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 “off 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.
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:
“We 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 “urgent discussions” from frightened functionaries. An ITV spokesman said:
“We 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 “off the force,” suspended immediately for this gross violation of all the moral codes of all the ages.
The English countryside’s “hideously white” nature is awkward but undeniable, with ethnic minorities estimated at around 1.4% of the rural population. As The Independent’s Matthew Norman noted regretfully:
“etween town and country, there is a colossal disconnection. As anyone who flits between them cannot fail to appreciate, there are two Englands, unbridged by suburbia and divided by a common language.”
This worries the kind of people who feel worried for a living and get paid to make other people worry. In 1992, the Commission for Racial Equality published a report called Keep Them in Birmingham which unsurprisingly painted “a disturbing picture.” Equally disturbing artworks have since been produced by the likes of the Observer, New Statesman, and Leicester University. The last remarked that:
“[T]he rural was also often referred to as being the embodiment of ‘Englishness’.”
…which evokes the often chortled-at 1924 romanticizing of Stanley Baldwin…
“To me, England is the country, and the country is England.”
True-May committed heresy by saying he likes rural England exactly as it is.
‘Race rows’ are usually followed by ritualized abasements, agreed to by the transgressor in the hope that he may one day retake his place in the hypersensitive host. True-May’s sins are venial as well as venal, down to his “borderline comb-over” hairstyle which—damningly—“bespeaks a buffer.” But even Matthew Norman acknowledges kindly that True-May seems “dim rather than malevolent.” So there may be a comeback, although that will depend on whether he backtracks, what control he retains over the highly lucrative franchise, and whether (or when) a token thespian of color can be shoehorned into a plot.
Yet even bringing in a black character would need to be done with great sensitivity. The Independent’s Tom Peck is mightily afeared:
“Jason Hughes, who plays DS Ben Jones, didn’t help matters yesterday with his response to True-May’s comments, which themselves seemed to stereotype the role a minority actor would play. ‘I don’t think we would all suddenly go: “A black gardener in Midsomer? You can’t have that!” I think we’d all go: “Great, fantastic!”’”
True-May’s career is poised on a plough edge, but so far Matthew Norman doesn’t think he should be sacked, nor do other great thinkers such as the Guardian’s Hugh Muir, however much he detests this “phonetically refined Alf Garnett.”
The Daily Mirror cites a survey which shows that Midsomer is “strikingly unpopular” among minorities—which, to the neurotically inclined, means that the show (and by implication all rural England) is increasingly irrelevant. As Runnymede Trust rent-a-quote Bob Berkeley said almost angrily:
“[T]o claim that the English village is purely white is no longer true and not a reflection of our society….”
What he and all the other Afro-Saxon activists can’t stomach is that that is exactly why so many people love Midsomer. It seems the English should enjoy their killings while they can.
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