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

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

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.

Thinking Out Loud

Troubling Bubbling

Has life gone completely back to the pre-Covid normal or did I miss an announcement?

I watch the news, I read, I’ve had to stay up to date on guidelines for work but as I scroll through those photographic square glimpses into other people’s lives on Instagram, I have to wonder if we’re the only ones doing it our way.

I’ve not yet driven further than 5 miles from home, not because we can’t but I’ve had no reason to go anywhere so far. My parents and sisters family live close by and the parks and beaches that we’ve been to since I finally and joyously got my car fixed have been less than 3 miles from home. It was thrilling enough to walk around a park that’s not the one behind our house so I’m in no rush to go yomping further afield.

I’m cool with the longer journeys, no judgement here at all. Do what you’ve got to do. I know we’re lucky to have family living so close unlike some. Living in a town with a range of supermarkets, parks and beaches means the old 5 mile rule wasn’t as hard hitting as in more rural areas.

I’m thinking more of the photos of baby showers and birthdays with large groups of adults huddled together for a photo. Lush, I’d love to see my mates in real life in close proximity. I haven’t yet but next step would be distanced meeting up on separate picnic blankets at a park or on a distanced walk. I’m not outraged I’m just confused.

We’re still only doing a big shop each week. I have no desire to go to town shopping, it’s not something I miss massively. Except for trying on bras before spending a fortune on them. Maybe, as a family we’re just easing out of it more slowly than others. We’ve seen a select few people but it’s nothing like I’m seeing in my social feeds.

Are people not bubbling with just one other household? Are they (are you?) bubbling with lots of other households? Or are they/you just so over the lockdown that as long as they/you’re in someone else’s garden anything goes?

In Wales, I understand that at the moment we’re only able to make an extended household with one other household and it’s got to be the same household until lockdown’s lifted and if you’re meeting another household it has to be outside. Interested to know what other non-shielding families are doing.

With more businesses opening up there’s a general vibe of things all being over and just having to get on with life but that’s jarring with the government guidelines. I could see all my girlfriends if we happened to be in Morrisons at the same time but we couldn’t meet as a group in someone’s living room? I could drive to Bristol to drink in a pub with my mate but I wouldn’t be able to stay over in her house. Are you finding bubbling troubling?

Four bright daffodils of varying sizes bob amongst their leaves and stalls in a planter.
Thinking Out Loud

Belated Happy St David’s Day

A belated Happy St David’s Day for 1st March. With it falling on a weekend I know a lot of schools were doing Eisteddfodau on Friday, Monday or, like my son’s (and a fair few others I’ve spoken to through work), they’re doing a whole Welsh week, Welsh fortnight or an entire enquiry topic on Wales or what it is to be Welsh.

In a time when it feels very hard to be proud to be British with the far right hijacking the union flag and with a dangerous buffoon in charge, it’s comforting to be able to celebrate my national identity and Welshness through food, crafts, song, poetry and flowers.

The local response to the recent floods in Wales has shown that sense of community, of looking out for each other and getting on with it while Westminster fights and fannies around ignoring the issue.

Wales often feels like the underdog and we’re not very good at shouting about what we’re doing well or doing first. We were the first country in the UK to introduce the charge of single-use carrier bags (2011), an opt-out organ donation system (2015) and an Older People’s Commissioner (2006).

I was at a conference a couple of years ago and a speaker ran a session about well-being without any reference to the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015) then it clicked – I was in Liverpool and the act is a Wales thing. The seven well-being goals are inspiring a bill that’s going to the UK government. Well-being is at the heart of the new Curriculum for Wales. Again, at conferences in England I’ve listened to other delegates moan about the Gove style archaic approach to education, the narrowing of curriculum, I was confused as it didn’t match up with the changes I know are happening in my child’s primary. Then I’d remember, ah of course, we have a different approach.

I’m proud to Welsh, I’m using the language more, I love living here. I’m not proud to be British. In addition to usual traditions of gorging myself on welsh cakes, decorating the house with daffodils and making yet another papier mache dragon, I’m going to quietly go about being community minded and doing good things, but maybe, just maybe for once, shouting from the hills about it.