The birth of Hinterland and the emergence of its title character find Thomas and Harrington walking out onto the vast landscape of a genre. Despite being at the beginning of his journey, Tom Mathias has joined a heritage of crime detection, and therein has become a chapter in its storied history. From a discussion of the birth of Hinterland to the place of Tom Mathias within this heritage; to the creation of a world caught between genre and reality is now the “traffic of our stage.”
“Every detective is a cliché in lots of ways, because you are trying to compare him to the one’s that have gone before” offers Harrington. “I grew up with the Columbos, and I was a massive fan of Hill Street Blues. But the one thing I was consciously avoiding was portraying Mathias like anyone else.” The connection between the character and the space has been well established, but in speaking with Harrington, he shared his impression of how Mathias existed on paper and came to have such a pervading influence. “One thing that existed to me on the page was how well Mathias lives in between the lines. When I talked about plot points before I was referring to how he seemed to breathe, to exist in the presence of the scene – he was omnipresent in each and every one. But he doesn’t impose himself on anybody, and he’s the one character in every scene who’s the most interested in all things. So you could say that Tom Mathias is a very good listener.”
The misery of the detective is perhaps one of these deep rooted clichés. Whether it is Wallander, Lund, Morse or Mathias there is a foreboding sense that they do not belong either in the workplace or in their private personal space that can resemble a sparse or a culture filled tomb. The detective resembles a ghost who is wandering through life and who is simultaneously attached and detached. It is in those periods of subtle interaction, those silent moments where the character sits and stares into space, listens to music, reads or in the case of Mathias runs that we develop an understanding of the character. “They are just interesting characters” offers Thomas. “They see humanity at its darkest, at its most vile, when you think that that there is no God and no morality. It is an uncaring world, and there are people within that world who cause a lot of damage. So he’s one of a long list of TV detectives, and maybe real life detectives who can’t leave that nausea at the door, and it’s affected his relationships.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Harrington. “Like any of these characters, like any detective, they see so much darkness; they see the worst in people and it must rub off on them. I don’t think you are going to be a care free and fun loving guy and do that job. I think it’s impossible, and you have to live on the edge and keep your wits about you. You have to be prepared for the unimaginable.” It is from this frayed end of the thread that the characters standing as an outsider emerges. “In that sense you have to void yourself of any pleasure; become a little desensitized to it,” reflects Harrington. “But Tom Matthias is incapable of some of those things, and he finds that he has to become emotionally involved in everything. Of course then it’s about how he sheds that. I run myself and the one thing that it does is it forces you to think about life, to displace things and compartmentalise problems individually. It’s a way of having your own personal catharsis, and so running for him is a way of dealing with the emotional stress.”
The detective archetype is often perceived as being attached to a sense of misery because of their habitual isolation, introverted nature, or through the cerebral process of their work that fractures their personal and professional relationships. Often they are cast as the only ones capable of piecing together the puzzle, and so the modern detective has become shrouded in loneliness, isolation and misery. Mathias finds a home within this profile model of the archetype. “You could say he’s an existential question” says Thomas. “He lives in the middle of nowhere on his own in a caravan with very few trappings or any luxuries – a very Spartan and monk like life. But the hope is it’s not miserable, because what he’s doing is noble. He doesn’t smile much but he’s not a dour guy; he cares. But I suppose it goes with the terrain, and they are certainly characters that you can play with.”
The discussion raises the question of the appropriateness of the word “misery” or “miserable” to describe the modern detective. Perhaps the answer lies in an interrogation of our own subjective perspective as an audience. Do we project a certain identity onto these characters? Is it the case that we do not necessarily look at the stories from the characters point of view, but instead have a tendency to project a misplaced misery onto them? Are we too eager to judge their existence that we attach a meaning without understanding the ontology of the detective? Harrington and Thomas’ thoughts raise the point that it is not misery but instead a rational response, and as Thomas stresses about Mathias, “At the end of the day he’s not miserable.”
The detective can be contextualised as a character that has undergone a sacrifice, whether conscious or not. His or her ability to piece together the puzzle, to impart sound advice on those characters that occupy the world they inhabit comes at the expense of a personal stability that perhaps defines our impression of happiness. Introverted and isolated with struggles to confront does not necessarily equate to an existence shrouded in misery. But Harrington believes Mathias mirrors a certain archetype present in the everyday, whose immersion in the shadows is motivated by a positive drive to make a difference. “The good thing about Mathias is his stoicism, in that he gets up, puts his boots on and goes out to work to right the wrongs of the world. There are characters like that in the world, those who do not do it for power or to intimidate. The reason they do it is because they can have a certain amount of control over the world, and they can try to make it a better place.” But even in talking of this stoicism, the harshness of his character never strays far. “He carries the ghost of many a crime with him, and that’s why these characters are outsiders, because it’s impossible to do the job they do and fit into society the way we know it. I don’t think you could ever switch off. In that sense it is a very lonely place to be, and Mathias is like a child in the way that he sees things in minute detail and pieces things together. He paints with a very fine brush if I could use such a metaphor.”
But from the earliest conception it seems that Mathias was unlikely to be anything other than a character on the fringes. “We consciously wanted to create him as an outsider” explains Thomas. “The crime stories revolve around power, sex; families, blood and belongings, and it seemed a good mix to have this guy in a world that is rapidly going wrong. He’s a good guy to have on your side because at the very least he fundamentally cares. He might not be able to sort out his own life, but he can sort out other people’s lives, and what his life is like really is a crime scene rather than his own life.” If Mathias can be defined as a lonely character then his loneliness stems from his status as an outsider.
