A gruff looking, well built Luke Evans as DSI Steve Wilkins stands to the left of frame in a dark coat buttoned up against the wind. The Pembrokeshire coastline curves behind him. A cold and gritty filter gives the shot a dark and ominous feel.
Reviews, Television

The Pembrokeshire Murders: killing the competition on terrestrial television

One in three people who watch normal television were watching The Pembrokeshire Murders this week. Without the live, appointment viewing lure of Strictly or Bake Off and in an era of on demand overabundance through Netflix and Prime, this is no mean feat for an ITV Drama.

Made in Wales with Welsh actors, the overwhelming takeaway is that we can do it. I live in an area frequently used as a televisual filming location that doubles up as pretty much anywhere (London, Sheffield, Moordale, Billericay, Oxford, other galaxies), that isn’t here (Barry, Penarth, Dinas Powys, Cardiff, Wales in general) so it is astonishingly refreshing to see Welsh locations filmed in Wales. Yes, Cardiff courts were filmed in place of Swansea, a Barry corner shop in place of Milford Haven but it’s closer than usual.

Perhaps it was a reaction to the baffling Stephen Graham accent in White House Farm or the stereotypical lilting Valleeeeys accent that seems to be the go-to Welsh accent, but the use of natural and varied Welsh accents (Newport, Cardiff, a bunch of places further west) really helped embed this production in reality. It smacks of real life that police have moved for their job or haven’t necessarily grown up in the area. The real DSI Steve Wilkins has more of a North West England accent.

The opening credits were reminiscent of the ITV superhit crime drama Broadchurch, with sweeping aerial views of the coast through a cold gritty filter. Interspersed with 70s cine film camcorder footage of seaside days, this set the stall as a three parter that is as much about place as character and action. A refreshing use of a Welsh language soundtrack over these images was another important nod to embracing the Welshness of the story, place and people.

We start with a gratuitous shot of Hollywood’s handsome Welsh man mountain (AKA Gaston) ironing shirts in his pants and vest in front of the world’s biggest window. Turns out it’s just patio doors overlooking the sea but that was my first take. After getting momentarily side-tracked wondering what size shirt Luke Evans wears (men’s shirts are weirdly measured by neck size, how does he get a shirt large enough for his bulging back and biceps but not baggy on the collar. Maybe his neck is deceptively enormous too, perspective and all that) I’m in the action. Our main man is established as a family man with an Olivia Pope style love of red wine with paperwork and low lighting.

I mention this because the domesticity sets the tone. The production is about family and home. It never feels that it is exploiting the grief of the families involved in the crimes, including the victims’ families, the family of the murderer and the families of those undertaking the investigation. John Cooper’s son was interviewed before production and his input into the impact on him and his mother is woven into the episodes beautifully. The ripples of the horrors Cooper committed last for decades. Many scenes are filmed in homes, from the maximalist floral blooms of the Cooper’s lounge to Andrew’s sad and dated place, from Wilkins’s busy contemporary pad to the familial cosy norm of Erin’s living room. The attacks and burglaries took place in homes, near homes and in places that simply felt like a home from home.

Despite briefly diverting from realism in episode two when Andrew/Adrian answered his mobile to an unknown number in a cheery manner (who does that?! Where was the anxiety and suspicion?!), I was pulled through the plot at a pace. Split into three hours of broadcasting, there is no dilly dallying. In much the same way that the investigating team repeatedly refer to their budget and a need to be selective and strategic, so too the production team went about crafting and editing The Pembrokeshire Murders.

Based on the book The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching the Bullseye Killer by Steve Wilkins, the plot follows our hero and his police team cracking a cold case or three, focusing on John Cooper with a sense of more urgency than is typical of old cases as he is up for parole from jail time for burglary. As the show is about a real life story, it wisely steers clear of showing the murders and maintains a respect for the victims, survivors and their families. As a dramatisation of a true story, it focuses on the processes and tactics used to solve the crimes and convict the criminal.

The success of The Pembrokeshire Murders is partly in the timing, with us all trapped in the house in the evening, but word of mouth has played a huge part in driving up viewer figures. Programming across three midweek 9pm slots appealed to those of us with the lack of patience borne of binge watching.

The cast is awesome with big names like Luke Evans and Keith Allen alongside familiar Welsh actors who leave you wondering where you know them from and actors who you might not have seen before but absolutely hold their own. One I’ve worked with before, one is in my mum’s dog walking circle and several I recognise from stage productions with Sherman Theatre, The Other Room, Omidaze, National Theatre Wales etc. I hope they can use this as a springboard for their careers.

Of course, we’ve seen success and popularity for Wales made thrillers, crime dramas and Cymru-noir in recent years with Hinterland and Keeping Faith. Both were simultaneously filmed in Welsh as Y Gwyll and Un Bore Mercher, both were longer series and neither were based on true stories. I hope that The Pembrokeshire Murders builds an appetite for more Wales made and Wales based work. It has been a challenging year for the creative industries. The film and television sector is a major employer and hub of innovation here in Wales. I think this is a calling card for more and statement of intent for ambitious future productions.

The Pembrokeshire Murders is available to watch on ITV Hub

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