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Behind the Scenes of Tree on a Hill

30 Mar 2024 7 minute read
Nia Roberts and Rhodri Meilir who play Clive and Margaret Lewis in Pren ar y Bryn/Tree on a Hill. Photography: Warren Orchard / BBC Wales /S4C/ All3media Int

Molly Stubbs 

It appears in the opening seconds of Pen Talar and Gwaith/Cartref, on the posters for House of America and On Bear Ridge, but many of us know Ed Thomas’s name from the title cards of Hinterland.

The crime drama filmed back to back in English and Welsh, captivated audiences across the globe with its haunting narratives and tense atmosphere, borne primarily from bleak, barren, and beautiful backdrops in rural Wales.

Off-beat crime

A sense of place has informed and mirrored the narrative in all of Ed Thomas’s works, but nowhere does it play quite such a principal role as in his new series, Tree on a Hill.

The off-beat crime drama from Fiction Factory, S4C, and BBC Wales follows the residents of a fantastical Penwyllt, diving into their pre-existing dynamics and provocative private lives.

Pren ar y Bryn / Tree on a Hill

Model village

At a BAFTA Cymru showcase at Chapter Arts Centre, prospective viewers wandered through exhibits of costumes and sets from the show.

The crowning glory was the life-size model of Penwyllt that appears in the basement of the main characters Clive (Rhodri Meilir) and Margaret (Nia Roberts).

“The Penwyllt model took four months to build,” says production designer, Gerwyn Lloyd. “We wanted to use it as a visual map for the audience, and for us. Every house has been painstakingly measured and laser-printed to scale.”

So accurate is the model town, which Clive uses as the track for his Hornbys, the characters’ journeys are written ominously into those plastic back alleys. “It’s so lifelike that if we didn’t raise the finance, we’d have shot it all on the model world,” Thomas jokes.

Thankfully, the finance was raised, and viewers will get to take a peek through the keyhole of the characters’ real homes. This is where the departure from Thomas’s previous works is realised, with the disjointed, nostalgic, wholly unnerving interiors of Tree on a Hill replacing Hinterland’s hinterland.


Combining the hauntingly surreal photography of Gregory Crewdson with the soothing streets of Ystradgynlais, Tree on a Hill’s production team has created a world in which everything and nothing feels out of place.

“We talked about taking elements from the 70s and 80s, mixing it all in to give the setting a timeless feel,” Lloyd explains. “There are no cars beyond 2013, and no clothes beyond 2003.”

To satisfy this look, costume designer Ffion Elinor went charity shop hunting, ensuring every item of clothing the characters donned “has a feel, has a history, had a life before it went on the actors.”

Principal character Margaret, Clive’s wife, was paid particular attention by the costume and makeup department.

“The only thing we knew was that Margaret had to have a fringe,” makeup artist Kate Roberts laughs as she recounts days spent in Nia’s kitchen, trying out wigs and sending photos of each article to Thomas.

“It’s very freeing as an actress not to have to look perfect,” Nia explains, sharing that she spent a meagre ten minutes each morning in hair and makeup.

“You want your actors to feel happy,” Kate agrees. Unusually, the costume and makeup departments for Tree on a Hill attended script read-throughs, able to hear the actors’ ideas and turn them into reality.


“I rarely base characters on costumes,” says Richard Lynch who plays Herbie, the at-first unassuming carpet fitter.

“But, for some reason, I started to have ideas about how he’d look very early on.” Lynch pulled from scenes of early-century Americana to complete his look, wanting Herbie to resemble a workman from the background of an Edward Hopper painting.

“It was a lot of fun. We’ve never been self-conscious about looks in Wales, so we thought ‘let’s throw period out the window’,” Thomas says.

“Let’s tell a story with themes but be inventive about how we achieve a tone and narrative payoff through visuals.”

And so, just as the narrative is woven into Clive’s model, it is told through costuming. Margaret’s sister Sylvia (Hannah Daniel), a woman ‘living in the movie of her own life’ experiences this marriage of fashion and fate most harshly.

“Sylvia starts in 6-inch heels,” Daniel explains. “Then episode by episode you peel the onion until, at the end, she’s in Glyn’s (Richard Harrington) muddy work boots.”

Pren ar y Bryn / Tree on a Hill


Tree on a Hill’s cinematic set dressings and costuming are combined with equally cinematic wide shots that Thomas touts, “Lay off the actors and let them get on with it, allowing the viewers’ eyes to wander. You see the characters in their world.”

On watching Clive and Margaret in their home, or Sylvia and Glyn at their BBQ, it is particularly difficult not to feel like a voyeur.

A jazz score ripped straight from a 60s noir thriller completes this atmosphere, turning Penwyllt into a powder keg that’s set to blow at any second.

The longer the characters run through the motions of work, walks, and fish and chips on a Friday, the longer we follow the ever-burning fuse through their living rooms, the more disconcerting the entire thing becomes.


Tree on a Hill’s nonsensical yet all-too-familiar visual presence forces viewers to straddle comfort and discomfort, watching with the omnipresent feeling that someone in a bobble hat and tartan bellbottoms might jump out and thwack you with a fish knife at any time.

As Clive says in the first episode’s opening shots,“Everyone is wary of things changing when you least expect it. It’s only natural.”

Although back-to-back filming offers Welsh and English speakers equal viewing experiences, the English-language version of Tree on a Hill provides an additional absurdist element.

“It exists in a world where the Welsh language has been forgotten, it’s a memory,” Thomas explains, highlighting that the youth of Penwyllt think it’s ‘cool’ to listen to MP3s of male voice choirs singing yn Gymraeg.

Pren ar y Bryn / Tree on a Hill


With such a stylised addition to Welsh television listings as Tree on a Hill, you’d be forgiven for thinking Thomas drew on very specific inspirations. This is not the case.

“I had no inspirations except everything,” he laughs. “I’ve only ever written one thing and told it seventeen different ways. It’s like a rum baba, I’m always adding layers and layers and layers. If you’re a filmmaker in Wales it’s not easy, so rather than complaining, you have to give it a go.”

Lloyd doesn’t share the same attitude. Even after Tree on a Hill’s BAFTA Cymru showcase, the production designer shares that he “always nitpicks. I’m always self-critical. The work is never done.”

Thomas, however, is already thinking about his next project, constantly filled with “desperation” to own his own work. He explains his desire to move on with a line so dripping with foreboding that it might well have come straight from the Tree on a Hill script;

“We’re not here for long.”

Though Thomas may already be playing with new ideas, viewers are more likely to take after Lloyd, with Tree on a Hill possessing the ability to draw on one’s memories and inhabit them for long after the credits have rolled.

To experience the stunning world of Penwyllt and get to know its quirky characters yourself, Tree on a Hill premieres on BBC Wales on Tuesday 2nd April following its Welsh-language debut on S4C in November 2023.

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