed by About Premium Content. APC’s financial partnerUK-based Nevision gap-financed the show.
Dark and broody drama Craith (Hidden) looks set to keep the international spotlight firmly on Welsh drama. Co-creator Ed Talfan discusses making the bilingual crime series, which goes against the grain by revealing its villain from the beginning.
The landscapes in North Wales are breathtaking. With lush green hills and mountains standing on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, overlooking the Menai Strait, a stretch of water that separates the mainland and the island of Anglesey, the region must be a director’s dream.
Point the camera in any direction and the scale and atmosphere of the environment surely fills the lens. At least it would if you could see it. On the wintry November day DQ travels to Anglesey to visit the set of S4C drama Craith (known as Hidden in English), the weather is biblical. Rain and gale-force winds are lashing down on anyone that dares to stray outside, turning roads into rivers and largely hiding the towering peaks from view.
Unperturbed, the cast and crew soldier on, seemingly unaware of the conditions surrounding them. The day’s filming is taking place at the Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) Garage, which offers passing motorists the chance to refuel and pick up supplies from the small shop adjacent to the forecourt, found a short drive from the village of Dwyran.
When the cameras start rolling, a small blue van pulls up in front of the shop. Inside sit a man and a young girl, Dylan Harris and his daughter Nia. After a short conversation, Dylan gets out of the van and comes into the shop, its shelves stocked with a range of household items and an array of Welsh flags adorning all corners of the single room.
It’s a small but important scene, providing a window into the home life of Dylan, who, in contravention of typical murder-mystery rules, is revealed at the start to be the show’s villain.
The story juxtaposes the viewpoint of Dylan, played by Rhodri Meilir, with that of DCI Cadi John (Siân Reese-Williams), a police officer drawn back to her childhood home due to her father’s ill health. But after the body of a local woman is found in a remote mountain river, her world – and the world of those around her – is changed forever when it transpires there may have been more than one abduction.
Produced by Severn Screen for S4C and BBC Wales, the gritty crime drama is executive produced by co-creators Mark Andrew and Ed Talfan. The producer is Hannah Thomas and the series is distributed globally by All3Media International.
“Dylan’s a guy who’s had a terrible lot in life,” explains Talfan. “He’s had a very difficult domestic situation and comes from a family that’s toxic. The series doesn’t seek to use that as an excuse for what he does; he pays the price for what he does. Hopefully across the series we see a portrait of somebody who is in his own agony and inflicting that agony on others.
“There are moments, particularly in the first half of the series, where what comes across is a vulnerability and, within that, there is a flicker of likability, which is uncomfortable – it should be uncomfortable – but in the same way the best baddies always have their own charisma about them. We spend a lot of time investing in him and the world he inhabits because often these characters are people at the fringes of the drama. We just wanted to go on a journey with him.”
In contrast, Talfan describes former army officer DCI John as a straight-talking detective who’s comfortable in her own skin and extremely good at her job.
“There’s a version of the crime genre where detectives have super powers, these magic moments where they’re better than everybody else,” Talfan continues. “Cadi is someone who’s bloody good at her job, is really hardworking and does the hard yards. All the police you talk to, it’s not about eureka moments. It’s about putting the work in and actually visiting the evidence, revisiting it and being like a dog with a bone. There’s a tenacity in her that’s real, rather than a Captain Underpants flies in and says, ‘I know what the problem is here.’ For me, that’s reductive and a bit tedious.”
The creative approach to the series is a far cry from 2013 Welsh drama Y Gwyll (Hinterland), which has gone on to become a global success. Many of the crew who worked on that show have now reunited for Craith, which dispels Hinterland’s case-of-the-week format.
Talfan, who also co-created Hinterland, says it was clear from the outset that they didn’t want to conceal the killer in Craith. “That’s not the game we’re playing,” he explains. “We’re up front very early on about who the abductor is and the question is getting to understand that character because he’s not just a two-dimensional evil-doer. We get to understand his world and see how he works and how he lives alongside his mother and his daughter, and the dynamic that unfolds when he loses a girl [who becomes the first victim], which is what kicks the series off, and then abducts a new victim. It’s a portrait of an unfolding crime from the point of view of the police and the criminal.”
