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DVD Review: Midsomer Murders, Set Twelve

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The British mystery series Midsomer Murders debuted in 1997 and enjoys global success. Aired on ITV in Britain and on cable networks such as A&E and The History Channel in the United States, Midsomer Murders is highly popular in Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, Russia, and the Ukraine as well as Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Veteran British actor John Nettles plays wise and experienced Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, who is accompanied, as the seasons progress, by three different younger and greener sidekicks. Originally based on the novels of mystery writer Caroline Graham, the stories take place in the various villages of the fictional county of Midsomer, England.

Despite the quaint and picturesque settings, Midsomer's inhabitants are pure country Gothic. Hidden love affairs, skeleton-filled closets, disputed legacies, small-town politics, brawls in pubs, covert criminal activity, swapped babies… you name it, Midsomer has it. The inclusion of one to five murders per episode gives Midsomer a daunting homicide rate — 193 murders in the first twelve years of the show — which the characters make a few wry jokes about. But you'd never imagine that life there was dull. With its eccentric and usually well-to-do characters, red herrings and plot twists, Midsomer Murders is what Law & Order would be if Law & Order was set in the rural English countryside and written in the style of British "cozy" mysteries. The combination is thoroughly delightful.

Almost all of the series is available on DVD in packaged sets and, in the U.K., as single episodes. Set Twelve was released in March, 2009 and includes the second four episodes of the show's ninth season (2005/2006). DCI Barnaby is assisted by his third partner, Detective Constable Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), who joined the cast at the beginning of the season.

"Death in Chorus" opens with a local artist, Connor Simpson (Patrick Drury), making a gruesome discovery when he returns home from a bucolic day painting in the countryside. Simpson is a member of the local Midsomer Worthy church choir, which is being abusively rehearsed by its manic conductor, Laurence Barker (Peter Capaldi), for the upcoming Four Choirs competition. Simpson collapses in the middle of rehearsal, refuses offers to be helped home, and is found on his hearth rug with a bashed-in skull a few hours later. The case has a personal element for DCI Barnaby as his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) is such an enthusiastic member of the choir that she refuses to drop out of the competition even when the whole choir receives anonymous death threats. Does the murder have a connection with the competition? And who is the person — or is it persons — sneaking around the church at night with cameras and tripods? Wymark, a trained singer, states that she had urged the producers to do an episode about a chorus or choir for years.

"Country Matters" starts with Frank Hopkirk (Tim Hardy) having a very busy day, as he enjoys spicy fantasy encounters with three different ladies, one of whom may or may not be his wife. The village of Midsomer Elverton is in an uproar because a local big-box grocery chain, Goodfare, has purchased a derelict property to build a supermarket. The local pub owner wants to cash in on the deal, the local grocer sees his livelihood threatened, and the whole village is taking sides. When Hopkirk is found punched full of stab wounds on the Goodfare property, it turns out that he's got more to do with the whole mess than anyone realized. Kirsty Bushell is charming as Elverton's chirpy young female vicar, who ministers to forlorn shoppers and goes for her daily run wearing a "Jogging for Jesus" t-shirt.

"Last Year's Model" is the 50th episode of Midsomer Murders, and follows a slightly different narrative structure. Annie Woodrow (Saskia Wickham) is arrested for the murder of her college friend and neighbor, Gwen Trevelyan (Barbara Young). Ten months later, her trial commences. DCI Barnaby has built a strong case against her, but Annie refuses to plead guilty, and Barnaby begins to doubt that he has all the facts. Picking up on hints dropped by Pru Plunkett (Siobhan Redmond), a clinical psychiatrist and possibly an old flame of Barnaby's, Barnaby and Jones start to investigate the circumstances surrounding a key witness and her move into elder housing since the murder. Thelma Barlow is great as feisty senior Mrs. Beverly, who comes up with a plan to crack the case, and Miles Anderson is deliciously slimy as the Narcissistic "pop impresario" Lance Woodrow. This episode features some particularly inspired camera shots.

"Four Funerals and a Wedding" is accurately titled — this episode racks up quite a body count. The village of Midsomer Broughton has been split along gender lines since the first World War, when the local squire recruited the entire male population to form a company and then led them into a fatal encounter, leaving their widows and orphans at home destitute. The village women formed the feminist Skimmington Society to educate and support themselves, and now hold an annual Skimmington Fayre. The Fayre opens with the "Skimmington Ride," starring a man nominated for egregious "misogyny," and the current fair has an especially vitriolic candidate. An expatriate village grande dame arrives to serve as this year's Mistress of Ceremonies, but is discovered dead in her room the morning of the Fayre. As visiting DCI Barnaby, tapped to be substitute Fayre M.C., puzzles over the death, more murders occur right under his nose, and it begins to look like their roots extend very far into the past.

The first episode of Midsomer Murders, "The Killings At Badgers Drift," was planned as a one-off telemovie, but was turned into a series when it got very high ratings and won the Best Drama award for 1997. The unusual main title music, by Jim Parker, features a theremin, also heard on the soundtrack of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still and Alfred Hitchock's Spellbound. The individual episodes are beautifully crafted, and the locations are presented with a rich and subtle depth. Even the incidental soundtrack evokes rural villages and landscapes. Over its lifetime, the series has featured many superb British actors as guest stars. Fans of Orlando Bloom might want to catch episode 12, "Judgement Day" (January 2000) in which Bloom appears as a ne'er-do-well who comes to a nasty end. This episode is part of Set Two of the DVD series.

Sadly, John Nettles announced in February 2009 that he would retire from Midsomer Murders after the 2009-2010 season. "It's the end of an era for me, and while I'm very sad to be handing in Barnaby's police badge, he has solved nearly 200 murders, which I think meets the targets of modern policing," Nettles said to The Sun. "I wish my successor the very best."

Midsomer Murders, Set Twelve includes episodes 48, 49, 50 and 51, approximately 100 minutes each. Color, 16:9 widescreen, Dolby Stereo, English subtitles. Extras include trailers for other Acorn media DVDs, text interviews with the cast, a short reflection on the 50th episode, cast filmographies, a biography of Caroline Graham, and production notes.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.