Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walking on white eggshells

I make no secret of the fact that I really enjoy watching Midsomer Murders. I blogged about it here just a few months ago. In enthusing about the show I said that:

'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 from 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.'

It is cake for the mind. However, I also made the point that:

'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.'

And today, it seems, that point has taken on some gravity. The show's long-time producer Brian True-May has been suspended after saying in an interview with the Radio Times that, 'We just don't have ethnic minorities involved because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. Suddenly we might be in Slough ... We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way. Maybe I'm not politically correct ... I'm trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed. And I don't want to change it.'

Unsurprisingly, there's been a huge backlash against his comments. For example, the director of the Runnymede Trust, Rob Berkeley, said, 'Clearly, as a fictional work, the producers of Midsomer Murders are entitled to their flights of fancy, but to claim that the English village is purely white is no longer true and not a fair reflection of our society, particularly to this show's large international audience. It is not a major surprise that ethnic minority people choose not to watch a show that excludes them.'

That's pretty representative of many commentators views. But is this a storm in a teacup? After all, the show has been running for 14 years and I don't recall this kind of furore before. As Guardian columnist Hugh Muir writes, 'What's really wrong here is tone. I don't need minorities in everything. The televised Tudors might not have worked so well with a Rastafarian as Thomas Cromwell. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana, probably didn't need white characters. But language is important and by boasting of his all-white idyll in such wistful terms, True-May does sound like a phonetically refined Alf Garnett.'

That, it seems to me, is the issue here. I live in what you might call Midsomer land. I'm on the borders of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire and many of the places that appear in the show are on my doorstep. I can tell you that many of the larger towns have diverse populations. But head out into the smaller villages and they are unremittingly white. And that's because most of the houses cost a bloody fortune and, rightly or wrongly, the majority of English millionaires are white. If that's the world that Midsomer represents then there really isn't a problem with the lack of minority characters. It's no different from the fact that I wouldn't expect to see white faces in a drama set in Railton Road, Brixton or in the heart of Southall's Hindu population. It would also explain the lack of complaints until now. It's aimed a certain demographic. As writer Anthony Horowitz commented in The Telegraph today, 'The audience is probably quite elderly and quite conservative. I wouldn't expect young rappers to be tuning in every week for Midsomer Murders.'

However, where Midsomer does get it wrong is the total lack of minority faces. Take the county town of Causton, for example. I'd expect to see a lot more diversity there. The real town of Thame often doubles for Causton and I can assure you that while it does have an AGA shop and some wonderful gastro pubs and antiques dealers, there are also Indian and Italian restaurants and other businesses run by minorities. Causton Hospital would most certainly boast a diverse workforce. And surely the Midsomer Constabulary has a policy of positive action like most other forces? Where are all the cops from minority ethnic backgrounds?

In issues of race, people tend to walk on eggshells desperately trying not to upset anyone. It would be so easy to act out of panic and spoil the TV show by clumsily shoe-horning characters into it for the sake of political correctness. So, producers, let's keep it real please. There is no reason at all why there cannot be the occasional rich black architect or millionaire Asian businessman occupying the grand houses of Midsomer. It would be perfectly acceptable to see Chinese food deliveries, black or Asian police officers and doctors, nurses and ambulance crews with African or South American accents. Many pop stars and sportsmen and women are from minority backgrounds and are some of the highest earners in the UK so why wouldn't they own mansions and estates in Midsomer?

If True-May truly thinks that adding black or brown faces will 'spoil' the show then he has a problem. That kind of small-mindedness and ignorance just isn't acceptable in 21st century Britain. Matthew Cockman is the real-life landlord of The Six Bells in Warborough, Oxon, which is used as the pub in the fictional village of Badger's Drift. He says, 'I think most countryfolk don't give a toss about skin colour. That's just how it is. At the end of the day we have one black guy who lives in the village. He drinks in the pub sometimes and is made welcome when he does.' And, just a couple of weeks ago on the Channel 4 show Love thy Neighbour, the predominently white residents of a small Yorkshire village chose a black couple over a white couple to join their community. The issue here is not racism in rural England or even racism in a TV show.

The issue is True-May's outdated, insensitive and shameful comments. They have already possibly cost him his job. I hope they don't tarnish the series too. It is loved by millions. And, maybe, if the producers are shrewd, it could attract an even bigger audience by just being a little more inclusive than True-May has allowed it to be in the past.


Lee said...

'Even in the smallest of villages there are, at the very least, Asian run cornershops, Chinese or Indian restaurants and NHS services.'

It's obvious you don't get out into the countryside very often; most small, or even quite large villages have none of these services...irrespective of who owns or runs them.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Lee

Actually, I visit a lot of small villages and grew up in rural Cornwall where we rarely saw black faces. And while it's true that in many I see nothing but white faces (as I commented on in the post) not EVERY village is like that and the larger towns certainly aren't.

The issue with Midsomer isn't that there should be an unrealistic mix of different ethnicities in the show. That would be ridiculous pandering for the sake of political correctness. It's the fact that there are NONE, which is wholly unrealistic. Plus the fact that True-May seems to believe that the success of the show is based on that.

That's just plain wrong.

Susan said...

Political correctness has got out of hand. I think it's sad that so much of people's time is spent defending themselves against things they've said. This show is fiction. We live in a society of free speech. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

To me, the 'quintessential English village' doesn't conjure up images with lots of black faces - that's not to say I won't see a few if I visit a village. Similarly, I wouldn't expect a scene of a 'quintessential African village' to have any white faces - but perhaps that's not always the case in reality.

We live in a cosmopolitan society, the world is getting ever smaller, but let's not forget culture and heritage...

Janet said...


After a LONG time away from regular blogging (writing and reading), I'm back. And I'm catching up with you...and relinking my favorite blogs on Lord Celery. Drop by from time to time. I've missed our communications!