I am a Midsomer Murders addict.
Oh the shame.
I blame my good friend Chris Hale. It was Chris who said, 'Once you start watching you'll be hooked. It's formulaic and comfortable. Before you know it, you'll find yourself spotting the locations where they film it as they're all around where you live in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.' Then he said, 'It doesn't tax the brain and it's so English and pretty. It's all country houses and Women's Institute, village fetes and pony clubs, bellringing and bedhopping. Lots and lots of that by the way. They're all at it like knives.'
So I watched out of curiosity. And now I'm mainlining John Nettles six days a week.
If you've bever seen it before, Midsomer Murders revolves around Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (Nettles) and is set in the fictitious county of Midsomer which, judging by references to Oxford, Reading and the Thames Valley, seems to be where bits of Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire currently sit. Certainly, it's all very red brick and Cotswold stone although, oddly, Barnaby identifies himself as working for Avon and Somerset Police. Aided by a succession of detective sergeants with monosyllabic surnames (Troy, Scott, Jones) Barnaby works from Causton, the county town, and investigates murders across the many villages that seem to make up the county. And there are a lot of murders. I wouldn't live there. In fact, even Barnaby's wife is put off moving out of Causton when Barnaby explains the death rate for every village she suggests. By my reckoning, there have been over 120 murders since the show began (89 episodes). The place is more dangerous than Wigan on a Friday night.
On the subject of Barnaby's wife, here we have one of the most interesting characters in the show. Joyce is obviously frustrated by her husband's workaholic lifestyle (apparently he even solved a murder on their honeymoon - but still had time to conceive their only child Cully). Consequently, she throws herself into every hobby and village activity available to her. One week it's jam making, another it's brass-rubbing or tramp coddling or something. It's become a kind of game to guess what she'll be into with each new episode. She reminds me a little of the fad-hopping Eva in Tom Sharpe's Wilt books.
The main reason people watch the show, I guess, is Tom and the never-ending catalogue of remarkably tortuous and convoluted whodunnits that are his daily work. Regular themes involve inheritance, infidelity and 'covering up old secrets'. There's a lot of that. We've also had sibling rivalry, incest and eugenics, even an episode involving ghosts. But no matter how bloody or strange the crime is, grizzled old Barnaby always manages to sift the red herrings from the evidence, usually at the expense of his sidekicks who tend to jump to obvious but wrong conclusions. Sadly, however, no amount of clever script writing can get over the fact that it's pretty easy to guess who the murderer(s) is/are. It's always one of the guest stars. And, if it's not them, they'll be the victims. Nettles plays the role very well. Barnaby is kind of unlikeable in some ways. He can be short and unsympathetic. On one occasion when his wife books him an African holiday he reacts like someone just threw his puppy into a crocodile pond. He has a huge fan club though and the show has spawned a host of fan sites (like this and this) and a very serious fan club that re-enacts some of the murders. Here's the link. Buckinghamshire County Council even has a downloadable trail map so that diehard fans can visit many of the locations.
For me though, the star of the show is Midsomer itself. Despite being set in the modern day, the show harks back to a time when people did know all of their neighbours and community spirit was strong. There are no kids in hoodies, no ram-raids, no crack cocaine addicts and, seemingly, no graffiti. It's an English idyll. Well, apart form the murders anyway. It's an England that might have existed once but is very hard to find now except in the smallest rural communities. It's rife with class prejudice and full of very familiar stereotypes. But, like countryside calendars and biscuit tins with Constable's The Haywain on the lid, it's an England that people seem to wish really existed. The show is very popular both here and overseas and when Nettles hangs up his helmet and boots at the end of this season, the show will continue with his cousin - another DCI Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) next year. I suspect keeping the name is because the show is sold as 'Inspector Barnaby' to some countries.
If I have any criticism at all it's that it doesn't really reflect the multi-cultural face of modern Britain. It's very white. Even in the smallest of villages there are, at the very least, Asian run cornershops, Chinese or Indian restaurants and NHS services. These kinds of 'backbone of the community' roles are very often run by people from minority cultures. And where are all the Dutch and German tourists? And are there no council or housing trust estates? Everyone is so terribly middle class.
Midsomer Murders is great fun. In a digital TV world of back-biting reality shows, violent and miserable soaps, disaster-strewn news broadcasts, 'everything will harm you' so-called documentaries and cynical comedy panel shows it's a breath of fresh countryside air. It's like cake for the brain and one slice is simply not enough.
I love it.