This essay will explore a textual and thematic analysis of BBC dramas Death in Paradise (Thorogood, 2011)and Hinterland (Thomas & Talfan, 2013), discussing how they both utilise and reject generic conventions, becoming revisionist and traditional examples of the television detective-drama genre. Similarities and differences between the two texts will be evaluated, culminating in how and why they utilise generic iconography and what implications that has on them being disparate examples of the genre.
Watson & Hill (1993 p. 79)define genre as ‘particular styles of artistic expression which exist within all art forms.’ In relation to television, this denotes a set of characteristics that an audience may come to expect from a text of a certain ilk. Despite both Death in Paradiseand Hinterlandbeing categorised as the same genre – they are in fact, extremely different.
Dirks (2010) notes thatgenre can be split into several subcategories depending on how it uses generic characteristics and iconography. A traditional example of a genre involves ‘a popular, early stage of the genre with clear establishment of its characteristics and prototypes – setting a benchmark for the genre’. A revisionist example, however, is ‘a reinterpretation, recasting or questioning of the original genre with greater complexity of themes, whilst retaining many of its characteristics and iconographic elements’.
The television detective-drama is a highly popular yet nuanced genre. Some of Britain’s most popular television productions have come in the form of detective dramas; for example, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (Fell, 1989)which ‘ran for twenty-four years, attracting 700 million viewers’ (Clark, 2013).This popularity, then, provides enough evidence for any producer to commission the production of a new detective drama.
Branston & Stafford (2010 p. 78)state that‘audiences understandably seek the pleasures of the familiar, as a result, viewers return to watch a genre that they feel comfortable with. We enjoy the ritual and reassurance involved in knowing broadly what might happen’. The reassurance audiences seek is explained by Rick Altman (1999)who discusses the use of ‘semantic and syntactic elements of a text’. Essentially, this is the identification of genre through ‘semantic’ elements, such as: music, character types or objects, and ‘syntactic’ structure which involves: plot, storyline and character relationships.
Death in Paradise, first aired on the BBC in 2011, is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie. The programme encapsulates the trials and tribulations of a somewhat comically dysfunctional local police force as they attempt to solve a host of complicated and intricate murders amidst the background of sun, sand and sea. Hinterlandoffers a more quaintly British feel. Initially commissioned in an attempt to portray a ‘true Wales’ (Moss, 2013), the programme is set against the rugged and bleak landscape of the Llyn Peninsula, a backdrop that lends itself more naturally to the types of gruesome narrative that are included in the programme.
This analysis will focus on the first episodes of Death in Paradise and Hinterlandrespectively, which aim to establish the tone of the programme. This involves the introduction of characters, locations, objects and narratives. These episodes are the audience’s first encounters with the texts, and, as a result, it is imperative that they convey their true tone and nature effectively.
The first textual element that this essay will discuss is title sequences. One of the primary functions of a title sequence is to ‘set the tone […] you get a sense of the genre and pacing simply by experiencing the first few seconds of an opening title sequence’ (Braha & Byrne, 2012). This is very much the case in both Death in Paradise and Hinterland. Tonally, the two texts are polar opposites – their respective title sequences are overtly indicative of this.
Death in Paradisebegins with an upbeat, euphoric reggae-style theme tune – something that is now ubiquitous with the programme. This light-hearted and positively catchy score is somewhat contrapuntal to the type of opening that an audience may expect from a text of this genre. In addition to the sanguine soundtrack, colour is used in the Death in Paradise opening sequence to establish its tone (see appendix one). Images from the series, edited into a montage and washed in an artificial yellow, become the main visuals of the opening sequence. Yellow is ‘the colour of sunshine, it’s associated with joy, happiness and energy’(Colour Wheel 2015). These emotions are not ones that would often be associated with a genre to whom death, devastation and destruction are so inherently linked. Of course, the combination of bright colour and music is used to reflect the holiday-esque location in which Death in Paradiseis set. However, it is also used to offer the audience a notion that the forthcoming programme will be a somewhat revisionist example of the genre.
Conversely, Hinterland’s title sequence is immediately indicative of the programme being a more traditional example of the detective-drama. The programme’s soundtrack is a stark contrast to that of Death in Paradise. The use of a lone piano to play a slow, sombre, somewhat chilling sound immediately lures the audience into the sense that they are watching a more conventionally dark detective drama. There is no orchestral sound to the score, just the lonely echo of single piano keys played consecutively; perhaps used to mimic the lone ramblings of an isolated detective – something that will be further explored later. As with Death in Paradise’s title sequence, colour is also used here to indicate the tone of the programme to the audience (see appendix two).
Hinterland’s title sequence is actually a very complex and nuanced one – the ways in which images and colour are used is interesting. Somewhat jarring, static images of teeth, plants and bolt-locks come into view one-by-one with a distinct clicking sound – almost as if they are queued on an old slide projector. The blend of these close-up and extreme close-up images is interesting because what they denote and what they connote, in this instance, are binary opposites. Teeth and plants, for example, at the level of denotation, are signifiers of life – being alive, living organisms. Likewise, a lock, fixed to a door, is a symbol of safety and security. Colour is used in the opening sequence to subvert these denotations into something more harrowing. Dark shadows and rust-coloured tints are used to illustrate the teeth, plants and locks as decaying. As a result, what the audience may initially see as signs of life and security are now objects of death and vulnerability. Hinterland’s title sequence, then, sets a much darker tone for the forthcoming programme than that of Death in Paradise and immediately establishes it as a traditional example of the genre.
