Midsomer Murders Will Teach You To Watch Your Back In England's Green And Pleasant Land
The Wheel of Murder makes its final stop of the year in the dangerous English countryside.
Ah, summer, when adventurous travelers seek new experiences among the world’s most beautiful landmarks. London! Tokyo! The blood-spattered tulip fields of Holland! The crapulent evidence lockers of Milan! Uh, what? Before you go, check with Al Lowe as she TV-travels the globe to investigate how murder gets done on an international scale.
The Show In my last Wheel of Murder filing for 2015, I leave you with the one that inspired me to start covering this beat in the first place: England's long-running and widely-beloved cozy rural police procedural, Midsomer Murders, based on the books by Caroline Graham. For two years, I have avoided writing about it for fear I would not be able to do justice to this perfect specimen of the formula, but I must wait no longer. Now that Netflix has every one of the 18 past seasons available, those of you who have never gotten on board for whatever foolish reason can do so at your leisure -- and, hell, there are so many episodes, you could easily stretch it out until we meet again next summer. I know there are so many new, good shows to watch these days, but as you will no doubt agree, the comfort of an imminently worthy old-standby is something that can't be beaten.
When my husband was in graduate school and we had a new baby, our lives were so stretched, we fell into a routine of literally falling on the couch to watch Midsomer every Friday night with wine and cheese. When things got especially stressful, we'd throw in extra episodes as we could throughout the week. This routine became so ingrained that at 7 PM, we needed only to look at each other and mutter the shorthand "Barnaby?" -- after the show's main character, played by John Nettles -- for it to be understood that a fix was needed. Seriously, Midsomer Murders may be the only reason we didn't become full-on alcoholics when the huz was finishing his PhD, so much so that he was compelled to thank Nettles in his dissertation acknowledgments.
The Formula This isn't the first show to employ the cozy village + jarring crimes + cranky cop thing, but it is the one that perfected it. Chief Inspector Barnaby works and lives in the fictional county of Midsomer, scene of an unending number of community fetes, cricket matches, hilariously-named pubs, bird-watching societies, painting groups, and drama clubs in the various villages dotting the countryside. On the surface, it sounds like a mildly pleasant hour and a half to spend forgetting your troubles. And, it is that. But it's also the highest -- and often most brutal -- weekly body county of anything I have ever watched. I mean, this is not old ladies getting poisoned in their sitting rooms by the maid. There are decapitations, beatings, stabbings, vicious attacks (once with a wheel of cheese!) -- all balanced with the meeting of the local gardening association, and they've struck that balance for nearly twenty years.
"[Location] was like Another Character" Midsomer is a fictional place, sadly. I mean, the countryside is there; the show is filmed around beautiful Oxfordshire and small villages with names like Buckinghamshire, Dorchester-on-Thames, Great Missenden, Little Gaddesden. I'm pretty sure I'll be touring these places on some wedding anniversary of the future, but I will be a little sad they won't be going by their amazing Midsomer names, which include: Pandlefoot Bailey, Great Worthy, Elverton-cum-Latterley, Luxton Deeping, and -- everyone's favorite -- Badger's Drift.
It's basically a parade of everything an Anglophile loves about England, except with a crime rate double London's.
Those Subtitles, Tho Not necessary, so I will use this category to instead remark upon one of the show's most famous, constantly used sound effects: the nighttime call of a fox, backed up by the tentative chorus of 1,000 owls. Because I could never put it any better than this, I have to quote this fantastic blog: "If there were as many foxes in Midsomer as there appear to be from the soundtrack, the dead bodies would never actually hit the ground -- instead, they would recline gently on a carpet of screaming foxes. If there was a BAFTA for 'Most Gratuitous Use of Nocturnal Animal Cries and Calls' (and there should be) then Midsomer Murders would be a dead cert for the award."
What's Best About It? John Nettles was already a household name when he became Tom Barnaby, having played what was pretty much the British Magnum P.I. for years in the show Bergerac (many episodes of which are on YouTube). If you're looking for an older gentleman on which to develop a terrible crush, look no further. As Barnaby, he is everything you want a TV detective to be: funny, compassionate but tough, impatient but a good leader, and generous with the sex appeal. The show makes no apologies for what it is, and so often throws Barnaby's wife, Joyce, into harm's way that it becomes a running, tongue-in-cheek joke. Whenever Joyce tells Barnaby over some terrible meal she has cooked that she is headed to the church for choir practice, expect the organist to be bludgeoned to death with a hymnal almost immediately. More village fetes are ruined by someone getting drowned in punch bowl or shot by what was supposed to be a fake arrow than I could even count, and it's great.
Barnaby's relationships with his sergeants is just cranky enough to be entertaining. Watch long enough and you will be able to categorize your fellow Midsomer fans by which sergeant they prefer. For what it's worth, I'm a Jones gal all the way.
What's Worst About It? Well, the theme song is played on a Theremin? And it gets into your head like an earworm from hell that can never be extracted? I'm sorry, but you'll get used to it. I have been living with it as a constant undercurrent in my brain for ten years now. If you have a spouse like mine who could not carry a tune in a bucket but yet insists on WHISTLING along, well...I'll be the first to set up the GoFundMe for your defense.
The only true worst is that, in 2013, John Nettles retired from the show. He was replaced by the great British character actor Neil Dudgeon, who now plays his cousin, DCI John Barnaby, almost making it bearable to say goodbye to Nettles, but not quite. Breaking my heart, Jones (played by Jason Hughes) has now also left. Still: anything to keep the show going, and I'll not let the side down by giving it up.
Whatever Shall I Serve? I will share with you the Traditional Midsomer Menu of the Huff Household Wine & Cheese Night, and I encourage you to make use of it whenever you come upon a time in your life when only "Barnaby" will heal you: English cheddar, as sharp as you can stand it; whatever goat's milk cheese is on sale (God help you if it's Humboldt Fog, for that is an addiction from which you will never break free); the cracker of your choice; thinly-sliced pepper salami; olives; apple slices; strawberries; dark chocolate and copious amounts of $12 red wine. Cheers to y'all until the Wheel turns again.
Al Lowe's Wheel Of Murder
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