Ironically this outsider is the character through whose eyes the stories are told, and who takes us on a journey into a collection of stories of murder in the rural. “Ninety five per cent of the time we never see the crime from the perpetrator’s point of view. We wanted to reveal the stories through Mathias’ eyes, but also spend a lot of time around the crime scene seeing what he sees. The hope is that people who love the genre will be able to get into his head and try to decipher the crime from his point of view.” Thomas continues, “There are clues and there are some red herrings, which goes back to that idea of the kind of character who has a background that is slowly revealed and makes him the man he is. It dictates the stories that come from that landscape and seeing the crimes through his eyes, and by spending a lot of time with him, the reason for that combination is an attempt to dictate the tone and the pace of the storytelling.”
Taking the importance of Mathias’ function to guide the audience through these four stories, he like so many of his counterparts is far removed from loneliness. They seduce us to earn our empathy, sympathy and interest, and therein nurture a unique friendship that forms between detective and the voyeuristic audience who play the part of their unseen counterpart – one might even say the imaginary friend if speaking in a surreal context. As is commonplace within the detective genre, the journey that audiences go on with these characters is dictated by their personal mystery and our attempt to understand the person behind the detective, and therein shattering the mystique of the detective. This mystery which is engrained into the genre runs parallel to the murder investigations, and Tom Mathias’ first four cases echo the tragedy of the desire to be a parent and the act of being a parent that ties into his identity behind his official rank.
If the intrigue presented by the case is only half the intrigue required for the detective drama, it was one consideration that dawned on Thomas early on, of which his primary concern was controlling the procedural elements. As Thomas explained, “The language in the law court in Wales is largely English. So we wanted to avoid the procedural as much as possible so that the Welsh language versions would not become bogged down in procedural that would render it slightly artificial.” Outside of Mathias, police headquarters would be an equally important space to consider in shaping the world of the drama. To create their police station they looked not only outside of television to film, but also to the past to help keep the series on course as primarily a character orientated piece. “The design of the police station was self-conscious. We took it from The Lives of Others. It’s not that we fetishize the police station, but it just seemed that it would be timeless to have something other than transparent windows and a big hyperactive station or incident room set. We deliberately slowed that down, and only allowed the procedural pieces that we needed to drive the story on in order to get out into the Hinterlands and tell the stories that really get under the skin of the characters. So all of the human elements took precedent, and the truth of the story took priority over the procedural legalities.” Speaking with Thomas there was also a conscious desire to create a timeliness within the contemporary. One of his guiding thoughts when creating the show was to escape the contemporary as potential trappings that from my perspective allow it to endure but from his perspective open the show up to the possibility of storytelling. “A couple of things we did in the world he inhabits are there are no references to contemporary life, to political leaders or to the world we live in, even though it’s contemporary. So in a way the stories are endless.”
Whilst Mathias represents and influential force over the landscape and the stories that emerge, beneath the horizon of the Hinterlands was the intention to create a drama that would be connected to the genre and reality, but would exist as a world within itself, caught between genre and reality, whilst transcending its contemporary trappings. “I wanted to react to the character as opposed to the genre” Harrington tells me. “I never wanted to speak too much with police detectives because I didn’t want him to be orthodox in that sense. I wanted him to be a man first and a policeman later. I just wanted him to react accordingly. If he wanted to pull a board down off the wall he would. It wouldn’t be something I worried about too much. First and foremost in my eyes he was a man before he was a detective, and that’s how I played him.” The outsider identity however would prove to be an asset in enabling Harrington to create the character he envisioned. “Caridigion is a very unique place. He’s an outsider within it and he doesn’t even speak the language that a lot of his team speaks. He is even isolated from them, and so it makes his job harder but a lot more interesting. So I had free reign to do whatever I wanted, and I did not have to pander to those clichés that usually come with a detective.” With a seriousness mixed with a touch of humour he added, “I was never going to be the best looking one; I was never going to be the strongest or the most enigmatic, and I didn’t have a cigar to hide behind. My job was to just engross myself in the story, and because I knew the drama would be seen through his eyes, I had to know the scripts better than anyone. In the end it was all about listening and so you could say it was a good listening exercise.”
For a set of crime stories that revolve around power, sex, families and blood, Hinterland is not without a touch of humour. From the first episode, or the first in Tom Mathias’ case book, there are beats or lines of dialogue that lighten the mood even if momentarily. The meeting of Harrington and Mathias witnessed a coming together of contrasting individuals, and as Harrington explained, “I was very conscious of the fact that I never smiled much, and I’m quite a smiley person. But I never forced any issues with him. I never aired on the side of light because I had to. All the work and all the preparation that I did, I just allowed him to be the way that he wanted to be.” Despite not forcing the character into a certain mould, the shape of the character is still invariably influenced by the man playing him. “I’m quite a humorous man, and so if there’s a funny side to be had I tend to explore that side of things as well because I am a big fan of comedy. But I do believe that to understand comedy you have to understand tragedy; they are both the same imposter. I think if you are Tom Matthias you should be open to everything, and react off everything. He’s a reactor who doesn’t instigate so much as he reacts off whatever he is given.” For the show’s creator if we move beyond Mathias, there is a source of humour and even black comedy coursing through the show’s veins. “They don’t take themselves too seriously because after all we are only on the earth for seventy years. They are just doing their little bit in a small bit of the world and they have a healthy sense of the absurd and black absurdist comedy comes out sometimes.”
If Mathias should be admired for his stoicism, the Hinterland should be admired for its willingness to smile in amidst encountering humanity at its worst as Thomas, Harrington and the creative forces behind the show carve out a world caught between genre and reality.
Hinterland is available to own now on Blu-ray & DVD from Arrow Films