The Guardian, 17 September 2012

Detectives Blog

Whenever people discuss the clichés of TV detectives, they invariably begin by pointing out that no telly copper ever has a happy private life: they drink (Tennison, Morse), they’re divorced (Bergerac) or widowed (Frost), and they never see their kids (Wallander). You can, of course, rebut all these genre-critics with the merest mention of Tom Barnaby.

Barnaby is happily married to Joyce, and the devoted father of Cully. They live in a nice house, and Joyce cooks Delia Smith recipes for their dinner. But embracing this warm-hearted core, the rest of Midsomer Murders is only ever one village fete away from Grand Guignol. And on at least one occasion, even the fete notches up a corpse (Four Funerals and A Wedding, 9,5). In this world, the countryside is both an intensely desirable rural idyll, and simultaneously more dangerous than the Blair Witch woods.

The joy of Midsomer Murders is that its death toll routinely rivals that of the most terrifying torture porn. I used to play a MM drinking game, in which you quaffed a small gin every time someone died. But frankly, my liver couldn’t take the abuse. Five or six deaths isn’t uncommon, sometimes in the first hour. Every British actor of a certain age has carked it in MM: Selina Cadell alone has been both hanged and murdered by tumble dryer (in two separate episodes, obviously).

The mood is one of cosy malice, a uniquely English combination. In the very first episode, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, the unnerving undertaker purrs at Barnaby: ‘I see you’ve got a right constable there’. There is an audible ‘t’ in the opening syllable.

And it’s not just the murder rate which suggests a total moral collapse in the shires: the Badger’s Drift ep manages (by my count) five murders, two suicides, plus the suspected early-stage poisoning of Julian Glover. It also reveals two separate instances of incest (one sibling, one inter-generational). As MM fans will know, this is hardly uncommon.

And yet, stepping carefully through the rivers of blood, is the fiercely normal DCI Barnaby. He is a decent, hardworking man. Perhaps sometimes he’s a little grouchy, which is fair enough considering the sheer volume of cases he has to deal with (and given the tendency of both his wife and his daughter to befriend the killer). And speaking of rivers of blood, Enoch Powell would surely have loved MM: a white supremacist could watch it and feel totally at ease.

In spite of its rather shaky attitude to racial equality, MM is a sneaky favourite of mine. Where else would the motive for serial killing be that 150 years ago, someone’s vicar ancestor was killed by some bell-ringers who were never convicted of the crime (Ring out Your Dead, 5,2)? Where else could the revelation that Gemma Jones is the killer be greeted with the phrase, ‘But you’re a church archivist!’? Murder by bell surely exists in only two places: the Midsomer universe, and Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

It also has the almost unique quality of being one of the only detective shows I have ever appeared in: when I was a student, I was an extra in the first episode (I’m heading into the ADC theatre to see Cully in her play). It is because of this insider knowledge that I can reveal that John Nettles was always slender in real life, and he had secret muffins in his pockets which he would snack on between takes. Nettles wasn’t chubby, in other words, he was simply lagged with baked goods. And in honour of this fact, I will send a prize to the first person who can guess which other (less well-known) detective show I have appeared in, as an extra. Minus ten points and brief weeping if you guess one from before I was born, obviously.

Iconic? MM is one of British TV’s most successful exports. And that’s all down to the combination of beautiful setting, massive death rate, and sensible Tom Barnaby in the midst of it all.

Duffers? Would it really have been less English if the occasional non-white person had played a bit of village cricket (2,5), gone fly-fishing (6,1) or stolen the odd goose (2,2)? Of course not: Englishness could survive just fine.