Part of the reason behind following this format was a desire to do something completely different to Hinterland, in a way that allowed the creators to delve deeper into the cast of characters than is usually possible in a single 90-minute procedural.
“It was great to be able to get a really good ensemble and know that all of those characters were going to travel across eight hours,” Talfan says. “It made it more fun to write, more fun for the actors to play and more satisfying for the directors as well, because they sometimes find it frustrating when they’ve got a visiting actor who’s got two days on set in which to film four scenes.”
While the story format differs between Craith and Hinterland, the two dramas are united by the way they are shot, with filming taking place back-to-back in Welsh and English. The Welsh version will debut on S4C on January 7, 2018, before a bilingual version airs later in the year on BBC Wales. BBC4, which previously acquired Hinterland, has already snapped up rights to Craith and will also air the bilingual version in 2018.
Quite simply, each shot is filmed in Welsh and then, if required, it is immediately repeated in English. “It’s an organic process that comes from the creators,” Talfan says, noting that there are no stipulations requiring a certain amount of the bilingual version should be in English.
“Actually, certain characters in the story world will speak Welsh and some won’t. So you might have an episode that balances 60/40 English but then you might have one episode that is considerably more Welsh, just because that’s where the story is at. It’s true bilingualism, rather than a country where some people speak English and some people speak Welsh.”
Notably, some scenes play out with no dialogue at all, but that wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid reshoots, Talfan insists. “It’s genuinely the kind of drama Mark and myself and director Gareth [Bryn] love, so those elements are shot once. For me personally, because my experience of being Welsh is bilingual, if you were making a single version it would possibly be the bilingual version because that’s reflective of how I live in the country. But there are people in Wales who speak Welsh pretty much all the time and you may find some programme makers would love to make solely Welsh programming.”
Development began in December 2015, with Andrew leading a scriptwriting team that includes award-winning Welsh novelist Caryl Lewis and Bafta Cymru-winning writer Jeff Murphy. Treatments and a script bible were completed in 2016, with all eight scripts finished by early 2017.
“It’s been quite intense,” Talfan admits, though he describes shooting in North Wales as a joy, despite the changeable weather. “We shot some of the series in South Wales for practical cost reasons and then some of it in North Wales, so those are the logistical challenges. Then because it’s a bilingual show, you need a bilingual cast and we’re always trying to bring in new faces. You’ve got no baggage with them [from previous roles] so you surrender to the characters. Celebrity casting applies to a lot of high-end drama. I understand why it happens, and there are very good reasons for it, but there’s a lovely sense of quality between the ensemble and the fact the audience don’t know them.”
Since its launch in 2013, Hinterland has certainly helped to put Welsh drama on the map, drawing comparisons to the wave of Nordic noir crime dramas over the last decade. But beyond the creative or production process, Talfan says the biggest game-changer for Welsh drama in the post-Hinterland landscape has been a psychological one.
“If we wanted to do something with a certain level of ambition, which requires a certain level of budget, we would always go to London and ask a broadcaster for their support and the green light,” he explains. “If for any reason they passed, usually you would get back on the train to Cardiff and think the project was dead in the water. But on Hinterland, the thing that changed everything was the back-to-back production that had first been done in the early 90s and doing it in tandem with a partner like All3, because they could see the show would sell and they believed in how we would deliver it.
“It’s completely changed how we approach projects now. If you get a ‘no’ from one organisation, you don’t think all your work’s in the bin; you think there is a way of financing this, you just need to be internationally minded and look at where those partnerships are. So for people working in the regions, it’s been hugely important because it used to feel like you could only get a ‘yes’ out of London. It doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
A seriously dark, broody and compelling drama, Craith is well placed to repeat Hinterland’s international success and, together with other recent S4C dramas such as Bang and Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), ensure the international spotlight continues to shine on Welsh drama, whatever the weather.
Hinterland gave Welsh-language drama recognition on the international stage. Now, writer Roger Williams hopes to repeat that show’s success with Bang, a taut bilingual thriller set and filmed in the town of Port Talbot.
