When in The Copper Beeches Dr. Watson asks Sherlock Holmes "Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?" referring to peaceful rural England, Holmes replies, "They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
These lines by Arthur Conan Doyle must have inspired Caroline Graham, who wrote the original seven Inspector Barnaby mysteries as well as the producers of British ITV’s Midsomer Murders, whose episodes clock in at slightly over an hour and a half and all take place in the sixty plus villages of the fictional county of Midsomer. Possibly there is a pun here as well, as it always seems to be midsummer during the action. There are as of this counting over ninety episodes in 13 series, that began airing in the late 1990’s and are still going strong.
Most feature the very polite “middle aged” Chief inspector Thomas Barnaby (actor John Nettles,) who with a significantly younger Detective Sergeant (there are three over the years) go about plying their business in the spectacular British Countryside. Most involve at least three homicides over the course of the episode. In the early episodes, the poor inspector loves his wife, eats her dubious cooking with a smile, and suffers the wretched driving of his easily distracted sergeant. The show is definitely filmed with a female audience in mind.
The typical tension of a police procedural is noticeably lacking in that there is no superior applying pressure to the CI to close his cases, while he takes charge of his own murder investigations all over the county. The shows tend to begin in one of three ways, with a murder, with another act of malfeasance, or a slower introduction to the always large cast of characters leaving one wondering who the (first) victim will be. Barnaby is neither Quixotic nor brilliant, but ruggedly handsome and patient. Often something his wife, his daughter or his sergeant says late in the episode causes him to make sense of the mishmash of events and clues, make the connections the audience is supposed to be making with him. And unlike most American police procedurals, the emphasis on the technical aspects of criminal investigation is downplayed, taking place largely in the background. The show is clearly about people, who, for the most part, are believable, even when they are outrageous—even if the detectives are not always.
Its strong suits include the ever large and splendidly capable cast of characters, the stunning architectural features—including the buildings, the interiors and the landscapes—the spectacular film work, casting and costumes and the always intricate relationships between the assorted suspects, usually five or more. The stories are never rushed, and the sites are quite varied. One episode will involve shenanigans at a private school, the next a group of church bell ringers, the next takes place on the farms, and the next a group of actors or a writing group. Its weaknesses are the blandness of its main characters, the detectives, who are overly everyman without harsh edges and the occasional formulaic elements that are introduced during the “solutions,” the most annoying being those murderers who having been a brick until then turn out to be so very unhinged, especially sitting in the back seat of the squad car muttering inanities.
There is a subtle humor as well, as with most British mysteries. One gets the sense there is an inside joke about how we all would really like to kill our neighbors or coworkers. While not nearly as crisp as the various BBC productions of Agatha Cristie material, it is not as self conscious as most of her interpretations have been. It also lacks the sense of irony, bitterness and introspection of much of the current crop of PBS Mystery British Imports, such as Wallander, Case Histories, Zen or Inspectors Morse and Lewis, which is probably why it once aired on A&E in the US as well as “some PBS affiliates,” according to Wikipedia.
Clearly an acquired taste, production values are much higher than most American crime dramas, always reminding one of the difference between acting and mugging, a distinction largely wasted on the American TV viewing public. It is worth seeing for the amazing villages themselves, as well. Available on DVD and from you local library.