Murder in the English village


The 19th season of the British TV series Midsomer Murders has started streaming on Netflix. This is quite an achievement in longevity. I wrote about this long-running show two years ago and it sparked a lot of interesting comments and suggestions for other similar series. Thanks to those, I have watched episodes of Death in Paradise, Inspector Morse, and the first two seasons of the much more superior show (in terms of writing, acting, and plotting) of Broadchurch and am looking forward to the third.

But for all its weaknesses, there is something curiously addictive about Midsomer. To say that the show is formulaic is putting it mildly and yet that predictability is perhaps part of its appeal, akin to the charm of an Agatha Christie novel. One settles in to a routine and knows what to expect. Each episode begins with a murder fairly early on, often before the opening credits, and there may be as many as three more murders before the culprit is identified and confronted at which point he or she confesses everything and is led away. Each murder is followed by the murder scene and victim being examined by the forensic pathologist, and discussions of the case by Chief Detective Inspector Barnaby and his Detective Sergeant assistant. These three, and the chief’s spouse, are the only regulars on the show and they have all been replaced at various times. We have had two CDIs and spouses, three pathologists, and five DSs.

The running joke is that the first Barnaby was a simple, down-to-Earth man, scornful of superstition and the supernatural, and whose idea of a good time is to stay at home, watch TV, have a simple meat-and-potatoes meal, and the occasional drink at the pub, while his wife Joyce fancies herself as a gourmet cook and tries out new recipes that he forces himself to eat. She also seems to be involved in every cultural activity and club in the region and insists on dragging him along. This plot device enables her to coincidentally be part of the action in most of the murders. Her involvement happened so often that the writers could have easily ended the series by making her into a Moriarty-like figure who was secretly the brains behind most of the murders. But she disappeared along with the retirement of her husband who was replaced by his cousin with the same last name. The second Barnaby is not a party animal either but his wife is now headmistress of a local school and does not get involved in the cases as much.

The series milks the stereotypical village atmosphere for all its worth. It seems like these villages are full of festivals and cultural clubs and events involving fairs and pageants and floats and dressing up that form the backdrop for the murders. After a while, one tends to overlook the implausibility of many of the plots and motives and instead focuses on other aspects of the series. As the series progressed, it has given up on realistic plots and become more campy with the writers trying to tweak the formula by providing ever more exotic forms of death. We have had beheadings with guillotines and swords, impalings, burials in concrete, killings by dropped gargoyles or a giant ball of cheese, crushing by piles of newspapers, explosions, and death by every conceivable garden and farm implements, venomous exotic snakes, crushing by an armored tank, and even by cricket balls fired at high speed from the bowling machines used in practices. If one’s opinions of English village life were shaped by this series, one would never venture out alone in the dark because one is likely to be run through with a pitchfork or worse.

I have learned that the opening sequences feature all the main characters and one needs to follow closely all the names and the relationships. The biggest implausibility is that we are supposed to believe that ordinary people can be pushed to become multiple killers due to circumstances in their lives. They not only do several murders well, they manage to act normally between them. For any ordinary person, committing a murder would be a traumatic event that would leave them pretty shaken. But the ordinary people of Midsomer murder with the coolness and aplomb of Mafia hit men and are even better than them at hiding their tracks, at least for a while.

For a rational person to commit a murder, you need motive, means, and opportunity. In fictional murder mysteries of this genre, the villain also needs to be fairly prominent in the story because it would against the unwritten rules to have as the murderer someone who appeared only peripherally. So the only way to hide the culprit in plain sight is to provide many people with motives and secrets that they are hiding that have nothing to do with the murders but serve to make them look suspicious. And, boy, are there secrets! In Midsomer county everyone, other than the regulars, seem to be having secret affairs with everyone else, so the motive of jealousy or inheritance due to secret kinship as a result of out-of-wedlock children can suddenly emerge. In fact, sex and sexual intrigue and even incest seem to be the main activity in English villages, taking second place only to drinking tea or consuming beer in the local pub.

Initially, the show consisted almost exclusively of white people and when asked why this was so, the creator said that he was trying to keep the series ‘typically English’. As you can imagine, that did not go well and he was replaced. The series now has people of color all over the place (including the pathologist) and inter-racial couples and relationships are common.

There were some interesting class overtones early on in the series, though that has largely disappeared. Rich people and the nobility and the landed gentry play major roles but also tend to be portrayed negatively as rude and obnoxious and officious and condescending. The clergy and other religious people also do not fare well in the series, coming across as hypocrites and petty and vindictive and mean. The first chief Barnaby is clearly anti-snob and not religious and while polite to the upper classes, clearly relishes the opportunity to get in his digs at them. And he has plenty of opportunities to do so since much of the action involves upper class people and their activities in their exclusive clubs, such as horse racing, cricket, archery, golf, rowing, bird watching, and so on. Over time the first Barnaby became more irascible and less tolerant of the upper classes treating him like a peon, but his replacement (who is his cousin with the same last name) is less prickly and more cerebral.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I love murder mysteries/cop shows, but never cared for Midsomer or Broadchurch. I’ll take reruns of Frost, Morse, Endeavour, Vera, Prime Suspect (Mirren), Silent Witness, New Tricks, Pie in the Sky, Marple, George Gently, Wallander, and some of the Scandinavian shows over those two any day. Dunno why.