When it first aired in 2013, Y Gwyll (Hinterland) marked a watershed moment for Welsh drama. Capitalising on the moody visuals also seen in Nordic noir hits, the series was filmed simultaneously in Welsh and English as part of a deal between broadcasters S4C and BBC Wales.
Distributor All3Media International subsquently sold the crime series, which ran for three seasons, to Netflix, ARD (Germany), KRO (Netherlands), NRK (Norway), YLE (Finland), VRT (Belgium), RTV (Slovenia), Dizale (France) and DR (Denmark).
S4C and BBC Wales have now ordered two follow-ups, Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) and Craith (Hidden), both of which will be filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English.
But before those programmes air on S4C in November this year and January 2018 respectively, the Welsh-language broadcaster is going solo on another original series that aims to follow in Hinterland’s successful footsteps.
Bang, created and written by Roger Williams, is the story of loner Sam (Cuffs star Jacob Ifans), whose life is transformed when he comes into possession of a gun and starts to break the law. Meanwhile, his ambitious police officer sister, Gina (Stella’s Catrin Stewart), is on a mission to find the owner of the weapon, against the backdrop of the shooting of a local man that raises questions for Sam and Gina about their father’s murder.
From the opening episode, which debuts this Sunday, Bang is a gripping thriller that slowly unwraps Sam’s decent into a life of crime, reflecting his own hope for a better life with that of Gina, who is constantly seeking a higher role in the local police force.
“For a long time, I have felt like a lot of Welsh drama doesn’t really tackle story. It has been about the aesthetic of the show and tends to be very slow in that Nordic way,” creator and writer Williams says, admitting he hadn’t aspired to write a crime drama when he first started Bang. “But one of the things that made this project attractive was the idea that we’ve got a gun that comes in and changes people’s lives in a very human and hopefully real way.”
Eyeing the new status Welsh drama enjoys in international circles, Williams was keen make the series accessible to non-Welsh speakers. From the outset, however, his company Joio and production partner Artists Studio (The Fall) knew they didn’t want to follow the Hinterland model, which involved essentially making the show twice on the same budget.
That meant Williams wrote his bilingual script in a naturalistic way, mirroring the blend of Welsh and English that is used in day-to-day life in Port Talbot, the South Wales town where the series was filmed and set.
The production took over a disused building beside the town’s railway station and turned it into a production office with room for edit suites and the make-up, hair and art departments, firmly rooting the series within the community that would form the backdrop of the eight-episode drama.
“We didn’t do that thing where we went down there for a couple of weeks and only shot certain scenes,” explains Williams. “We decided we were going to establish ourselves in the town, so we moved in in March and just finished in August. We very much wanted to root ourselves in the town because, for me, Port Talbot is a very important character within the series.
“This is a town that, for the majority of people, the only relationship they have with it is when they travel on the M4 motorway over the town. They don’t really go into the town or visit the seafront. It was very important to us that we saw the area and the town and found those places that people haven’t necessarily seen on TV before. That becomes important then when you’re trying to give it an identity for an international audience.”
When Williams first began developing the show, it was set in an unspecified location. But the writer’s connection to Port Talbot – he has lived there for 12 years – meant it became a natural setting for the drama that plays out.
Describing the decision to place the series in Port Talbot, Williams echoes some of the sentiments made by UK journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow during his MacTaggart lecture at last month’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, where he spoke about the media’s responsibility to reflect a greater level of diversity.
“I was down on the beach one day with the dog, looked up and thought, ‘I haven’t seen this place on TV. I haven’t seen this environment on TV,’ and I saw an opportunity to be the first to reimagine the town in a TV drama,” says Williams. “One of the things I learned very quickly was if we had any hope of [Bang] being an international success, it needed that visual identity, and that sense of place then becomes very important.
“What people generally think about when they think of Welsh TV is Hinterland and these wonderful vistas and views and landscapes. The challenge for us, then, was going in a different direction. For people who live in South Wales generally, Port Talbot is a place they don’t know about, and that certainly fed into this idea that it’s a place of secrets, a place where, under that motorway, there are things going on that you don’t know about.”
