Nightmare at the Museum
Star Nia Roberts and writer Fflur Dafydd invite DQ into the world of Welsh drama Yr Amgueddfa (The Museum), a six-part S4C series that blends art heist thriller with illicit romance.
For her 2016 feature film Y Llyfrgell (The Library Suicides), Welsh screenwriter Fflur Dafydd took viewers into the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to tell a story about the suspicious circumstances around an author’s death and her twin daughters’ quest for the truth.
Now, in Dafydd’s six-part series Yr Amgueddfa (The Museum), the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff serves as the backdrop to broadcaster S4C’s first ever art crime thriller.
Nia Roberts (Bang, Hidden) plays Dela Howells, a faithful wife to husband Alun (Steffan Rhodri) and mother-of-two who has just been promoted to the post of the museum’s director general. But on the same night she celebrates her promotion at a grand gala event, she meets Caleb (Steffan Cennydd), who attends as the guest of her gay son Daniel (Samuel Morgan-Davies).
Betraying her husband and her son, Dela immediately falls for Caleb and begins a passionate affair with him, but she is unaware of his ulterior motives as she becomes embroiled in the dangerous world of art crime.
“It’s a preoccupation in my work generally that Welsh cultural institutions are things I find quite fascinating,” Dafydd tells DQ. “I really love playing around with elements of history and culture and those grand classical buildings, but putting a really thrilling story inside them. No-one wants to see a drama about people looking at paintings or fallings out within the conservation world. It’s always important for me to put a really strong relationship or family drama first and foremost and then to add those little elements that make it unique and distinct.”
As such, The Museum is very much a relationship drama at the outset, with Dela finding herself drawn to the mysterious Caleb before his motives for meeting her and the crime element of the story start to emerge.
“The affair story had to come first and I had to make those relationships as complex as I could so that, by the time you get to the unfolding art crime story, you’re already hooked and you’ve bought into the relationships,” Dafydd says. “It’s about trying to be playful with all those elements and making it different from a straight crime drama. Their flirting in episode one is around these antique ox horns – it’s not something you usually see. But I had lots of fun looking at different artefacts and thinking, how could we bring that into the story? How do you make art sexy? How do you make heritage sexy? Hopefully we’ve succeeded in combining those elements.”
In creating the series, produced by Boom Cymru and directed by Paul Jones, the writer was inspired by series such as Breaking Bad and Ozark, whose lead characters make bad decisions that send them into worlds they had never been part of before. In the case of Dela, here is a successful woman who has a perfect career and, at least on the surface, a perfect marriage and family. But when she makes a split-second decision to become involved with Caleb, it’s the first acknowledgement that her life may not be as rosy as it seems.
“There are cracks in her family life. She maybe hasn’t been the best mother and she’s slightly detached from her feelings for her husband so, as a result, she makes one very reckless decision. And then it’s almost like once you’ve done one thing wrong, it’s tempting to carry on,” Dafydd explains. “I was really interested in watching a woman, especially of that age with a lot of life behind her, suddenly spiralling into self-destruct mode. She’s a strong woman becoming even stronger in some ways, but also coming apart. It’s quite a fascinating dynamic to watch – and played superbly by Nia. I don’t think anybody else could have played this like she could.”
When reading the script for the first time, Roberts was immediately struck by the idea of a woman in her 40s taking centre stage in a television drama. “We don’t see that very often. Middle-aged women are often the accessory to the lead, like the wife, the mother or the older sister,” the actor says.
“It was just so refreshing. And not only that, she is strong, powerful, successful and totally still in touch with her sexuality. Ultimately, what I loved about Dela is she’s written like a male character. Women of that age are often depicted as nurturing and giving and, even if they do mess up, they’re often quite repentant afterwards. Dela has a moral compass but she’s pretty ruthless. I just knew this was a part that doesn’t come along very often. I was absolutely determined to play her.”
A “moment of madness” from Dela begins her affair with Caleb after she initially rejects his advances but then decides they want the same thing. At that moment in the opening episode, it seems Caleb is in control, but the power at play soon shifts in Dela’s favour. What she doesn’t know, however, is why Caleb appeared in her life and who might be in the shadows controlling him.
Those influences do become clearer for viewers, though, thanks to a unique structure in which the third part of every episode flashes back to retell events from Caleb’s perspective, a device that often changes the meaning of conversations or events as the picture of their relationship becomes clearer.
“The drama itself plays a lot on history, how we perceive history and how we perceive ourselves and each other – and Caleb is a really interesting, complex character with a really dark history,” Dafydd says. “That’s something I wanted the audience to be aware of right from the outset. My original plan was to have various chapters almost like you have in The Affair, with Noah and Alison telling their stories. But when I was writing it, I found Caleb’s inner life to be really fascinating and interesting.
“It is quite a verbal drama; there’s a lot of talking and interactions in the museum and also in Dela’s family. But when it comes to Caleb, you have this silent, inner life, so we get to see something more disturbing and more complex going on in his mind. By the end, you really understand him in a way you wouldn’t have if you just structured the series in the normal way.”
