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

shot from above, a child's hand hols a colouring pen above a sheet that spells out STAY SAFE. Other colouring pens are scattered across the table and in the top left of the image, the corner of a picture book pokes into shot.
School Days, Thinking Out Loud

Home Learning: the reboot

My social media is full of references to being “back in lockdown”. The only difference this week to the last few weeks is that now we’re back to home learning. We’ve been at Alert Level Four (yes, in Wales we are not in tiers but alert levels, which is disappointing for a pun lover like me “we’re all in tears/tiers”) since before Christmas so I’ve only been to the supermarket, daily dog walks around the same local park and to drop things to family and friends. We haven’t been on walks with other people because we’re not allowed.

I’m not shocked at being trapped at home again because it doesn’t feel like anything has wildly changed for us.

Home learning is a kicker, but I think we’ve got it nailed this time (she says with a warily smug tone). It’s early days but on our fourth day in I feel a lot calmer and more in control than last March. My kids are used to the platforms and the tech they need to get their tasks done and to communicate with their teachers. There’s a vague routine rather than any timetable or sticker charts. It’s a bit like in Lord of the Flies when they start using the conch shell, a little bit of order in the pandemonium. (Here’s hoping things don’t spiral in the same way). We’re breaking for lunch together and they can finish at 3pm to watch telly or play.

In the first few hours I’d sat in my home office flanked by a primary and secondary aged child being bombarded with a constant stream of seemingly random questions:

How do you spell apocalypse? What’s a parody? How do I work out 1 5/13 + 2 5/13? How many rebellions did Henry VIII have? Which animals could eat me?

I’m trying to have a tad more structure this time around so things can feel a bit more normal and less chaotic. The younger one finished all his teacher assigned activities by lunch time, so I sent him off to read his book in bed. After that he did some Zombie proofing (DIY to you and me) with his Dad who works shifts so happened to be home. The older one is sullenly spiralling (both literally on his office chair and mentally) as the perfectionist in him stresses out over an unsatisfactory (to him) attempt at his art lesson. At least I know what he’s winding himself up (and down) about this time.

We are the lucky ones. We have enough devices for them to use a laptop each (thank you Grandpa for donating your old one), we have WiFi (which as anyone who’s had dodgy Zooms or Teams with me knows isn’t great but it’ll do) and I’m fairly confident with helping them when they get stuck. I’ve only had to brush up on a few maths bits I had wiped from memory.

For all the middle-class mum memes of pouring Baileys onto Bran Flakes, we know there are plenty of families really struggling.

It’s all pants compared to what we were able to do this time last year but 2020 has ground down my expectations. Last January I saw in NYW at a bar in Bristol, went ice skating, to the museum, the beach, Wagamamas, saw Six at Wales Millennium Centre, had a rooftop brunch in London and a work trip to see some awesome work like Death of England at the National Theatre. Maybe January 2020 over achieved but it blows my tiny little frazzled mind to compare that month to this month. We’re only just a week in but there’s no way I’ll be getting my kicks anywhere other than treating myself in Morrisons. By “treat” I’m thinking posh yoghurt instead of an own brand version. Oh the thrills.

Whether you’re balls deep in lockdown after a bit of festive freedom or, like us, there’s not been a huge change in your day to day liberties, be kind to yourself and to others. Remember school staff are human too and they could’ve done without panicking parents poking them with questions on their weekend when they had no idea what decisions would be made either. It’s hard to be a school leader when everyone finds out the same information at the same time and wrong dates get shared through WhatsApp groups and mis-spelt Facebook posts (ginpig I’m looking at you). If you’re struggling, tell the school, tell your employer, ask for help. And for the love of cheese, wash your hands, stay at home and wear a mask when and where you can.

theatre, Things To Do

Christmas Theatre Treats (yes, even though going to a live show in a theatre is banned)

This has been a tough write as things have been changing constantly. Usually around this time of year I’d be compiling a list of family theatre treats for the festive period. Things are a little different this year, what with Welsh Government decreeing that being in an audience at a live performance is banned. However, here are few ideas for shows you can watch this Christmas season.