Williams speaks of a creative harmony on set that is central to the founding principle of Joio, which takes its name from the Welsh word that roughly translates to ‘enjoyment.’ “One of the things that drove us to set up the company was that we wanted to allow creative people to get on with what they do well. Certainly from the feedback I’ve had from the people who worked on the show for us, it was a very pleasant change from the way other companies operate,” he says.
“We very much brought on people we knew were capable, talented and creative and then gave them permission to create in a way they wanted to, and that’s something we’ve done with every single project.”
A former chairman of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, Williams is already developing a second season of Bang, which would continue to follow the “unfinished business” between Sam and Gina while still set in Port Talbot. In fact, he says he has imagined what happens to the siblings over three seasons – and believes writers should spend more time future-gazing when it comes to bringing a new drama to television.
“Often writers do that trick of not knowing where it’s going to go, creating uncertainty and an opportunity to go somewhere surprising in the second or third season, but they haven’t actually worked out where they’re going to go,” he says. “So when they get to it, it’s never going to be that satisfactory because you don’t have the same plan that you did for the first season. I spent two-and-a-half years on this project and I know the second season, if it happens, won’t have the same gestation. So a lot of people chuck a curveball in at the end and it becomes a bit of a curse as they move forward and have to write the second or third season.”
Series in the US, however, have a better sense of momentum, as writers are often challenged to map out where the show will head in later seasons.
“We don’t generally do that in the UK,” Williams continues. “There’s that thing of development hell that a lot of writers find themselves in because it takes two, three or four years to get that commission. You get it and the show’s successful, and then the commissioner is like, ‘Right, let’s have another one.’ The writer is often so exhausted having produced that amount of work under that much scrutiny.”
For now, at least, Williams is hopeful Bang can become the next international hit series to come out of Wales and continue Hinterland’s legacy, with Banijay Rights on board as the international distributor.
“Hinterland was a bit of a game-changer,” Williams adds. “There are three shows being made for S4C at the moment and they’ve all got distributors attached, so there’s a definite change in the way people are looking at the work that’s coming out of Wales.”
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
A new political drama dares to go where James Bond couldn’t – the corridors of power at the Welsh Assembly. Michael Pickard reports.
When film fans flock to cinemas to see the latest James Bond release later this year, one prominent location will be missing from the action.
Spectre’s producers had hoped to stage some scenes inside the Welsh Assembly Government’s main debating chamber, known as the Siambr, but their initial enquiries were knocked back.
Since then, however, the producers of a new political drama have taken advantage of an offer to film in public areas of the assembly, the Senedd, which will be the setting for a series that imagines what life would be like in Wales under a ruling rainbow coalition of parties.
Byw Celwydd (cast members pictured above), which translates as Living a Lie, sees the country run by parties called The Democrats, The Nationalists and New Conservatives, with the Socialists in opposition, creating a bitter rivalry where tensions are never far from boiling point.
In particular, it follows journalist Angharad Wynne, played by Cath Ayers, as she tries to uncover political scandals and secrets within the Welsh Senedd.
The cast also includes Richard Elfyn (Stella) as the prime minister, Broadchurch alumnus Matthew Gravell, Sara Lloyd Gregory and Mark Lewis Jones.
Producer Branwen Cennard, who collaborated with writer Meic Povey on the series, says: “S4C were incredibly keen to do a political drama. The assembly is very well established so there was a feeling we should do something.
“It’s been very interesting because I started working on it two years ago, before the Scottish independence election, and before the UK general election, so we had to imagine what the world would be like in 2016, when the series will air. I decided to go for a coalition government in Wales, which has happened, but this is a rainbow coalition, which hasn’t quite happened yet.
“So ours is a purely fictional political landscape, but it’s hugely interesting. I’m hoping that because it is a rainbow coalition and because the Socialists are in opposition – forcing us to look at everything from a completely different angle to what the reality is – it will appeal politically to a broad spectrum of the audience.”
