Another tv treat from the Birmingham Literature Festival this year was Hans Rosenfeldt and Ed Thomas in conversation. The men may not have household names, but you’ll certainly know their work. Hans is the leader writer and creator of international mega-hit The Bridge and Ed writes the sparse and beautiful Hinterland set in Wales. Both shows are available for a cosy night in on Netflix. The guys were on the programme as a duo because they both write about murders and cops in a distinctly unusual bilingual fashion. The interviewer from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain skillfully weaved their experiences together, but for ease of reading I’ve pulled them apart again, with a bit of chat about similarities and differences to act as *ahem* a bridge between the two…
The Bridge – Hans Rosenfeldt
Hans is a big lumberjack type who looks super comfortable in front of the audience. I’m sure he’s well versed in talking about Saga, Martin and The Bridge. He starts by telling us a little about the writing process – 70% of the episodes he writes alone in Swedish. The scripts are translated after the third draft by a ‘proper’ translator and then one writer makes it sound “less translated” and turns it into ‘improper’ spoken Danish. He says despite Swedish and Danish sounding pretty close to our English ears “we made up the fact that we understand each other”. He says not understanding would have given them big problems with tense scenes like interrogations. So, despite appearances, it’s all false and Swedes especially have trouble with Danish. He says he’s not massively happy with the subtitles on Netflix as they are not always correct and English-speaking audiences are losing a little in translation.
I’ll say. I saw two different versions of The Bridge where Saga announces to shocked and disgusted colleagues that she feels ill. Zero sympathy from her co-workers. What awful people, I thought. Why do they not care about her? Turns out, what she actually announced loudly in the staff kitchen was that she was on her period. If I’d never seen the second version, I’d have never understood what was really going on.
Han’s initial idea for The Bridge was discussed with the production company. The series had to be 10 hours long and properly bilingual – 50% Swedish and 50% Danish. He wanted to connect two police officers in a natural unforced way. The dead body on the Øresund Bridge is placed exactly on the border between the two countries. He loves an elegant solution – he smiles and says “we were really pleased with ourselves”. But twisty turny Nordic noir plots are never that simple. The team then realised that the country the victim was from would take over the case – they had to have two victims chopped neatly in half and sewn together to make one person. Grizzly, but neat at the same time.
Martin was the first character in Hans’ mind. He says he really wanted to work with Kim Bodnia. Kim is a very well-known Danish actor, but always played the hard man type. Hans made Martin emotional and caring, not a clichéd detached divorced detective with a drinking problem. Saga was then the anti-Martin. They wanted a women who had no social skills.
For the crime Hans says they work in reverse. They start with who and why, and then work backwards. They always have the identity of the killer from the outset. He says they change a lot, but they never change that.
Despite The Bridge being a massive international hit from the off, he says he hasn’t felt pressured to change it. Series 1 was made for the domestic market, just for Sweden and Denmark. The formula just happened to be a hit elsewhere too.
He says the major issue they face as a production is the number of locations needed for each series, for each seemingly separate sub-plot. 90% is actually filmed in Sweden so they stay away from recognisable buildings and tourist areas. They don’t film any building older than 1950s. They want a gloomy, grey, dull, ordinary atmosphere. Ordinariness aside, he’s honest about breaking with police protocol for a good story and even with the laws of time and space. He shows a clip where Martin live on a news broadcast answers a phone fished from a body bag while the caller watches him on tv. That would never happen. The police would bag the body and the phone separately. He says his motto is if it’s cool enough it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. If you buy it when you watch it, that’s good enough. I guess that’s true because I’ve never noticed anything particularly silly about the storytelling on The Bridge. But worse still it turns out it’s about a 30 minute car ride across the bridge so even the most dedicated detective wouldn’t want to cross it five times a day!
Obviously the elephant in the room is Series 4. Hans squirms and say he keeps getting told off for talking about it. What he can say is that it will be the final series and shorter – only 8 episodes. They start shooting mid-November, and it will be broadcast across Europe simultaneously in January 2018. All he can says is it will be really good. And we believe him.
Y Gwyll/Hinterland – Ed Thomas
Ed is a passionate exponent of the Welsh language and Hinterland was designed from the beginning with Welsh in mind. I’ve never heard of a tv show more closely interlinked with a langauge – it’s almost like he was talking about a novel or a poem. The show is actually one story filmed two ways and broadcast three ways.The Welsh language version is on S4C, then there’s a bilingual version on BBC Wales, and then the English langauge one on BBC 4. It’s complicated.
He says that the normal vernacular of the police procedural is extremely tricky in Welsh. He wanted people not to laugh at it, but to make the language “sing”. They had to throw out a large number of procedural elements and medical scenes that normal cop shows rely on. They had to cut police briefings, and make the show more about the personal than the procedural. They make one Welsh version and one English version of each episode. He laughs and says the read-through takes a long time. Because of this complicated set up there are very practical reasons for sparse dialogue. He says that each scenes is 30% silent!
They have a very small budget for this show (no car chases!) and he’s rightly proud that they work so well with their constraints and limitations which he says gives the show a distinctive low-fi feel. He says Welsh is like jazz and continuing the musical theme the scenes are scored differently – the English scenes are softened with the music, the Welsh needs to be toughened up. The characters and the story stays the same but the feel of it changes.
We follow the outsider discovering the landscape and the story through his eyes. Giving Richard Harrington, another man who is used to tougher roles, a sympathetic character touched by grief and learning to be compassionate. Ed is so proud of his “little big country” and Hinterland is a love letter to a changing disappearing land. He’s delighted that people choose to watch it in Welsh with English subtitles, he says for the “otherness”. It’s British but on the tilt.
Hinterland’s new series is coming soon – first S4C, then BBC Wales, then BBC 4 in March 2017. Ed says they wanted to do 13 episodes and this will take them to the magic number but they plan to continue and see where this strange journey takes them.
And they both agreed –
On their counties: Both writers agreed crime drama is a strange branch of the tourist industry. Surely fictional murders should put people off visiting places? It’s not the case!
On binge watching: Ed is pro binge – people are hungry for stories. Hans says he doesn’t mind people bringing but he says something is lost if people don’t portion out stories. You can’t chat about what you’ve seen in the same way as people watch things in their own time and you get problems with spoilers. Personally he admits that he loves to binge.
On Brexit: Hans calls it a huge mistake. Ed is concerned for industry. Hinterland couldn’t have been made without European money. What does it mean for the future of strange indie British tv hits? It can’t be good.