Mind your language
Star Alexandra Roach and executive producers Donna Wiffen, Jo Roderick and Nora Ostler Spiteri shine a light on making Welsh drama Y Golau (The Light in the Hall) and the demands of filming a series back to back in two languages.
Welsh psychological thriller Y Golau (The Light in the Hall) sees No Offence co-stars Alexandra Roach and Joanna Scanlan reunite in a story about guilt and grief, set years after a terrible tragedy.
Sharon Roberts (Scanlan) has never stopped grieving the loss of her daughter Ela. Joe (Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon) confessed to her murder after her DNA was found at his caravan, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say why he did it or what happened to her body.
When news emerges of Joe’s impending parole, Sharon and journalist Cat Donato (Roach) – who was once one of Ela’s best friends but has since moved away from her home town – are forced to confront the past and the roles they played in Ela’s disappearance.
Produced by Duchess Street Productions (London Kills) and Triongl (Keeping Faith) and filmed in both Welsh and English, the series launched in May on Welsh broadcaster S4C and was also available on the BBC’s on-demand platform iPlayer. APC Studios is handling international distribution.
Here, Roach, Duchess executive producers Donna Wiffen and Jo Roderick and Triongl exec producer Nora Ostler Spiteri discuss the inception of the series, filming English- and Welsh-language versions back to back and the worldwide interest in Welsh drama.
What are the origins of the project?
Roderick: Gina [Regina Moriarty, writer] had seen a campaign for ‘Helen’s law’ on change.org – a mother, Marie McCourt, like Sharon [Scanlan] was faced with the possible release of her daughter’s killer even though he had never disclosed the whereabouts of her body. For Gina, it was an area she wanted to explore – looking at a crime and its fallout from a very human angle and the impact on all involved. In terms of a dramatic narrative, it also seemed to provide an interesting multi-perspective take on a murder mystery.
After developing the characters of Sharon and the convicted murderer, Joe [Rheon], Alexandra’s character, Cat, was the last to take shape. We knew we wanted a character who would have insight into the crime and the victim but remain an outsider. Equally, we wanted a character who would approach the mystery with an inquisitive mind, rather than examining the details in a forensic way. We were always keen to avoid a police perspective but somehow have more of a personal, emotional investigation.
What was the writing process behind the series?
Roderick: From writing the pilot script, Gina knew what the emotion and tone should be but not necessarily the world. We started to look at a setting for the story and knew we were looking for a small-town environment where everybody knew each other’s business.
Landing it in a region such as West Wales really helped the narrative and gave us a location that had stayed pretty much the same in the last 18 years – the length of time Joe had been in prison and Cat had been away – due to its reliance on traditional industries, such as farming and timber.
The details of the crime, Cat’s connection to the victim and her personal journey of redemption came later in the process and we were constantly revisiting that pilot episode to serve the needs of the series. Having Welsh producers and additional Welsh writers [Anwen Huws and Sian Naiomi] to work with us and Gina ensured these details always felt authentic. For the purpose of dual-language production, the scripts were written in English and then translated into Welsh, so what was originally called The Light in the Hall also became Y Golau [The Light].
What themes did you want to address?
Roderick: Approaching the drama with a true crime narrative in mind really helped with the themes we wanted to explore – that sense of personal perspective and how, as individuals, we sometimes shape our own history and memory to serve ourselves.
We were also keen to look at how individuals who are shaped by their personal experiences and how crimes, such as manslaughter or murder, are driven by myriad factors that are never black and white. Essentially, though, at a granular level, we wanted the show to be a study of guilt, grief and the messy way we live our lives.
How does Y Golau compare to other psychological thrillers – how is it true to the genre and how does it push boundaries?
Roderick: It’s essentially a ‘whydunnit’ drama rather than a ‘whodunnit,’ and having characters who are unstable or in delusional psychological states plays particularly into that genre. Psychological thrillers tend to have themes of dysfunction, psychological abuse and PTSD, and we have all that in bucketloads.
HBO’s Sharp Objects was a big inspiration for the series, and that show played so well into the themes of the genre, with Amy Adams’ character having psychological trauma connected to her past, plus that sense of a community colluding with lies. Hopefully Y Golau takes the genre and grounds it further with more traditional British TV drama sensibilities – Bleasdale meets Hitchcock, if you like.
How was the series developed with the numerous production companies, partners and broadcasters involved?
Wiffen: We had been developing the project at Duchess Street and decided it might be the right thing to collaborate with Triongl on. They loved the script and the aspiration for the project and agreed with us that it would work really well as a back-to-back production – producing English and Welsh versions that we could take to broadcasters. We reasonably quickly got S4C involved. APC came on board and then secured interest from Channel 4 and [US streamer] Sundance Now. We were lucky to secure our three incredible leads and subsequently tie down a production schedule – Joanna Scanlan even prepared to learn Welsh to participate.
Ostler Spiteri: We loved the material and could see immediately how and where we could embed the series here. After a couple of conversations over coffee, we knew the partnership was going to work.
Alexandra, what was the appeal of starring in Y Golau?
Roach: The script captured the essence of a small West Wales community really well. The characters felt real and complex, all with their own secrets and inner lives. The story itself is very exciting and had me on the edge of my seat as I was reading it.