The second syntactic feature that this essay will discuss is the archetype of the hardboiled detective. As explained by TV Tropes (2019),this traditional character archetype involves ‘a tough, cynical guy who solves mysteries with dogged persistence rather than astounding insight’. Despite the more modern female detective characters emerging in British television recently such as Veraand Marcella, this trope is a more archaic view of the archetypal male detective that has been so congruent with this genre in the past. Both Death in Paradise and Hinterlandfeature examples of this generic archetype – namely DI Humphrey Goodman in the former and DCI Tom Matthias in the latter. Both detectives share a host of similarities, but also some crucial differences which serve to divide the two texts into different denominations of the genre.
Costume provides the most explicit dichotomy between the two characters. Naturally, the climate of North Wales and the Caribbean require different clothing choices – but costume is harnessed cleverly in the two texts to further emphasise their distinctive tones. DI Humphrey Goodman of Death in Paradiseis often adorned in a casual linen suit (see appendix three). This costume detracts from the character’s seriousness and assimilates him more-so with civilians or holiday-makers. The common creases and coffee stains on his shirt further embellish his lack of prestige – highlighting his absence of ‘astounding insight’ as mentioned by TV Tropes. This alternative costume is a further example of Death in Paradisepushing the traditional boundaries of the genre as they attempt to bring some embryonic energy into the stereotypical mise-en-scène of a detective drama.
The costume of DCI Tom Matthias of Hinterlandis constructed in a totally different way (see appendix four). He is regularly seen wearing a shirt, tie and smart shoes – the type of formal, occupational uniform that one might expect from his character. In addition, Matthias often wears a leather jacket, a rebellious ‘symbol of cool’(Green, 2016). This unconventional garment is a hint at Matthias’ more erratic nature and perhaps a reference to his alcoholism, as was the case when ‘worn by John Nettles in Bergerac’(Smedley, 2019).
This introduces a common theme between the two detectives, and one that has plagued the tv-detective archetype for decades, spanning back to the Raymond Chandler novels of the 1930s – alcoholism. Cultural Critic, Reed-Farrell Coleman (2018)writes that ‘hard drinking as a measure of toughness became part of the mix of the crime fiction formula’. This theme is prevalent in both Death in Paradiseand Hinterland,although created in different ways as to convey their paradoxical tones. This centres specifically around the use of two props and their subsequent connotations: bottled beer and whiskey. For DI Goodman in Death in Paradisehis alcohol consumption is often sought from bottled lager with a lime-wedge in the neck (see appendix five). The connotations of this are not of dependency or addiction, but instead; socialising, relaxing and holidaying. The use of this prop, as well as being congruent with Death in Paradise’s setting, is to drive the genre away from the more traditional stereotype of alcoholism and to provide another example of how Death in Paradiseis revisionary.
Conversely, Hinterlandtakes a more traditional approach to the subject of alcohol dependency. Matthias is a dark, chiselled man with a clear alcohol addiction – something we see in each episode. He is often seen sitting alone, whisky in hand, drinking in the dark (see appendix six). The low-key back lighting emphasises Matthias’ plight and his lone relationship with alcohol as they are often visibly centric on screen whilst other peripheral objects are in the shadows. Whiskey itself provides strong connotations, including ‘traditional values of egalitarianism and generosity’ (Social Issues Research Centre, 2019).As such, one might associate sharing whiskey with acquaintances whilst socialising. But, like its title sequence, Hinterlandflips denotation to have an opposite connotative meaning. The whiskey, in this instance, provides a more traditional symbol of alcoholism – sitting alone, drinking spirits as opposed to the more communal and jovial example that Death in Paradise sets. This again is an icon of Hinterland’s traditional roots.
Both Death in Paradise and Hinterlandhave received some acclaim. The producers of Hinterlandare praised for the way in which they ‘battled against adversity to secure funding and then produce such a stunning programme’. Moss (2013)describes how ‘it took two and a half years’ to raise the £4.2m budget and continues to praise the cast for their ability to act in both Welsh and English. Death in Paradisereceived similar praise, most of which centres around their persistent use of black and ethnic minority actors to play important roles. In a review published on CultBox (Lewis, 2011), Death in Paradise is described as ‘visually wonderful’ and ‘lavish’ – terms perhaps not traditionally directed at such a stereotypically grizzly genre. Death in Paradise’s revisionary charm is clearly to the taste of the British audience, it was confirmed recently that series nine and ten of the programme had been commissioned – evidence that the BBC see it as a valuable asset. Perhaps Death in Paradise’s success has been the catalyst for more foreign-based dramas appearing on British television. Scandinavian shows such as Wallander (Mankell, 2011)for example have proved to be a big success to a somewhat naive and traditionally British-orientated television audience.
To conclude, both Death in Paradise and Hinterland, although implemented differently, share consistent characteristics and iconography of the detective-drama genre. Through a combination of semantic and syntactic techniques, the two programmes are clear examples of traditional and revisionist denominations of the genre. Finally, although both programmes are equally effective for different reasons, perhaps we are beginning to see a new wave of revisionist examples of the detective drama, such as The Bridge and Suburra, set in Denmark and Italy respectively, and appearing on British television since Death in Paradise’s success. Audience viewing figures and the appetite of the BBC would certainly seem to indicate as much.
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