March 21, 2011

John Nettles

John Nettles

The English are in love with murder. From The Woman in White and The Hound of the Baskervilles to Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, the mid-market English have long reveled in tales that are simultaneously sanguinary and strangely soothing. But they may not be allowed to enjoy their virtual vice much longer.

One of Independent Television’s most popular series is Midsomer Murders, set in and around the mythical English town of Causton. The lead character, Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby (John Nettles), is a frankly defective detective. Not only does he know nothing about the community in which he lives, but as soon as he arrives to investigate a murder, several more immediately ensue. Over 14 years and 90-odd episodes there have been 222 killings and dozens of sundry other deaths. American TV cops are usually “€œoff the force”€”€”but Barnaby really deserves to be.

Another way Causton differs from Kingston is that the murders are preposterously convoluted”€”toxic fungi, arsenic-salted sandwiches, bows and arrows, real bullets fired from stage guns, and flamethrower attacks on churchgoers. Buttressing these elaborate excesses are innumerable lesser crimes, with the benighted burg reeling under an onslaught of financial scams, shady deals, thefts, vandalism, poison-pen letters, blackmail, incest, sadomasochism, drug addiction, and fights about dog dung”€”a festering universe of feuds behind a front of bucolic banality.

Barnaby has a laid-back modus operandi”€”ask his wife what dark undercurrents are seething and wait gnomically for inspiration against a backdrop of half-timbered cottages, Georgian terraces, medieval churches, public schools, cricket matches, and bluebell woods. The series is filmed in and around the Thames-side town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire, a place redolent of England’s long tale”€”settled by Saxons, destroyed by Danes, where Henry II was awarded the throne, and the last major royalist stronghold to surrender in 1646.

Midsomer follows an unfailing formula”€”lovely place plus ludicrous plot equals intrinsically English eye candy for a roast-beef-benumbed Sunday-afternoon audience of six to seven million and many more international aficionados.

“€œThe English countryside’s “€˜hideously white”€™ nature is awkward but undeniable, with ethnic minorities estimated at around 1.4% of the rural population.”€

There Midsomer might have remained rusticating forever in the schedule shires, without critical acclaim but not missing it because it’s so beloved by Britain’s least critical viewers and stair-lift advertisers. But then the show’s co-creator and producer committed a crime so atrocious that it would never have made it into even a Midsomer plotline.

Interviewed in the Radio Times to mark the latest series (with typical implausibility, Barnaby is being replaced by his cousin), series producer Brian True-May remarked:

“€œWe are a cosmopolitan society in this country, but if you watch Midsomer you wouldn’t think so….I”€™ve never been picked up on that, but quite honestly I wouldn”€™t want to change it….Maybe I”€™m not politically correct….We just don”€™t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn”€™t be the English village with them. It just wouldn”€™t work….We”€™re the last bastion of Englishness.”€

Cue “€œurgent discussions”€ from frightened functionaries. An ITV spokesman said:

“€œWe are shocked and appalled at these personal comments by Brian True-May, which are absolutely not shared by anyone at ITV.”€

It is an indication of how seriously they took these allegations that they apparently carried out an immediate and in-depth opinion poll of all ITV staff.

Unlike the incredibly lucky Barnaby, True-May really is “€œoff the force,”€ suspended immediately for this gross violation of all the moral codes of all the ages.


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