Since shortly after television became a commonplace furniture item in living rooms the length and breadth of the Western world, whodunits and police procedurals have been a staple on the small / er screen, as much in feature length as shorter time formats. No doubt this panders to the human species’ ingrained fascination with guessing games and their ultimate solution. Children in all cultures, to a greater or lesser degree, grow up with this enthralment embedded in their genes. There is intrigue too with stories about rogue elements who in opting to shimmy down the wild side of life break natural laws left, right and centre, quite often with calculated impunity. This can lend them a halo of interest the saintly may find it difficult to compete with.
At a guess the United Kingdom would on average produce and screen more of this kind of programme than any other nation, or block of nations, in the world. Reflective of a greater incidence of skulduggery in the general populace perhaps? Or a latent fear of something wicked if not exactly coming then well on the way?
Regardless of what the crime statistics might bear out, UK whodunits and procedurals have been and are numerous. Over the years they have included luminaries such as Z-Cars, Softly, Softly, Callan (more a spy procedural admittedly), The Bill, The Sweeney, Minder, Bergerac, Special Branch, A Touch of Frost, and in more recent times Midsomer Murders and Father Brown, BBC One’s rendering of G. K. Chesterton’s illustrious man of cloth whose talents commingle nicely with the solving of heinous criminal activity in and around a quaint rural parish in post World War Two England.
Also worth a mention is ITV’s 70s series Thriller. Brian Clemens’ stories throughout six series ranged from the supernatural to more realistically grounded whodunits. The fisheye lens shrouded in red through which viewers were presented the original title sequences in tandem with the creepy theme music, a blend of harpsichord and woodwind, unmistakably set the tone.
The English home counties settings remained consistent throughout but from early in the series’ lifespan a bid to appeal to the American market was evidenced in the regular appearance of at least one American guest star. Thriller ritually put into play the genre’s stock in trade, the hook, to draw in the viewer, then going on to explore that hook’s often mind-boggling ramifications through the duration of the just over an hour long episodes.
Imperilled as the heroes / heroines almost always were (often it was the token American who played the role of the endangered one), and despite the recurrence of Laurie Johnson’s strident music at telling moments in the narratives, and the cavalcade of well-known faces among the British acting contingent, as far as actual thrills went Thriller was not in the same league as let’s say Alfred Hitchcock, Clemens’ primary inspiration for the series, or Dario Argento.
This was an era when Australian television networks insatiably gobbled up British imports. Game for anything after a day at school, my siblings and I tuned in to Thriller whenever we could in our far-off homeland, with the primary motivation of poking fun at the sheer ridiculousness of many of the scenarios and the nutcases depicted. And who could blame anyone for failing to take seriously a series with individual episodes titled, to name a handful, Murder in Mind (1973), Kiss Me and Die (1974), The Next Scream You Hear (1974), Night is the Time for Killing (1975), Won’t Write Home Mum – I’m Dead (1975) or A Midsummer Nightmare (1976)?
Flash forward approximately twenty years to the premiere of another British detective drama series Midsomer Murders. Fictional Midsomer is a picturesque and in many ways apparently idyllic county in England. It is a world away from the stockbroker belt settings predominant in Thriller. Gone too are the bland interiors television programme producers favoured as a general rule in the seventies – as if the directors and their photographers had more key lights up their sleeves than they rightly knew what do with.
Midsomer Murders’ individual episodes are, like Thriller, self-contained, but unlike the latter it is not an anthology series. Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, together with a sidekick sergeant, helms the show, which centres around their efforts to solve the plethora of murders that regularly beset one or more of the villages comprising the county.
But aside from the self-contained status, other parallels with Thriller are evident. Like the older series, Midsomer Murders features a distinctive main theme. Performed on an electronic instrument known as the theremin and sounding not unlike a low-pitched whistle, it may not imply quite the same dread as the harpsichord and woodwind of Thriller but it is mysterious enough and leaves one in little doubt about the terrain ahead.
Midsomer Murders goes straight for the jugular too. The first bout of bloodletting often precedes the theme music and once the opening credits have left the screen DCI Barnaby (John Nettles until the end of series 13, Neil Dudgeon afterwards) and his crony are at work trying to deduce a method to the mayhem. Typically, there is plenty of mayhem to follow.
The inaugural, mid-nineties, episode, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, featured a staggering four murders and three suicides, an exceptional figure in a show that usually contents itself with two or three bumpings off per instalment. A decade, or ten seasons (roughly sixty episodes), later, the murder count has climbed to about 140. Only the number of cups of tea foist upon Barnaby and co. in the same period of time would rival this figure.
As portrayed by Mr. Nettles and, in his wake, Mr. Dudgeon, the detective chief inspector is a sober, pensive figure. Two of the young sergeants with whom they are paired are not especially bright, making them good foils for the DCIs. But it is the guest stars, a veritable who’s who of the English stage and screen, who steal the show. Many of them high camp their characters to the rafters, resulting in humorous viewing.
Though it would never have given The Benny Hill Show a run for its money, double entendres abound. The ingenuity of many of the killings lends the moments as much comedy as it does drama, like the butcherings in Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes films or any number of so-called horror flicks. Suspicion, in accordance with the trope, traditionally falls on many in the abrasive casts and pans out with good effect, though the upshot is not the most likeable bunches of ladies and gentlemen ever to have set foot on British sound stages. One could be forgiven for not trusting a single one of them.
For viewers, especially those who are not English, perverse delight can be gleaned from watching people so law-abiding and civilised on the surface not only being ghastly to one another, but in the blink of an eye taking that to the extreme of conjuring up inventive ways to do one another in. All with the teapot within easy reach.
The endless cuppas, incidentally, appear to function as does the middle eight of a pop song, ie, as a respite from the verse / chorus before going back to the verse / chorus. They do allow a breather from the anarchy, as much for the audience as Barnaby, but I incline to think of them as emblematic, on a par with the tea breaks in today’s increasingly spiteful cricket Test matches. Barnaby, and the cricketers, while downing their tea and bickies would really much rather get back to the sparring.
In Schooled for Murder (series 15, episode 6), a dairy worker is brutally murdered by a giant round of weaponized cheese. In the cricket themed Last Man Out (series 19, episode 3) a team captain is pummelled to death by a succession of high speed, machine propelled cricket balls. His unfortunate successor in the job fares little better, being impaled against a tree with a stump no less.
In a display of irrational delayed jealousy that would have done any of the cardboard cut-out psychopaths of Thriller proud, the murderess in Dance with the Dead (series 10, episode 1) turns out to be a jilted lover who in short order dispatches the one who spurned her, this same former loved one’s boyfriend and, for no apparent reason other than that she is on a roll, her older male lover – though this victim, like the murderess, has long since been thrown over by the gallivanting strumpet. An attempt to truncate the lifespan of the deceased’s lesbian housemate fails in the nick of time.
One of the choicest bits of wisdom a Norwegian farmer offered me many years ago was than ‘an Englishman is never straight’. He demonstrated what he meant by holding up and bending a twig, likening the twig in its bent form to Englishmen. He might well have had characters like those that populate Thriller and Midsomer Murders in mind. Most certainly intending visitors to the home counties or Midsomer County would be well advised not to take too many liberties when dealing with such highly sensitive, easily inflamed people. Otherwise they might encounter a pork chop just itching to put them away. Still, there could be worse Jacobean-like fates waiting in the wings.