One Friday in May as the final bell rung on the coverage of Generation War, I found myself transported from the Eastern Front of World War II to a place I became acquainted with in my youth – Aberystwyth. But as familiar as these sights are; a landscape I’ve photographed with a 35mm camera, and the seafront I have clocked miles up walking along, Welsh crime drama Hinterland moved beyond Aberystwyth to tell four stories of murder in rural Ceredigion.
Ahead of Hinterland’s home entertainment release, the show’s creator Ed Thomas and star Richard Harrington shared their memories and thoughts with me on Hinterland’s journey to the small screen in a three part HeyUGuys interview special feature.
“The funny thing about Hinterland is that neither I nor Ed Talfan knew anything about the cop genre” explains Thomas. “We had never written for the genre, and whilst we liked it we were not what you would call experts.” So how did two men with a self-admitted lack of knowledge of the genre create a series that is capable of rivalling anything on the schedule both within and outside of the genre? “We pitched to S4C two or three years ago now. We told them, “Every channel needs a detective to call its own.” S4C didn’t have one and neither did Wales. Even now outside of Hinterland and Tom Mathias it still doesn’t. We thought that would play well was for us, and so we pitched it to them and they were in. Then the next question was the kind of drama we wanted to make?”
In the world of film and television the familiar can be a comfort, but Thomas was determined to find an unfamiliar landscape to set his detective drama. Even Harrington admitted, “It would have been much easier to set something like this in the city; in a place that people were familiar with.” But the seed of the show would be familiarity with a mind to transcend stories from the back of beyond by discovering a universal appeal. “We wanted to set it in a place that hadn’t been widely photographed, and we wanted the stories to come out of a strong sense of place” offered Thomas. Meanwhile Harrington who was familiar with the Aberystwyth landscape from his youth echoed these sentiments, explaining that Hinterland was always focused on crafting a story about that particular place. Still it was one the actor considered to be an interesting challenge. As for Thomas, “The focus was on local stories with local residents, and that the authenticity of those stories coming out of those places would discover an audience who would respond. So the idea was that whilst they were Welsh stories, their appeal would be universal.”
The opportunity to achieve this universal appeal would be boosted when “All3Media came on board early on.” It was then that Thomas was aware that they “would have to make an English language version that could be sold internationally.” Whilst the UK debates the question over Europe, Thomas remains at ease with the relationship between his crime drama series and the continent, for which he observes a kindred perspective. “What’s been surprising on this journey is that whilst you can learn the tropes of the genre, you can still hopefully make stories which possess a good sense of place. Our primary aim was rather than to make another cop show in an urban environment, to instead tell stories from the back of beyond from a European perspective. This is what Hinterland is all about.” If the unfamiliar place could discover a universal appeal, then running parallel was the exposure of the Welsh language. “People are unfamiliar with a language which isn’t widely used, and so all of those things were high on our list of things to achieve.”
Every crime drama requires a detective, but more importantly requires an actor who can become the incarnation of that character. When asked about Richard’s introduction to the project Thomas humorously remarked, “Well you could say it was twenty years ago.” One can’t help but consider that Harrington has possibly been on a collision course with Tom Mathias, up until now a ghost of his future self – on screen at least – for the past two decades. “It started with a friendship. I knew him when he was seventeen. He’s now nearly forty and I’m fifty two and over that time you get to know somebody.” But for Thomas the past onscreen identities would complement Harrington’s performance of the angst ridden detective. “Some of his roles have seen him play the naughty boy, and so it was good to give him a set of rules to play by as a detective within a hierarchal system. The straight jacket of playing someone different but with all the existential questions that some of his other roles have asked of him was a good mix.”
Mathias is born out of collaboration, and shaped by more than one pair of hands. Thomas explained, “We started shooting in November 2012, and he knew he was on board from March of that year. So he had six months to think about it, and six months of us taking him out or bringing him into the office where we would chuck stories and characters around. But at the same time we would let him come up with his own ideas. We talked to great length about the character and his back story, how we would angle the stories, why we would place him in a caravan, and why we would isolate him. We also discussed at great length why we wouldn’t reveal his back story immediately. But once the stories became more concrete the rest was his normal process.”
Emerging ahead of the stories, Tom Mathias confirms that first and foremost Hinterland is a character drama. Discussing the collaborative nature of the project Harrington offered, “It was a character that came almost fully fledged even before the stories had come. As we were progressing we realised it had plot points, but it was a character based drama. It was about the people as opposed to any other formulaic television that you see.” Speaking with Harrington one realises the extent to which character and plot are intertwined, and how the two enter into a creative metaphysical marriage. “I loved the sense of placing it in isolation in Ceredigion, which I believe was a lucky break for us.” The deliberate movement away from the urban trappings of the contemporary detective draws attention to an evolution within the genre – the death of the rural detective. Crime stories set against the rural backdrop allows the wild and violent tendencies of human nature to merge with nature; in a sense nature to be a mirror for humanity’s dark side. Yet not only is it the urban that has become a prerequisite for the crime drama that has borne witness to the death of the rural detective. In equal measure there is little if no room in the modern incarnation of the genre for the amateur detective. The result is that classic characters and dramas – the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot as well as Rosemary and Thyme have been firmly pushed into the past, or to put a more dramatic spin on my words buried beneath time. Whilst Hinterland’s Tom Mathias functions in the official police hierarchy and underpins one half of this evolution, Ceredigion allows the rural crime drama to at last draw in a deep breath; it’s long silence now over.
Despite perceiving Hinterland as first and foremost a character based drama, Harrington explained that whilst “Mathias has an amazing back story, it was one that wouldn’t be a prominent of the story, but rather it would be a looming presence all the way through it.” So whilst the character emerges fully fledged ahead of the stories, within the world of Hinterland Mathias can be seen to channel the stories of the space as his character enters into a dance of murder, mystery and tragedy. “So the back story was nailed and the blueprint was laid. All we had to do then was to place him in these stories and see how he would react to them. The one thing that was good about it is that he never does anything out of character. He’ll never become a transient character in that sense because he’ll always do things in his place, because we know exactly who he is and that’s very rare.”
Hinterland is available to own now on Blu-ray & DVD from Arrow Films