Once Upon a Time presented by RCT Theatres

Sunday 20 – Thursday 24 December 2020 / 2pm / free / YouTube pre-recorded

This free online storytelling show is jam-packed with music, fun and silliness galore. Once Upon a Time follows the adventures of some of your favourite panto characters including Aladdin and Cinderella.

Pre-recorded and available for free on YouTube in English, BSL with captions and an Audio Described introduction. Click on the link for a new panto character each day at 2pm.

Written and directed by Richard Tunley. With support from Taking Flight Theatre Company and Arts Council of Wales.

Watch Once Upon a Time

The Santa Show Online: Santa’s Christmas Countdown

Sunday 20 December 2020 / 2.15pm / £10 per household plus £1.29 booking fee / virtual show on Zoom / 90 minutes / ages 2-7

Take your seats from 2pm to sing along with your favourite festive songs like Jingle Bells. Join Father Christmas, Dotty the Elf and their friends in a festive, musical, interactive adventure to get Santa’s Christmas Countdown started.

During the show you can post your messages and photographs on The Santa Shows facebook page with Father Christmas and friends sharing your comments and pictures after the show.

Book for Santa’s Christmas Countdown

Hoof by Theatr Iolo and Kitsch & Sync

Tuesday 15 – Friday 18 December 2020 / various times / £2 per ticket / outside Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff / 20 minutes / ages 4+

A real life actual show! This outdoor performance of three little reindeer stumbling across an old abandoned theatre in the woods has been very popular. Some shows have sold out, some have limited availability. It sounds magical, I cannot wait.

Book for Hoof

Me… and The Bed, two productions by The Little Angel Theatre

Friday 25 December 2020 – Tuesday 5 January 2021 / free / YouTube / Me… for ages 2-5 and The Bed for 6-18 months

Based on a poem by Sylvia Plath, The Bed is deigned to introduce the youngest audience members to the magic of theatre and takes them on an adventure under water, to the jungle and even into space to find the best bed of all. Me…, based on the popular picture book by Emma Dodd follows a little penguin as he faces the big wide world on his own for the first time.

Watch on Me… and The Bed on YouTube from Christmas Day

Dick Whittington by National Theatre

Wednesday 23 December 3pm – Wednesday 27 December 2020 midnight / free / ages 6+

If you’re looking for a full length panto, National Theatre will be sharing their full length performance of Dick Whittington for free on YouTube. They had been due to perform to live performances but as London moved to Tier 3 these were cancelled. We enjoyed watching a fair few NT Live performances on our telly through YouTube during the original hardcore lockdown.

Watch Dick Whittington on YouTube from 23 December

Flossy & Boo’s Festive Adventures Activity Pack

Not a show but if you and your kids want to get cosy and creative over Christmas, this is a great pack. Flossy & Boo are a witty pair of characters who have created workshops, shows, interactive festival installations and are perfectly placed to share ideas for imaginative things to do. We especially loved the den building. You’ll even get exclusive access to some online video extras.

Get your Flossy & Boo’s Festive Adventures Activity Pack

An illustration in a Welsh love spoon design that incorporated a cauldron, a celtic symbol, a hare's head, a fish and a baby. In the top left are logos for Taking Flight and Park and Dare Theatre. In the bottom right are the words First Three Drops.
theatre, Things To Do

Virtual Theatre Tour Coming to the Vale

At the moment live theatre is illegal in Wales. Sounds mad but there we are. It’s been a bit of a shock to the system to miss out on frequent live theatre, dance, music, festivals and now the festive period of pantos, musicals, indie shows, puppetry, all that magic.

If you’re gagging for a family theatre experience in the Vale of Glamorgan I have GOOD NEWS! The amazing Cardiff based Taking Flight Theatre Company are taking their brilliant First Three Drops show on a virtual tour around Wales. Memo Arts Centre in Barry are selling tickets for two shows on Sunday 22nd November at 11am and 2pm.

My kids and I experienced First Three Drops from the comfort of our own living room when it was first performed for RCT and we loved it. It’s recommended for little ones aged 2-9 and their families but my 12 year old enjoyed it too. It’s not like watching a recorded show on telly, it feels live and it’s lovely to see all the other families at the end, you really get that warm buzz of being involved in something with other people.