  2. Holms says

    It’s just amazing how many plots are spurred onward by people listening to open doors and windows in those shows.

  3. DonDueed says

    Midsomer shares with other shows like Murder, She Wrote the problem that, if they have a long run, their small-town setting would mean that practically every resident would eventually either commit or fall victim to foul play.

    Now, Law and Order and Perry Mason didn’t have that problem, being set in gigantic cities.

  4. says

    If you like that sort of thing you should perhaps look up the Lord Peter Wimsey series. They’re quite old but vastly better than Midsomer, which Partner watched mainly for the scenery.

  5. Mano Singham says

    DonDueed @#3,

    Actually, Midsomer gets over that problem by setting it in a county, not a town, and the murders occur in different villages in the county so that the population of each village does not get depleted and one can have new characters for each episode. The detectives operate out of the county seat.

  6. Sunday Afternoon says

    Mano wrote:

    In fictional murder mysteries of this genre, the villain also needs to be fairly prominent in the story because it would against the unwritten rules to have as the murderer someone who appeared only peripherally.

    Another clue as to who-might-have-dunit in Midsomer is the prominence of the guest cast. My impressions early on were that the more prominent the guest, the more likely they were to be the murderer!

  7. cartomancer says

    Technically it’s not the 19th “season” of Midsomer Murders, because British TV shows don’t run for “seasons”. They run for “series”. In the US it is usual for a weekly programme to run for 13 or 26 episodes (a quarter or half a year – an actual calendrical season) whereas British programmes generally run for six episodes at a time, sometimes as few as three or four, sometimes as many as eight or nine, but almost never more than 15 or so. Six is the usual number. This has a lot to do with the fact that, while a US drama or comedy programme will usually have a whole team of ten or twenty writers working on it, here in Britain we generally have one or two writers who do the scripts for the whole series, or at most one writer who does each episode. There is a far greater sense of proprietorial ownership among British TV writers and their episodes or series, and it is usually the writer rather than the director who is presumed to be the key talent behind them. As such British TV series are generally written out in their entirety before filming starts, where American series tend to be written on the go as filming is happening. The exceptions are, of course, topical comedy programmes such as The Now Show and Have I Got News for You, which have to be written to very tight schedules. As such these tend to stay as Radio programmes, where there is a much shorter turnaround, or adopt improvised formats where comedians and guests make most of it up on the spot, interspersed with scripted jokes from the chair.

  8. fentex says

    Another one you’ll probably enjoy, for it is superb, is ‘Endeavour’ (a bit of a costume drama in that it’s set in the very early 1960’s and is the story of Inspector Morse’s start as a detective).

    By the way, if you’re looking for excellent British entertainment you ought find and listen to the radio show ‘Cabin Pressure’, which is about the funniest thing ever put over the air – and having ended a few years ago is nice complete package of 27 episodes.

  9. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer,

    You are quite right. I have started paying attention to who the writer is of each episode because I noticed that some writers produce better plots than others. I think that having fewer shows per season (or series) allows for greater quality. The trouble with US shows is that they aim to make a lot of money later in repeats in syndication and that tends to require something of the order of 100 episodes, so they just churn the stuff out.

  10. KG says

    I’ve seen a couple of Midsomer Murders, but was very much put off by one in which a character’s paranormal powers were treated with total credulity – I don’t recall the details. I do enjoy the linked series Morse, Lewis and Endeavour – all set in Oxford, which is one of the attractions. I worked for a while at Oxford University, and did notice that there were some academic rivalries that got a bit personal – but if you credit Morse etc., I was taking my life in my hands! Scarce an academic without a guilty secret dating from a couple of decades previously, usually involving large-scale fraud or serious sexual abuse at the minimum, and all ready to kill in order to avoid exposure.

  11. Mano Singham says

    KG,

    I remember that silly episode. A child was able to remember accurately details from her infancy. Utter nonsense.

    There was another silly one involving the ghosts of nuns.

  12. MysteryLover says

    If you like British murder mysteries, try Rosemary and Thyme. Two women, one a former copy are now garden designers and always find a body. The mysteries are good and the gardens are gorgeous!

  13. Sophy says

    You might like to give The Coroner, another British one set in a seaside town, a try. For period flavour The Miss Fisher mysteries, set in 1920s Australia, are fun. I also recommend The Doctor Blake mysteries. It’s another Australian series this time in the late 50s and early sixties. And the Icelandic series Trapped is excellent. Along with other commentators I highly recommend the Endeavour series. Grantchester and Inspector George Gently are okay. Shetland is a good series which I could watch over again purely for the scenery.

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