'Every time I go into any Midsomer village, it's always the same thing',
'Blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide and murder.'
-- Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders
I first saw the Midsomer Murders series on A&E, the American cable station that has shown many a British mystery series, including both Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost. Like all televised drama that gets chopped into pieces by commercials, they suffered both in their storytelling and in my ability to truly appreciate them; I'm not a fan of commercials in any form what-so-ever! So I was quite delighted when the first four episodes that Acorn Media has released arrived here for review. (Acorn Media also sent along a number of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but that's a matter for another review.) The Midsomer Murders is based on the novels by Caroline Graham, with scripts written by some of Britain's best television writers. These adaptations have captured the feel of the novels rather well, and Midsomer Murders is firmly established as one of the most popular television series in the United Kingdom. There's even a new book that covers everything, and I mean everything, you want to know about the series!
John Nettles (Bergerac) stars as dogged Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby whose beat is the rather odd area of this not-so-real England known as Midsomer. The name's quite appropriate as it always appears to be green, quite green in fact! Midsomer appears to exist in the greenest part of England where every mew, wood, country lane, and village has been conquered by the Green. The press kit sent with these DVDs notes that 'Midsomer Murders is filmed on location in and around villages in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and other rural counties close to London.' The scenery is absolutely amazing -- watch for the gardens where it seems every gardener is a master at growing green things!
If the scenery is green, than Barnaby, to follow this metaphor, is an elemental force of nature. He is a thoughtful, reliable, dependable family man -- a very different character from the divorced, womanizing, ex-alcoholic that was Jim Bergerac on a previous series called, surprise, Bergerac. Neither cynical nor callous, just bullheaded, he loves his wife and daughter, tolerates the sometimes idiotic actions of Sgt. Gavin Troy, his assistant, and finds the folks of Midsomer both charming and downright weird. And quite, quite murderous!
Daniel Casey plays Sgt. Troy. One Web site devoted to the series notes: 'Daniel grew up in Stockton-on-Tees but now lives in West London, with his interior designer girlfriend Ellie. He supports Middlesborough Football club and has a passion for fast cars! He grew up watching John Nettles in the hit series Bergerac and gets on famously with his MM costar.' Joyce Barnaby is played by Jane Wymark who is perhaps best know for her role of Morwenna in the popular 1970s series Poldark. She has also appeared alongside John Nettles' Sanier as Gertrude in All Men are Mortal. The fourth regular member of the cast is Laura Howard who plays the Barnaby's daughter Cully. Before landing this role, Laura appeared in a number of drama shows including, Soldier, Soldier as Deborah Briggs, So Haunt Me as Tammy Rokeby, Eskimo Day and its sequel Cold enough for Snow as Pippa 'Muffin' Lloyd. She has also done a variety of work in the theatre and is sometimes credited as 'Laura Simmons'. Amusingly enough, the character she plays here is an actress. And a rather good actress at that!
Midsomer Murders also benefits from topnotch casting of guests! Some notable guest stars on the series have been Richard Briers (Good Neighbors), Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), Timothy West (Iris), Anna Massey (The Pallisers), Una Stubbs (Till Death Us Do Part), Michele Dotrice (Vanity Fair), Trudie Styler (The Mayor of Casterbridge), Robert Hardy (War and Remembrance, All Creatures Great and Small) and Maggie Steed (Lipstick on Your Collar).
Now here comes the slightly odd part of these DVDs. They are not a full run of the series but rather selections from tow different runs! The Killings at Badgers Drift, which is the pilot, is not included in this set, nor is Written in Blood, Death of a Hollow Man, Faithful unto Death, or Death in Disguise, which are the second series. The second series is represented here by three episodes: Death's Shadow, Strangler's Wood, and Blood Will Out, but Dead Man's Eleven is not here. Filling out this boxed set is Beyond the Grave, the last episode of the next series! Huh? One hopes the next set of DVDs will include the pilot and these missing episodes!
Now the fact that this is a rather scattered set is not a terribly major problem, as there's not much for continuity in this series. About the only plot string that develops is Cully and her career as an actress. Otherwise one can easily watch them in any order whatsoever without getting confused; which is a good thing as the mysteries themselves can be frightfully complex! Just consider the matter of the plot of Strangler's Wood... The body of a young Brazilian actress famous for her cigarette advertisements in Brazil is found strangled with a tie in Raven's Wood near tranquil Midsomer Worthy where three similar unsolved murders occurred several years previously. Barnaby and Troy visit George Meakham, the now-retired police officer who was in charge of the investigation of the earlier crimes, and who has since become almost psychotically obsessed with them -- to the point of recreating the murders in his head over and over. The trail leads them to a local cigarette and tobacco company and two employees who knew the newest victim. The Portuguese au pair who works for one of the two executives is then murdered after she attempts to blackmail someone. Barnaby manages to solve both the new murders and the old ones, though not before the murder of yet another person connected with it all. Got that? Good!
Let me summarize what we've got here. Acorn Media did the best job I've ever seen of transferring the sound and video to a DVD format, period. The acting is fantastic, the stories interesting and challenging, and the scenery, as I note previously, is so fabulous that one would think that it had been faked in some digital system; it looks so good as to be unbelievable! Even the family dynamics among Tom, Jayne, and Cully make them feel like a real family. I certainly look forward to seeing more episodes from this series being released by Acorn Media! If you like British mysteries, you must see these DVDs; they are that good.
One caveat. Don't expect any extra goodies here as there's not much to be had: a more or less useless map of Midsomer; brief, and I mean very brief, cast 'filmographies', a Caroline Graham bio, and that's it. (Note to all DVD companies -- scene indexes are not special features!) None of this really matters as you're going to want to purchase from Amazon UK, Midsomer Murders by Jeff Evans, the definitive guide to this series. Look for my review of this book shortly!
Now excuse me as I'm off to enquire of Acorn Media when the next set of Midsomer DVDs will be out!