Cennard says that when creating the Welsh-language series, she and Povey, along with scriptwriter Sian Naomi, had to remain politically balanced to avoid painting any one party as the villain of the piece.
“It’s been interesting because obviously you have to have conflict to create drama, and you’ll never get more conflict that you would in a rainbow coalition,” she says. “The marriage between the elements we need to create drama and the elements that occur naturally from politics has, hopefully, been successful.”
Cennard’s Tarian production company will see Byw Celwydd launch in the wake of another hit drama for S4C, Teulu, which has finished after five seasons. The show was a family saga set in the Welsh seaside town of Aberaeron.
Byw Celwydd is also designed as a returning series, but that doesn’t mean viewers can expect a cliffhanger ending at the end of its initial eight-part run, which will take over S4C’s Sunday 21.00 slot in January 2016.
“We decided it would be very unfair and unsatisfying for viewers, and for us as well,” says Cennard. “We haven’t quite done it but the main character – the Welsh political editor for our fictional TV news channel – her raison d’être is to find the truth and expose it. But she is sitting on a dark and deadly secret of her own, and that’s what drives her story. She comes face to face with her past in episode one in the most shocking way. By the end of the series, you know what her dark and chequered past actually is.”
Episodic storylines will also cover topical issues at the heart of Welsh politics, such as education and health, which come under devolved powers from the UK Government.
“In other episodes we’ve gone for a more tabloid scandal element with someone involved a car crash. They’re over the (drink-drive) limit with someone from another party who they shouldn’t be in the car with, and we look at how that affects their careers,” Cennard reveals. “With our Democrats, in the first episode the leader is discovered dead and there’s a leadership election. We’ve gone for a situation with a husband-and-wife team where the husband assumes he is the heir apparent and it will be his job. The wife is persuaded to stand against him, and wins.
“I’m Welsh, the writer’s Welsh, we work in Wales, it’s in Welsh. It’s not a case of making it Welsh, it is Welsh. We bring with us a very strong identity and hopefully that will shine through.”
A rainbow coalition of political parties, a female political leader and a journalist digging up dirt on the political establishment? These elements will inevitably lead to comparisons with another political drama, the hit Danish series Borgen.
“I watched Borgen and I was a huge fan,” says Cennard. “We wanted to do something that was inherently Welsh and feels possible to the Welsh audience. Of course, there are similarities (with Borgen). They had special advisors and journalists as well, so you can’t pretend it hasn’t influenced us. It has, but hopefully Byw Celwydd will stand on its own two feet.”
Cennard started in the television business as a junior script editor for producer Peter Edwards’ company Lluniau Lliw, the firm behind drama Noson yr Heliwr (aka A Mind to Kill), starring Philip Madoc. Twenty years ago, she produced her first series, Iechyd Da, which was set in an environmental health office in the Rhondda Valley.
Other credits include Belonging, an English-language series for BBC Wales that starred a pre-Torchwood Eve Myles.
“The premise of Iechyd Da was that you had a north Walian guy move to south Wales to work in this environmental health office,” she recalls. “Twenty years ago, green issues and recycling were completely revolutionary so we were before our time with that series. That was very successful. I produced five series of it, and through that formed my own company. I’ve worked continuously really.”
Cennard now hopes Byw Celwydd can follow in the footsteps of another Welsh-language drama, Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland), which broke out onto the international scene. Filmed in both Welsh and Welsh/English versions, it first aired on S4C before it was picked up by BBC One Wales, and later UK-wide BBC Four. It also aired in Australia, Finland, Iceland and France, among other territories.
Cennard says: “Hinterland’s done a terrific job, as A Mind to Kill did before it. By being sold to different countries, it brings people’s attention to Wales, and actors who have been in Hinterland have been seen in Australia and across the world. Some of them have been given jobs off the back of it, so it’s a terrific thing.
“I do hope Byw Celwydd will engage people who wouldn’t normally watch a political drama. It’s been quite tricky getting that balance between getting the politics right and making the stories complex, but also being entertaining for those people who just want to pour themselves a glass of wine, sit back and be entertained. I hope it will work on both levels.”