A High Mortality Rate in Midsomer!
Do you know the most dangerous place in the world to live?
Forget real-life statistics! Far and away the most dangerous place in the world is a small cluster of villages in the English Cotswolds, collectively called Midsomer.
Don’t be fooled by all those doddery old dears (most of whom you’ve seen in a thousand British dramas down through the years). The golden stone buildings and those blooming cottage gardens full of roses and hollyhocks may look like the front of a chocolate box – in this case, the chocolates are full of cyanide!
We’re currently in season 19 of this BBC crime show and I’m surprised there are enough people left alive to populate one village, let alone a whole string of them.
I first came across Midsomer Murders when I was working as a subtitler for the Australian Caption Centre in the 1990s. I was immediately hooked on the winning combination of macabre murders, world-weary and VERY clever lead detective, gorgeous scenery and tongue-in-the-cheek humor. Lots of people may end up pushing up daisies in Midsomer, but s at least there’s an ironic smile on their faces as they contemplate eternity. It’s a very English show – it has that touch of English irony and black humor and sharp eye for distinctions in the class system which can lead to murderous consequences.
The stories were originally based on books by Caroline Graham featuring Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. I read the first of these, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, last year, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t close enough to the delicious dark humor of the TV shows so I decided not to proceed with reading the rest of the series.
TV’s Tom Barnaby is played by John Nettles, a wonderful actor with a Shakespearean background, who stayed from 1997 when the series launched until his departure in 2011. Over that time, we got to know Tom pretty well – his wife who stumbles over murders more often than I have hot dinners, his daughter Cully and her failed acting career, and his generally sardonic reaction to the blood-soaked mayhem around him.
Since 2011, the lead role has been taken over by Neil Dudgeon who is Tom’s younger cousin, John. Again, while the show focuses mainly on the murders and solving them, we get to know his wife, a local headmistress, his daughter Betty, and his wonderful dog Sykes who has gone to dog heaven now and has been replaced by another terrier called Paddy. The dogs add a nice touch of light humor to the goings-on!
As you can imagine, over 19 seasons, there have been an assortment of offsiders for our detective. Again, often the source of sly amusement to offset the barrage of killings. This is a show that never takes itself too seriously. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to pinpoint the atmosphere, but believe me it works.
Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Barnaby’s first sergeant, was an awful driver – cue lots of sardonic comments from Barnaby. He was also a potential suitor for Cully – it was nice to have the bit of sexual tension bubbling away beneath all the death and disaster.
Troy stayed for the first six seasons and was replaced by a shortlived (as a cast member – he wasn’t murdered, something unusual in Midsomer!) Sergeant Dan Scott (John Hopkins) who only stayed for two seasons. While he’s a fine actor, he didn’t quite fit into this strange world of Midsomer so it was a bit of relief for long-term fans of the show (well, to me anyway!) when Jason Hughes took over as Sergeant Ben Jones. Ben is the longest serving offsider and he’s just perfect for the part. The look of bewilderment on his round face when bodies are coming out of the woodwork is just priceless.
Ben stayed for seven seasons and covered the changeover in Barnabys. I missed him when he went! His bull-at-a-gate manner contrasted with Barnaby’s much more subtle approach in a way that was very entertaining to watch.
Since then John Barnaby has worked with Sergeant Charlie Nelson (Gwilym Lee) who has just left to be replaced by a new guy called Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix) who so far isn’t showing any major personality traits for me to latch onto. Apart from the fact that there’s a possibility of a romance with pathologist Kam Karimore (Manjinder Virk). Not convinced yet, but I might warm to him.
What surprised me was how quickly I warmed to Neil Dudgeon as John Barnaby. I was very fond of Tom Barnaby as portrayed by John Nettles. Neil Dudgeon is slightly more sardonic (but only slightly) and his awareness of the joke is probably a tad stronger, but he’s made the role his own. Not easy after a much-loved character departs and you have to step into his shoes.
Another real charm of the series is spotting the distinguished British actor, usually someone in their twilight years who has had a great career on stage and screen. I grew up watching BBC shows, particularly the literary adaptations, so it’s lovely to see actors I’ve known and loved in other roles playing the villagers, nefarious and not.
I hope I’ve convinced you of the charm of this show, despite the terrible mortality rate! I’m guessing it’s on in North America on the BBC channels. If not, I’m sure you can find it on DVD or through a streaming service. Here in Australia, it’s terrifically popular. It runs on the local public station and as a fixture on our cable TV.
I think one of the secrets of Midsomer Murders’ long-lasting popularity is that it harks back to the Golden Age mysteries by people like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. There are lots of murders at the manor and dotty English eccentrics to play suspects.
There’s also that sense of England as an Eden threatened by the snake in the form of the murderers – and then there’s that wonderfully satisfying feeling of returning to order when the baddies have been exposed and taken away to jail and everybody local can get on with making jam and singing Jerusalem and cultivating dahlias.
Despite all the murders, it’s ultimately a comforting fantasy of life – but hey, on a Sunday night, that’s JUST what I want!
I’d like to thank Wikipedia for its excellent article about Midsomer Murders. It provided a lot of the detail in this piece!