Though Dela suggests their relationship will be short-lived at the end of episode one, “the truth is she really does fall for Caleb,” Roberts says. “Then as it continues it gets more complex, and we don’t really find out until late on who is controlling the whole thing and who Caleb is working for.
“There’s a massive theme of duplicity and whether people are as they seem. She gets in too deep, really, because she falls for him. But ultimately she remains strong. I’ve never really played a character like her. When you start playing mothers, you’re so used to putting everybody first because that’s what mothers do, so it was really interesting to play somebody who puts her own life and needs first.”
Adding an extra dimension to the drama is the fact Roberts previously worked with Cennydd in 2019 on horror film The Feast, in which she played his character’s mother. “It was a massive mental adjustment for me, obviously, to play lovers. It was terrifying,” she says. “But once you’re in the zone, it feels like the most normal thing in the world, and you’re just Dela then. I’ve known Steffan since he came out of college. I’m 20 years older than him so I’ve always felt quite maternal towards him, watching his career develop. Then suddenly here we are playing opposite one another.
“I’ll be honest, I thought my days of playing a romantic lead were over, because you don’t often see people in their 40s having a romantic relationship on screen, and certainly not sex scenes and things like that. It’s really refreshing to see an older woman having a relationship with a younger man. We so often see on screen the man is in his 40s and the actress is in your 20s, and it was just so exciting to have that turned on its head.”
Dafydd was writing the series when the pandemic hit early last year, “and then I just had to carry on,” she says. The shooting schedule stayed in place, which meant the writer was tackling scripts while juggling the demands of home-schooling her children through lockdown.
The series was written in episode order, following a general story outline to which Dafydd admits she rarely stuck, as events would often take the characters in different directions than she had originally envisioned. Dafydd had always planned to go back in time with Caleb to see events from his point of view, but that structure became more difficult to pull off as the story reached its climax in episode six.
“There was so much going on that we had this discussion about, ‘Oh, let’s just drop it for six. Let’s just have all the strands together,’” she recalls. “But I was still really stubborn about keeping that, and when I finally found a way to make it work within the story, it was really satisfying because there is quite a big event that happens, so it is interesting seeing it from two perspectives. It’s slightly more shocking because you don’t see the full extent of it in part one and two, and you only understand it in part three. But the whole thing was a huge challenge.”
The pandemic kept Dafydd away from the set, forcing her to follow the production through the rushes that would be sent to her each day. For Roberts, the experience was “bizarre,” as the weeks of filming were slowly ticked off “without too many hiccups” thanks to the extensive testing that was in place. Under the supervision of producer Paul Jones, filming started in October, just as Wales went into a ‘firebreak lockdown’ for two weeks, and then continued through another lockdown at the start of this year until shooting wrapped in March.
“Being the lead, you’re in every day, so that had its challenges with a husband who is also working on a shoot in Bristol and children at home from school because of lockdown, but we got through it,” says the actor, who is married to director Marc Evans (Manhunt, The Pembrokeshire Murders).
With a second season of The Museum already in development, Roberts is now shooting the third season of Hidden, one of a number of series that have put Welsh content on the international drama map. Viewers have opened up to watching more subtitled drama and have also been drawn to the atmosphere of shows such as Hinterland and Keeping Faith, which have been dubbed Welsh noir. The Museum, the actor says, will continue that momentum.
“For me, especially with everything we’ve gone through this year, it’s not just a crime drama, because it combines a lot of genres,” she states. “It’s a love story. It’s got a high-stakes cop/thriller element. And even though it’s full of tension, it’s quite uplifting. Ultimately, it’s what people want to see at the moment, I hope. But it’s brilliant. There’s so much being made down here and it’s so nice to be able to film something and go home at the end of the day and not stay in some hotel.”
Dafydd says it’s a hallmark of her work that she tries to play with an audience’s perception of right and wrong through a series, and that is particularly evident in The Museum, as viewers will find themselves empathising with different characters across its six episodes. Distributed by ITV Studios, the show debuts on S4C and across the UK on BBC iPlayer this Sunday.
“The more stuff Caleb does, the more you will question how he’s able to do some of those things, especially involving Dela’s son Dan,” Dafydd says. “That world becomes very complex. By the end, you’re very much still questioning Dela’s motivations and where she ends up psychologically, because she goes to another dimension. Whereas with Caleb’s story, you can see why he’s done what he’s done and how he’s ended up here. But you don’t always have to like them, and that’s quite an important thing as well – to show the more unappealing side to a personality and how people have been impacted by their past and why they do absolutely crazy things, sometimes against all instinct. And that’s where the drama lies.”
Roberts adds: “We’re all flawed and, yes, [Dela] makes some decisions that maybe I wouldn’t make personally. But I love her for that because she’s courageous and ultimately quite a powerful person. It’s good to see women of that age group on screen being at the centre, having a sex life, being successful and having it all and messing up. Hopefully people respond to that and like her, because she is really likeable.”