Middle-class murder: so much more palatable

Why are so many murder dramas set in posh areas? Because TV execs think only the well-to-do have interesting reasons for killing each other.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Murder seems to be all over the TV these days. And I’m not just talking about news coverage of the propensity of South London teenagers to go round stabbing each other to death or the promise of their fellow adolescents in Glasgow or Manchester to ‘juck you up’ (ie, stab you).

I’m not even referring to those other morbid staples of television news reportage: losers dressed in black going on a high school rampage in America, taking revenge on the ‘jocks’ by gunning them down; Japanese cult members letting off poisonous gas on the Tokyo subway; or that perennial favourite of the Western media, religious nutcases in the Middle East blowing up buses in Jerusalem, Karachi, Baghdad or Basra.

No, I’m talking about our unabated fascination with fictional murder. Of course, fictional dramas on the subject of murder have always featured on the big and small screens, for example in classic Hitchcock flicks or adaptations of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Other subsequent American imports included the likes of Columbo, Murder She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder. Despite the formulaic nature of these shows, it seems that, today, we are as fascinated as ever with the notion of murder-as-fiction.

This Sunday sees the return of ITV’s detective drama, Midsomer Murders, which, I was surprised to discover, has been going since 1997. Like Taggart, the world’s longest continually running police drama, Midsomer Murders refuses to die, unlike the eponymous detective in Taggart himself. He disappeared when the actor who played him, Mark McManus, died in 1994. ‘There’s been a murder’, Taggart would famously say. Sadly for fans of irony, there wasn’t in the case of McManus. He died of pneumonia. That hasn’t stopped the programme trundling on, regardless.

Taggart survives today for the same reason that Midsomer Murders does: because both are utterly unrealistic, and because both romanticise murder and give it a narrative. They give homicide a sense of purpose in an age in which we are bemused by the seeming pointlessness of homicide.

I had never watched Taggart until a few weeks ago, when street murders started to become a national issue in the British media. I’d always presumed it would be a Glaswegian televisual answer to Edinburgh’s cinematic portrayal of gritty life (see Trainspotting and Shallow Grave): it would be concerned with heroin addicts living in horrific brutalist council estates and knifing and shooting each other because they were either pissed-up on McEwan’s lager, or in need of their next fix. I imagined Taggart would be set in those terrifying estates you see as you take the train from the south into the city; Rab C Nesbitt, minus the laughs.

But Taggart today seems to be set either in Glasgow’s splendid Victorian city centre or in its salubrious, suburban semi-detached households. This is not surprising, in hindsight. The murder-orientated drama Cracker (remade in America as Fitz) was not usually set in Manchester’s rougher areas, such as Hulme or Moss Side, but was filmed on the kind of streets that the burghers of Didsbury or Chorlton will be familiar with. Likewise, Midsomer Murders may be set in a fictional West Country place, but of course it isn’t in St Paul’s in Bristol, or in the smack-ridden parts of Bath. That’s too underclass. Properly good murder dramas have to be set in posh areas, because only middle-class people have interesting reasons for killing each other.

In Midsomer Murders, as with Taggart, the murder motive is invariably bizarre, obscure or fascinating: blackmail, homosexuality, Satanism, incest, racism, missing wills, religious extremism. This makes it unrealistic both qualitatively and quantitively. Most real-life murders aren’t motivated or committed on such sensational grounds. You only hear about these exceptions from time-to-time because they are the exception: the sordid killings by Fred and Rosemary West, the Moors Murders, etc.

In Midsomer Murders, such carnage happens on an episode-by-episode basis. As DS Dan Scott (John Hopkins) in Midsomer once asked in an early episode: ‘Is the body count always this high around here?’ DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) replies: ‘It’s been remarked upon.’ It was a dry, ironic piece of dialogue, but still it was using ironic self-deprecation as a form of self-defence. We all know people who put themselves down first to prevent, and/or pre-empt, others pointing out their faults before them.

Were the astonishing homicide rate in Midsomer or Taggart’s Glasgow to be translated into real-life, national UK murder rates, then the M4 corridor would be a river of blood and the west of Scotland would see a claret tide not seen since the hotel corridors in The Shining.

Our thirst for murder mystery programmes reflects not a fascination with goriness, or a fetishism with death and cruelty. Rather, it satisfies an appetite for purpose in a postmodern, seemingly purposeless world.

A constant underlying theme in the coverage over all these recent teenage stabbings and murders in the news at the moment is a sense of bemusement. We are told that kids are knifing each other because the victim gave the perpetrator the ‘wrong look’, or he was in the ‘wrong gang’, or that he scuffed his assailants’ expensive designer trainers. It all seems so pointless and wasteful. From Channel 4 to BBC News, the Guardian to the Daily Telegraph, every media outlet is asking questions. Only now, tentatively, are answers being proffered. It may be down to the breakdown of the family, poverty, consumerism, lack of father figures, a desire for identity, and so on. But, regardless, such murder and violence is invariably described in the press as ‘mindless’.

This is why Midsomer Murders endures; the same reason that Shakespeare still appeals centuries after Hamlet and Macbeth were written (Taggart is indeed today’s ‘Scottish Play’). They make murder not mindless, but meaningful. No one condones the taking of innocent lives, but it becomes infinitely more intolerable when people kill for trivial reasons or even for no reason at all.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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