S4C’s Sunday night dramas are hitting the spot once more
Dylan Wyn Williams
Sorry, Vera and Les Mis. There’s a new exciting Welsh language kid on the block to occupy our Sunday nights.
Set in a bland courtroom and an eerie hotel in Bridgend County, 35 Awr (35 Hours) works its way back following the trials (boom! boom!) and tribulations of a jury thrown together to decide the fate of a troubled young man accused of killing his neighbour.
Personally, the case itself plays second fiddle to the jury – an OCD librarian, a randy accountant, a scarily silent fireman, a student with a fuck y’all attitude – who wouldn’t normally look twice at each other, but are forced to cooperate in Her Maj’s name.
Fflur Dafydd’s dialogue is utterly believable, flows like the Taff after a storm, and is peppered with knowingly cultural references and jokes (Glan-llyn! Dodoma!) that only Cymry Cymraeg would appreciate.
A rare series that isn’t constrained by the recent de rigueur in Anglo-Welsh collaboration. But more of that later.
Over the years, S4C has firmly established itself as the place to be on Sundays. Yes, we have our very own Songs of Praise (Dechrau Canu Dechrau Canmol, b. 1961, which inspired the BBC version) and a Countryfile/Coast mash-up in Cynefin. But from autumn to late spring, nine o’clock Sunday is Drama O’Clock.
The 1980s and 1990s were they heydays of the Costume Drama, from endless adaptations of Dr Kate Roberts’ (“queen of the Welsh language short story”) stories about the struggles of the Gwynedd quarrying communities, to Manon Rhys’ Y Palmant Aur (The Golden Pavement) an epic 1920s retelling of the myriad families of Cardiganshire who set up successful dairy firms in London.
By the new century, expensive period plays soon dried up as austerity hit and the Welsh language broadcaster was suddenly faced with filling the extra hours previously provided by Channel 4’s Brookside et al.
Scriptwriters and directors now had to produce top-notch stories on a strained budget. Hence, the era of S4C/BBC Wales co-productions such as:
- The surprise network hit UnBore Mercher (Keeping Faith)
- Dark and disturbing Craith (Hidden, now filming the second series in Blaenau Ffestiniogand Cardiff)
- International hit Y Gwyll (Hinterland) 2013-2016 (“The TV noir so good they made it twice” and “the dark Hinterland doubles up as a travelogue”) financed by the Cardiff Bay government and EU’s MEDIA programme. Well done, Welsh Brexiteers.
Despite their excellence, some were critial of the stiff dialogue and dodgy translations.
Series one of Y Gwyll suffered from this. Craith had some serious miscastings and an unnaturally high number of Hwntws (south Walians, from tu hwnt meaning ‘far away over there’ or ‘beyond’) living and working amongst the Gogs (from gogledd, “north”) in deepest darkest Snowdonia, whereas white trash from Walsall would’ve been more believable*.
No wonder these BBC Wales showings are sometimes accused of taking precedence over the fersiwn Gymraeg.
Many more (superior) dramas were broadcast on S4C only. Dramas with a firm sense of place thus more believable to the home audience.
We had Cwm Gwendraeth’s Tair Chwaer (1997-1999) about a trio of country singing sisters and Talcen Caled (1999-2005) following a Porthmadog family struggling post-bankruptcy with a Cob-ful of dark humour.
Then came Con Passionate (2005-2008) about a Carmarthenshire male voice choir shaken to its core by sassy new conductor Davina Roberts (classical singer Shan Cothi) and the first ever Welsh language programme to win a prestigious Rose d’Or award in 2007.
Its author, Siwan Jones, went on to write two lots of of Alys (2011-2012) about a single mum (BAFTA award-winning Sara Lloyd-Gregory) who left London under a cloud with dreams of starting afresh in western Wales.
With its themes of prostitution, paedophilia, blackmail and rat infested bedsits, it wasn’t to everybody’s taste (Dechrau Canu stalwarts especially) but the second series gripped me with an extra element of a ghost story.
Teulu (2008-2012) was raved and ridiculed in equal measure, a Dallas-by-Sea series about a glamorous family of GPs who bonked and bitched their away in a perpetually sunny Aberaeron.
But my all time favourite was Parch (2015-2018), a richly dark Six Feet Under-esque dramedy starring Myfanwy (Carys Eleri) a middle aged mum, wife and parish priest questioning her faith after a shocking diagnosis.
Written by lecturer and songstress Fflur Dafydd, the finale left me in a flood of tears as we said goodbye to one of the most original dramas ever shown.
It’s a crying shame that S4C hasn’t sold this boxset to Netflix or Walter Presents, where damn good subtitled dramas know no bounds.
Here’s hoping the 35 Diwrnod/Awr franchise breaks that mould.
*In the meantime, BBC Wales has introduced a new comedy series by LA Productions of Liverpool that will rile the home audience and delight Bert and Maude on BBC One Daytime.
Pitching In stars Larry Gavin and Stacey Lamb and Hayley Mills as incomers-owners of a holiday caravan park, plus token natives Caroline Sheen (Caerleon), Ifan Huw Dafydd (Llangeler) and Ieuan Rhys (Cwm Cynon), set on Anglesey.
Yes, Anglesey. Ynys Môn. Lord knows what north Walian actors think of this snub. A “Benidorm for Brexiteers” as Lowri Cooke brilliantly quipped on twitter, and another surefire argument for devolving broadcasting.