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TV Review: Midsomer Murders

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My mother is probably one of the most avid readers I know of the mystery genre. Every so often when we do a bit of spring (or weekend) cleaning there’s are dozens and dozens of mystery books lying around, from Rex Stout to Conan Doyle and sometimes a touch of Agatha Christie. Being a fan of this genre, she also flocks towards the television adaptations of the stories. She doesn’t mingle over the details or what parts of the story aren’t fitting to the book. She does, however, expect the characters are well acted and fit somewhat to the style of the way the author characterized them.

I’m not the reader my mother is, and I could never see, at a younger age, the attraction of these adaptations. For one, Americans expect excitement within every page of the script. That excitement usually consists of harassing suspects, lots of car chases, and murders with a beautiful woman somewhere in the mix. There can be variety in the manner in which they showcase these and other familiar extremes, but they never go completely without them. Change the language, lose the guns, subtract the violence, and you get Midsomer Murders.

John Nettles plays Tom Barnaby, a family man who works as a Detective Chief Inspector in the fictional English country of Midsomer in the town of Causton. He enjoys the quiet life he has with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and his actress daughter (Laura Howard). He is often called to handle the murders within the Midsomer counties – including his own. Helping DCI Barnaby with all of this is a very young Detective Sergeant (he’s had three) who usually comes late in thought behind his older partner, but always comes in handy when least expected.

“Holmes and Watson,” you might say to yourself as you read this review. You could say the twosome is very much like that, but Barnaby doesn’t thrive on the mysteries that come his way. Most of the time they appear to interfere with his own family life, something Holmes never had. He’s also not quite as sure of his own intellect and sometimes is as dumbfounded as the DS he works with – and that would make them both like Watson in that case.

So what is the attraction to this show that you possibly haven’t found in reading this review? As with all genres in visual media, the presentation is the selling point. Midsomer Murders presents well.

As far as I can remember, most of England (where Midsomer is mostly shot) seems to always remain intact, as if the centuries passing have shown no change. Even towns that are suburbs in the fictional Midsomer don’t appear like the gaudy suburban homes that currently exist in America. Probably due to the style of filming, the country still remains king over all housing and institutions present.

For those of you who are fans of Doctor Who’s synth sound, you’ll find an interesting combination of that and orchestra in the music of Midsomer Murders. It also gives an extra characteristic to whichever county of Midsomer the detectives find themselves in. I would suggest renting Blood Will Out and The Killings At Badger’s Drift for a good idea of what I mean.

I never heard of John Nettles in my life, but it turns out he had one prior crime series to MM. Of the whole lexicon of actors in modern-day mysteries, he's been the most compelling to watch. Rather than take the every-situation-is-serious approach of John Thaw (Inspector Morse), Nettles isn’t afraid to step out of character and be comical from time to time. In the episode “Killings,” he does show signs of going ballistic, which might suggest that’s not the case. The more lighthearted approach comes from episodes like “Faithful In Disguise,” which features a very high moment for Nettles’ Barnaby when one of the suspects offers him some very strange brownies for desert.

The weight of the show’s greatness doesn’t merely rest on the shoulders of its lead actor, but also from the many co-stars that have played as the lackey to Barnaby. There have been at least three of them on the show: Daniel Casey, John Hopkins, and currently Jason Hughes. As partners go they do the usual grunt work that the smarter policemen do, but they do more to help the show break away from the sameness of the genre in their own individual ways.

Daniel Casey (Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy)

Troy is the longest-running partner of the series. Starting with the pilot in 1997 and leaving with “The Green Man,” he had bad driving skills and blunt derogatory discourse with suspects. He also seemed to fancy his daughter but kept himself at a distance due to the fact he didn’t want to deal with his boss. At times, Troy also took delight at making other officers do the work he was supposed to be doing. In some of the best episodes, he stepped up to the plate in attempting to help his co-worker nab suspects when possible.

Best Example – “Blood Will Out”

In one particular scene Barnaby requests that Troy play lookout on top of a church and report anything out of the ordinary between a mere caboose and a house just across the way. The house is home base to one family while the caboose is home to another family. Unfortunately, both are feuding with each other and may have been involved in the murder of another. A few moments pass and Troy notices one member meeting another in a loving embrace. Of course he springs into action running towards the caboose to catch them in their lovemaking act, but the handling of the scenes following the discovery of this fact are simply hilarious. Give it a rent to see what I mean.

John Hopkins (Detective Sergeant Dan Scott)

After Troy passes an exam for a higher position, the more dashing ladies’ man partner of Dan Scott enters the picture. He held some of the traits of Troy, but he seemed to fit to the classic American detectives for my taste.

Best Example – “The Straw Woman”

Despite being a letdown as far as a character, his clichéd personality was given a chance to reach some depth in this episode, in which he falls for a woman who could very possibly be a witch.

Jason Hughes (Detective Sergeant Ben Jones)

When it appeared that fans would believe John Hopkins would stick around, he suddenly disappeared in the episode “House In The Woods.” Apparently his leaving at the end of his first full-on series with the show didn’t leave time to write his character out as in the situation with Daniel Casey. Jason Hughes was quickly cast in the role of Jones, at first in this episode as a temporary stand-in for Scott who called in sick. At story’s end, he quickly becomes the new partner. A leap in logic, but the show isn’t meant to be taken seriously – just look at the body count in each episode.

Jones doesn’t quite have the playfulness of Troy, but he doesn’t come off as having the annoying ladies’ man aspect of Scott. He does have a more working-class feel to him. So far he’s only been around two seasons and I haven’t really found a good quality to him yet. Perhaps the fact that he was written in so quickly is the reason for the lack of development on the part of the character. Still, Hughes does a good job of at least appearing to lack clichés and having something of the boyish interest in Barnaby’s detections.

Best Example – “Vixen’s Run” and “The King’s Crystal”

I choose “Vixen’s Run” because you get to see some sort of romantic life in his character. Although Jones never goes as far overboard with it as Scott did, it was a nice touch. “The King’s Crystal” did also show that he was a mason. Let us hope the writers have Jason do more than just stand-in.

Soon, the 11th season will begin shooting (sometime after the 10th finishes filming). After that, there’s the possibility of one more after the 11th. After that, it’s all up to John Nettles himself as he is getting on in years, having played the role since ’97. The true star of Midsomer Murders isn’t so much the actors as it is more the quality of writing and the eye-candy scenery of England that make the characters (and the actors that play them) work.

To witness this beauty of a show, you can catch Midsomer Murders current run with Jason Hughes on ITV1 if you live in the United Kingdom. For those of you who live in America, you will be a bit behind as the transitional period to the states is rather slow. You can catch the first few seasons as some as some of the current ones on The Biography Channel.

Be sure to check your local listings in your respective countries for the proper airtimes.  

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About Matthew Milam

  • fia

    hey, my name is fia and i live in sweden. i really love midsomer murders and ofcourse Jason Hughes. i will send him a letter but i can´t find his fan-address…if someone can help me i would be so thankfull. thanks a lot/ [Personal contact info deleted]

  • David

    The Brownie Sceen is in “Faithful Unto Death” not “Faithful (Death) In Disguise”