Have British crime dramas been boiled down to a formula? Take a forbidding rural location, populate it with miserable, suspicious people, and explore some kind of tragic but enigmatic crime that took place years in the past. It’s a winning framework that has formed the basis of many of the UK’s best recent TV series – as well as a lot of generic dross. Channel 4’s bleak new addition to the genre, the Wales-set mystery The Light in the Hall (Welsh title Y Golau), feels closer to this latter category.
The story picks up 18 years after Ela, a teenager, suddenly went missing. A local gardener, Joe Thomas (played by Misfits and Game of Thrones star Iwan Rheon), confessed to her murder at the time but was unable, or unwilling, to recall some details of the crime; a body was never found. In the first episode of The Light in the Hall, Joe is let out on parole. Ela’s mother, Sharon (The Thick of It’s Joanna Scanlan), is still consumed by grief. Also in the mix is Cat (Utopia’s Alexandra Roach), an investigative journalist who grew up in the same village as Ela, and knew her as a child. She is encouraged by her editor to write a deep-dive feature on the teenager’s disappearance – and may prove crucial to unravelling the truth of what happened.
The mystery at the heart of The Light in the Hall is an intriguing enough one – it’s blindingly obvious that something’s amiss with the official version of events, but hard to discern exactly what. Stretching this mystery over six episodes, however, may not have been the wisest call: creator Regina Moriarty’s series moves at a dour trudge and doesn’t have enough life in its crevices to really sustain any tension.
Characters speak in dialogue that’s often painfully overliteral, and the actors struggle to give it verisimilitude. Scanlon, usually an eminently capable performer, struggles to really articulate Sharon’s character; lines such as “I’m genuinely surprised I haven’t got cancer from hating him so much” never really ring true. Rheon fares better, perhaps because his character is more the haunted, quiet type – he uses his naturally flat affect to his advantage. What The Light does have going for it is a willingness to show the uglier sides of pretty much all its characters. Everyone’s got a secret, it seems.
The fact that this series begins just days after Happy Valley returned to BBC One does it no favours. Sally Wainwright’s Yorkshire-set drama treads much of the same tonal ground, just with far more élan. In a vacuum, The Light in the Hall would be a perfectly fine, if a little overwrought, small-town crime drama. The problem is, we’ve seen it all before.