The Subplot Is Often More Interesting Than the Main Storyline in ‘A Mind to Kill’

[11 April 2013]

By David Maine

A Mind to Kill is a BBC crime drama, starring Philip Madoc as taciturn Chief Inspector Noel Bain, that originally aired in the ‘90s. Relying heavily on its Welsh locale for plot and character elements, the series ran for three seasons and is collected here in full for the first time. This 11-disc collector’s edition is a substantial package, consisting of 11 discs with 21 episodes, each of which runs in the neighborhood of 90 minutes. Totalling roughly 34 hours of programming, there’s a lot to get through here.

That said, it’s a shame that the series doesn’t have a little more pizzazz, especially at first. This is nothing like The Wire, or even The Sopranos; this series has more in common with the staid and stagey BBC shows that you remember from your childhood than anything else. Doubtless, it has its admirers, and a case could be made that the flat visuals and dour scripting adds to the rough-edged tone of the location and storyline. That argument falls apart, though, when the episodes are consumed in quantity; the first two series in particular feel a bit monochrome, not to mention strangely airless. This is hardly a good thing.

But let’s discuss the show’s good aspects. Madoc is a capable actor, and his reserved gruffness lends the character of Bain a bit of so-square-he’s-hip allure. He is, in fact, pretty much the embodiment of everything you want in a real-life police detective: unflappable, analytical, dedicated to the cause. One early episode contains a scene in which holidaymakers rather distastefully mock the criminal investigation in which they are all suspects. Bain dresses down the crowd, shaming them with a reminder of a young girl’s murder. It’s a satisfying moment for the viewer, and a revealing character moment for Bain, as well.

It’s not all work, though: the show provides us with windows into Bain’s personal life. That personal life revolves around Bain’s daughter Hannah, capably played by Ffion Wilkins. The relationship between the two is not without difficulties and has a ring of authenticity to it. There are times—many of them in fact—when this storyline is the most intriguing part of the show, particularly later in the series, when Hannah decides to join the police force herself and Bain is replaced by another inspector, the tough but guarded Leila Hamoudi. Sara McGaughey, who plays Hamoudi, is another strong actor, as is Sharon Morgan, who plays the vivacious forensics investigator Margaret Edwards.

It may sound strange to say this, but the above statement reveals a problem in the show. This is not supposed to be a family drama interspersed with detective scenes; it’s the other way around. The fact that the subplot is often more interesting than the main storyline is indicative of problems with the production.

Why is this so? It’s tough to say. On paper, the plots sound intriguing enough: striking shipbuilders are the obvious target of investigation when a scab laborer is found murdered. A young woman’s death brings suspicion to a locally known pedophile. A woman’s murder is witnessed only by her terrified—and missing—six-year-old boy. The discovery of a long-dead corpse leads Bain to investigate a local criminal family and its steely matriarch. A faceoff between environmentalists and developers leads to a series of murders. A pair of adulterers witness a murder in an episode that also involves a cult of Welsh quasi-Buddhists(!).

Despite the potential in such storylines and the perfectly capable acting, the show lacks the spark that would elevate the episodes from merely competent to riveting. Partly this is due to the visual palette, which tends toward washed-out flatness, particularly in the first two series; camera angles tend to be unimaginative and static, and the pacing is deliberate to the point of being occasionally draggy. In many early episodes, the murderer is revealed while committing the crime, so the interest lies not in discovering who did it but in the less-interesting question of how the murderer is going to get caught. In fairness, the third season addresses some of these issues, introducing a dash more visual interest, but to viewers grown accustomed to the stylistic flair of Breaking Bad, The Wire, or even Blue Bloods, the show is apt to look severely dated.

As a whole, the series will appeal to fans of crime dramas and, perhaps, to those interested in a snapshot of Welsh pop culture from 20 years ago. There’s a fair amount of grit here—prostitutes and child molesters, greedy public figures and, of course, murders by the handful. This isn’t the most becoming presentation of Wales that you’re likely to come across, but for all that it is somewhat refreshing in its lack of adornment.

Extras are minimal. The series was originally aired in both English and Welsh, and there is a seven-minute clip from that show, entitled Yr Heliwr; for us non-Welsh speakers, it’s a fascinating little snippet, given the gutteral musicality of the language. Other bonus material is disappointing; a presumed featurette entitled The Woman of A Mind to Kill consists of written statements from the actresses which are flashed onscreen. Despite such less-than-stellar extras, the day-and-a-half’s worth of episodes makes for a satisfyingly hefty package.

Ultimately, though, the package is only as good as the episodes it contains. A Mind to Kill is a show that grew in confidence and verve as it went along. The third and final series has some strong episodes, but the early seasons will prove to be rough going for some.

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