Forget Nordic noir: when it comes to dark drama, it’s all about the Celts

We needn't look further than Wales, Scotland and Ireland for our next hit of gritty scripted TV, says Andrew Collins

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The Killing is dead. Borgen has lost its deposit. The Swedish Wallander has hung up his wellies. When The Bridge returns for its valedictory run, it will be without keystone cop Martin. And nobody seemed to like Crimes of Passion. So put away your Faroese knitwear, and get over your withdrawal symptoms by embracing Celtic Noir.

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Last year, Welsh-language broadcaster S4C enjoyed unprecedented crossover success with bleak detective series Y Gwyll (Hinterland, above). Part-financed by pre-sale to Denmark’s national broadcaster DR, its already aired in Norway, Belgium and Holland, and with a second series in production in Aberystwyth, a Netflix deal has introduced it to the US and Canada.

You might say that the non-English-speaking British and Irish are coming! BBC Alba has aired the first three episodes of its first-ever Scottish Gaelic drama, the rain-lashed Bannan (The Ties That Bind), set on Skye. Across the Irish Sea, TG4, which broadcasts in Irish Gaelic, is looking to export hard-hitting series Corp + Anam (Body + Soul), starring The Tudors’ Maria Doyle Kennedy.

In a deregulated global TV market, foreign-language drama is booming. Through a combination of sophisticated viewing habits and the digital availability of world-class drama with a national flavour and a foreign tongue, the citadel of subtitle-intolerance has been stormed. 

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“The Scandinavian thing was very helpful,” says Chris Young, whose Skye-based Young Films produces Bannan (starring Debbie MacKay, above).

“People think, ‘Oh, we could do that!’ And you get this chain reaction.” He’s dedicated to local, sustainable content. Bannan’s entire production is conducted in Gaelic from script to edit with facilities set up at the campus of Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. “It makes a difference when you see that people are doing it in Ireland and Wales.” You get the sense that all concerned want it to run and run, like a post-watershed soap.

Y Gwyll cost rather more, coming in at £4.2m. Shooting many scenes twice, once in Welsh, once in English, paid off, doubling sales potential. Y Gwyll premiered on S4C in Welsh, on BBC1 Wales and BBC4 in English. Ireland’s TG4 has an expanding drama slate. “Scandi-type crime drama is the vogue,” says TG4’s voluble deputy CEO Padhraic Ó Ciardha, “What we’re doing is similar to it, but not imitative of it.”

They must be getting something right. Diarmuid de Faoite, star of Corp + Anam, told The Irish Times, “TG4 has a right to call itself the Irish HBO.”

Ó Ciardha concurs: “Even in non-Anglophone countries like Italy, German and France there’s a huge interest in everything Celtic.” Accordingly, Chris Young hopes to sell Bannan once it’s established on Alba. Ynyr Williams, BBC Wales exec for series two of Y Gwyll, admits, “What’s important is that it’s brought in hard cash.”

At a time of palpable fervour for devolution in these isles, programmes promoting indigenous cultural identity take on if not a political aspect, certainly an educational one. Ó Ciardha tells me: “It’s clear that thousands of people on this island and your island and in North America and Australia are using our content as a language learning resource.” 

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This month sees the premiere of An Bronntanas (The Gift, above), a thriller about a Connemara lifeboat crew who happen upon a cache of drugs worth a million euros. Thanks to TG4’s version of iPlayer, it’s available to view, subtitled, anywhere in the world.

“Our perspective is very simple,” says Ó Ciardha. “We’re a national broadcaster, 89 per cent of whose audience isn’t fluent in the language we broadcast in. Our policy from the outset was, we’ll subtitle it and they will come. And that’s proven effective.” 

Your essential Celtic noir

Y Gwyll (Hinterland) –  S4C’s ghoulish Aberystwyth crime series filmed in Welsh and English. Series one re-runs from 9 Nov on S4C, subtitled; a New Year’s Day Special and series two air next year.

Bannan (The Ties That Bind) – BBC Alba’s Scottish-Gaelic family drama set on Skye. Being repeated in late December, with more in production.

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An Bronntanas (The Gift) – Blackly comic five-part Irish morality thriller set in Connemara. Started on TG4 on 23 October; available on TG4 Player, subtitled.