A laptop screen in a living room split into 4 screens, each shows an actor creating a scene from the story, one has a peg climbing a wire attached to a cheese grater, another has a laughing actor with two giant broccoli trees.
First Three Drops is a live virtual theatre show performed through Zoom

Each actor appears in a separate Zoom box on the screen from their own home and one of the highlights for us was watching comedy costume changes and how the actors transformed their spaces into different scenes.

The show feels new but as it went on it had familiar vibes as it’s based on a story from the Mabinogion. It’s silly and positive with all the chaos and magic I expect of the best family friendly live theatre and left us all dancing on the sofa.

It’s only £6 per screen so you just pay for one ticket for your household. Bargain.

You could go all out, get dressed up and get the kids to pretend you’re at the theatre, showing you to your seat with a torch and selling packets of Malteasers or keep it casual and just cwtch up on the couch.

Taking Flight are awesome at making their shows as accessible as possible so expect live captions and integrated audio description, it’s done so well that you don’t even notice it, all description is woven into the words of the characters. First Three Drops is in English, British Sign Language and Sign Supported English.

Book your tickets through Memo Arts Centre now to make sure you don’t miss out and let me know what you think:

https://memoartscentre.co.uk/Shows/first-three-drops/

Sunday 22nd November 2020 11am / 2pm

Watch the trailer for First Three Drops

a man in a long summer dress and floppy hat pushes an empty supermarket trolley with a wall of plain cardboard boxes in the background and fluorescent lighting overhead.
Thinking Out Loud

Non-essential Firebreak Fuss

I wish that the level of outrage expressed over the limits on the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets was expressed over some other issues. The ableism that’s grown in 2020 springs to mind.

There’s pure misinformation circulating on twitter about period products and baby milk being banned by Welsh Government. Actual fake news. There were concerns about being unable to buy pyjamas in case of a hospital emergency but shops are given discretion so if there’s a genuine need then you can buy. It’s all to prevent browsing and not to be unfair for independent shops selling non-essentials.

The repeat argument I saw on my socials was books versus booze. What’s essential to some is non-essential to someone else. Food and drink all fall under the essential list. What about a spiralizer versus a stew pack or a DVD versus dog food? It’s not helpful to pick on a single item and compare it to another.

Of course, the isolation of lockdowns and quarantines and bubbles has had an impact on the mental health of many of us. Reading is an escape, it’s something that’s helped me this year. We had warning, time to stock up on paperbacks from Mozzas. Maybe some people will line the pockets of Jeff Bezos with their literary spending sprees. If you’re gagging for a book, look up your local indie book shop (hello Griffin Books in Penarth) or download a book for free from the library. You don’t even need an e-reader or tablet for that, I’ve just got an app on my phone. Or re-read something you already or message me and I’ll drop one off to you.

That said, I get that the whole debate circling about books brought out a whole load of middle class assumptions and unchecked privilege. We had Monday to Friday to get prepared and stock up. Cool. Unless maybe you only get paid once a week. Or you’re living hand to mouth and this particular week wasn’t one when you could afford to do a big shop.

Buy your kids clothes online. Fine, for some, but your cheapie kids gear isn’t sold online, Primark doesn’t have an internet shop. And all of this assumes that people have access to the internet, to WiFi, to smart phones or other devices, or even that they have a bank account at all. Some people aren’t part of this cashless society for all sorts of reasons.

That dicksplash in his grundies and that maskless thug ripping plastic sheeting off clothes in Welsh supermarkets don’t get a shit about the bigger picture. They’re just selfish attention seekers. We’re all frustrated darling but we’re not throwing toddler tantrums in the aisles.

“Only selling essential items during firebreak is to discourage spending more time than necessary in shops. It should not stop you accessing items that you need.” – @WelshGovernment

Supermarket staff from a range of stores in Barry have said that if you ask for an unavailable item and you have a reason, they will get it for you. The barriers are to stop people browsing.

Look, we’re 3 days in with another two weeks to go. If you’re struggling to get hold of something that you need desperately, let me know or find your local mutual aid group on Facebook.