Since its debut in 1997, the British mystery series Midsomer Murders has achieved world-wide popularity and massive success. Originally based on seven novels starring rural police detective DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), by Caroline Graham, the stories are set in the numerous villages of fictional Midsomer County in England, and hybridize the “British cozy” style with pure Grand Guignol for a highly entertaining and always unpredictable effect. Acorn Media has been releasing DVD sets of the 100-minute episodes at regular intervals. Midsomer Murders Set 15 (released June 1, 2010) is atypical in two respects: none of its three episodes have been broadcast in the United States, and the fourth disk of the set contains a 2006 documentary, “Super Sleuths,” reflecting on the show’s first ten years. (For details about Midsomer Murders’ history, see my Blogcritics review of Set 12.)
The three episodes included in Set 15 are the first, second and third episodes of Season 11, first aired in 2008. All three have several motifs in common (although they are motifs repeated throughout the series). Star-crossed or disrupted weddings and consequences from long-past misdeeds coming home to roost are central to each story.
“Shot at Dawn” opens with a black-and-white flashback to the battlefields of World War I. In what appears to be a harsh miscarriage of justice, a young soldier, Tommy Hicks (Will Featherstone), wanders in a daze away from the front line and is charged with desertion in the face of the enemy. He is executed by his squad commander, Duggie Hammond (Josh Stanley), who is forced to finish a botched firing squad job with his sidearm at close range.
The scene shifts to the present day, when the village has gathered for a ceremony in which the name of Tommy Hicks, posthumously cleared of all charges, has been added to the village’s war memorial. Descendants of the two families, however, consider the war far from over. The family patriarchs have engaged in a nasty public feud for decades, although we quickly realize that relationships among other members of both families are, to say the least, complicated. DCI Barnaby has his own gripes with Dave Hicks (Brian Capron), a sleazy contractor and the village Mayor. But it’s members of the Hammond clan who begin turning up dead shortly after the ceremony at the memorial, and there are plenty of suspects with motives for killing them.
“Shot at Dawn” has no opening credit sequence–we don’t hear the show’s signature “macabre waltz” theme, played on a theramin, until the end. This heightens the grim mood of the opening flashback and the ceremony at the war memorial.
Episode Two, “Blood Wedding,” also begins with a flashback: an unwelcome, and obviously secret, birth in the bedroom of a sprawling manor house. The midwife attending the birth leaves with the baby, promising the hostile husband that she’ll “take care of things.” The scene then shifts to present-day, where a wedding is being celebrated by the wealthy and incredibly arrogant Fitzroy dynasty, who own the manor. As the Fitzroys wine and dine their guests in style becoming to their status, the Barnabys are planning the much more modest nuptials of their actress daughter Cully (Laura Howard) to her musician fiancé. DCI Barnaby is quickly distracted from the woes of an out-of-business caterer and a bride and groom whose careers are throwing monkeywrenches into their wedding plans. At Fitzroy manor, the maid of honor comes to a gruesome end just as the newly-wedded Fitzroys leave for their honeymoon.
The rest of the episode reveals the identity of the illegitimate baby and the convoluted motives and connections within the Fitzroy clan. It also contains one of the squickiest homicides I’d seen on Midsomer Murders to date, so be warned! Barnaby’s partner, DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), dallies with the Fitzroy housekeeper while serving as a confidante to Cully as she struggles with second thoughts. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Cully’s wedding, at least, finally goes on as planned, with former cast member Daniel Casey appearing as Barnaby’s previous partner, Gavin Troy.
The third episode, “Left for Dead,” disappointed me for several reasons, and is the least effective episode of Midsomer Murders that I’ve seen. Lynne Fox (Maggie Steed), a local activist, is collecting signatures on a petition to protest the demolition of a village home to make way for a highway bypass. It’s not a hyperspace bypass, but the offending contractor, Jack Purdy (Matthew Flynn) is almost as nasty as one of Douglas Adams’ Vogons, threatening to run over the crowd of protestors with a bulldozer. The house is owned by Alyssa Bradley (Marion Bailey), whose eleven-year-old son Patrick disappeared eighteen years ago, and she fiercely clings to hope that somehow, he’s still alive and will someday come home. When Lynne Fox approaches the overgrown door of a secretive and reclusive older couple, the Wilsons, she discovers both of them dead inside their home. The Wilsons had cut off contact with the outside world soon after the death of their own son in a tragic accident.
Jack’s brother Mark (Shaun Dooley) is about to marry his fiancée, Louise (Kate Miles), and we soon learn that Jack, Louise, Mark and their friend Charlotte (Indra Ové) all share some mysterious secret from their childhood. Jack Purdy is murdered just before the wedding, and Louise is assaulted outside of the reception, dying from her injuries later on. When Charlotte barely escapes alive from her fire-bombed studio, it’s obvious that someone is targeting the friends for revenge. Gradually, the old secrets are revealed–in several contradictory versions.
This episode is flawed by poor construction and very slow pacing, to begin with. Verbal accounts are interspersed with flashback scenes in a way that brings the narrative to a crawl. I also had some difficulty with the way this episode chose to depict a mentally-challenged character. It’s too cheap and easy to make such individuals into villains and suggest that they’ll commit crimes just because of their condition.
The 2006 documentary, “Super Sleuths,” celebrates ten years of Midsomer Murders. It features interviews with author Caroline Graham along with cast and crew members from the series, and discusses the show’s history and development over time, the original books and how the filmed versions differ, and other topics. Clocking in at forty-five minutes long, it can’t go into much depth, but it does have some intriguing trivia for fans of DCI Barnaby and his exploits, including an artist’s rendering of Barnaby’s literary persona, and footage of the theramin being played in the studio of composer Jim Parker.
As of the current season, John Nettles has retired from the show. DCI Tom Barnaby has been replaced in the series by his cousin, DCI John Barnaby, played by Neil Dudgeon. John was introduced in the Season 13 episode, “The Sword of Guillaume,” which is not yet available on DVD. It remains to be seen how Midsomer Murders will weather this turnover in its core character, since not only Barnaby but his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and daughter Cully have been such beloved and vital members of the cast.
Midsomer Murders, Set 15 includes Episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Season 11 (2008), approximately 100 minutes each, and a documentary, “Super Sleuths” (2006), approximately 45 minutes long. Extras include production notes by producer Brian True-May, John Nettles and Laura Howard, Cully Barnaby photo gallery, Caroline Graham biography and trailers for other Acorn Media releases. Color, 16:9 widescreen, Dolby Stereo, English subtitles. Released June 1, 2010. Not rated.