One of the main challenges that appealed to me was the thought of acting in the Welsh language again. I grew up speaking Welsh in school and always with my grandparents but, since moving away to drama school, I could sadly feel my grasp of the language loosening. This would be a way of re-learning the language and throwing myself into the deep end and hoping I’d be able to do it.
… and playing Cat Donato?
Roach: It was a story of a young woman going home, just as this would take me back to my home town during filming – we filmed in Carmarthenshire, where I grew up. That in itself brings about a lot of emotion and history. Her trepidation and doubt in herself also spoke to me, [as did] how the story unravels and she becomes more and more confident in her ability as a journalist.
How would you describe Cat at the start of the story?
Roach: At the beginning, we find Cat in Cardiff, unsatisfied with her career and where she’s at. She’s looking for her next story but is feeling uninspired. At the end of episode one, she’s made the decision to go back to Llanemlyn, a town she left when she was 15 after tragic circumstances, to dive back into the event and find the truth about what really happened to her best friend Ela.
What can you tell us about Cat’s journey through the story as she becomes entangled with Ela’s mum Sharon and killer Joe?
Roach: Going back to Llanemlyn is difficult for Cat. She is thrust back into the community, all of whom have their own views on her returning. Like Sharon – having Cat knock on her door and ask her questions about her dead daughter is insensitive and upsetting. Sharon carries a lot of animosity towards Cat and refuses to help with her story. Sharon hates that Cat is talking to Joe, Ela’s killer. Cat seemingly sympathising with him and helping him after his release is extremely hard for Sharon to understand.
As the series develops, we see Cat really get pulled into Joe’s world and she puts herself in a very dangerous situation as she wants to help him to remember what happened to Ela that night.
Donna, why did you decide to film simultaneously in Welsh and English, and what impact did that have on development and production?
Wiffen: Once we had the pilot script, we knew the location would be a key character in evoking the tone of the piece. We felt mid-Wales would be the perfect place to locate a character-driven piece that feels almost claustrophobic in its setting. In partnering with Triongl, which is well versed in back-to-back production, we felt it only natural to offer S4C a potential series shot in both languages.
Casting is one of the most challenging aspects of the job and, although there is a wealth of great acting talent in Wales, finding Welsh speakers for the project was time-consuming. We also needed to find directors and crew who were based in Wales and preferably could speak Welsh in a region that is flourishing with drama.
Ostler Spiteri: Filming back to back in Welsh and English was a no-brainer for us. We believe passionately in creating Welsh-language content that speaks to the home audience as well as promoting the Welsh language and talent to audiences further afield. But we also acknowledge there is a ceiling for the funding of Welsh-language content. S4C’s top tariff for drama is around £250,000 [US$298,000] per hour, and while Welsh producers have proven it is possible to produce great drama for that tariff, producing to a budget of that size imposes certain limitations in terms of story, cast, locations and production values.
The back-to-back production model has become a regular fixture in Wales as a direct response to that challenge and as a way to substantially increase potential financing for the production.
Alexandra, how was it filming the show in both Welsh and English?
Roach: It took a few days to get used to. I didn’t really understand how we were going to do it, but all of the crew had worked like this for years and were completely unfazed. I found the relentlessness of it quite a challenge. If we completed a take and I was feeling good about it, usually when shooting one language you can go and have a cup of tea and relax until you’re called to set again. There were no cups of tea on this job. There was no time. As soon as you finish one take, you have to prepare to do the whole thing again in a different language. I don’t know how many times we’d begin a take and, halfway through, you’d realise you’d been speaking the wrong language.
Nora, where did you film the series and how are locations used in the story?
Ostler Spiteri: As ever with Welsh series, the landscape became another character in Y Golau. The series was set in the fictional town of Llanemlyn – in reality an amalgam of the Carmarthenshire towns of Llandovery, Llandeilo and Llangadog, which sit in the Tywi Valley.
That sense of the small community where you can’t escape prying eyes and where you can’t escape your history gave the series the claustrophobia it needed – for Cat, coming back to the community she left under a cloud; for Sharon, who will forever be defined by the horror that befell her; and for Joe, a convicted murderer trying to rebuild his life. Conversely, the beautiful vistas offered some breathing space, and the sense of hope that, once the truth is uncovered, there might be light beyond tragedy.
What challenges did you face in development or production?
Ostler Spiteri: Filming back to back offers incredible benefits but also poses some additional challenges. In practical terms, as a rule of thumb, filming dual language adds about 50% more time to the shooting schedule and does mean the actors are doing more mental gymnastics than they would on a single-language production.
Each setup is done twice before we move on to the next, so the back and forth is constant. Tracking script changes also becomes more challenging when running two versions of the same screenplay; ensuring both versions are fully up to date and correspond with each other is vital.
Alongside that is the challenge of ensuring the production itself is fully bilingual, that all documentation is available in both languages and that there is no hierarchy of language, with both versions given equal billing.
Wales is now a hotbed of acclaimed international drama. Why do you think this is and what can be done to continue this trend?
Ostler Spiteri: When I started my career, and actually until fairly recently, there was a sense that Wales was a lovely setting for series but was shipping all the talent in. Finally, recently, we are being acknowledged as creators in our own right. We’re in the midst of an evolution – if not a revolution – where our work is being acknowledged as interesting and relevant within our borders and beyond. We are seen as more than just a green and pleasant backdrop. We are a nation with a rich and diverse culture, huge pools of untapped talent and endless, fascinating and authentic stories to tell.