Midsomer Murders: it’s escapist, not racist
Why on earth should a fictional detective drama set in a made-up English village have to reflect multicultural Britain?
Anyone who has taken a creative writing class will be familiar with the sort of exercises they set you. Write a story about a stranger you passed on the street; summarise the plot of a 700-page serious novel in 50 words; tell a tale which somehow weaves together a series of disparate, randomly chosen items or phrases. Even if you haven’t thrown your life away in such a futile intellectual pursuit, however, you’ll be familiar with these kind of games if you’ve ever entertained children, shared a long journey with limited distractions or had any other need to make up your own stories. They’re basic storytelling games, within the capabilities of everyone with a modicum of imagination and offering an endless amount of possibility for those with talent.
I always assumed that friends’ and colleagues’ regular suggestions that I write about ITV’s Midsomer Murders were some kind of sympathetic sop to me, as someone who did indeed throw his limited academic potential away on such a futile intellectual pursuit. Go on, they seemed to be saying, try and spin an intellectual analysis of a long-running and improbably bloodthirsty sleepy countryside crime drama! Pick apart the ultimate byword for competently made and mildly diverting popular light entertainment! ‘Ecce homo, writer!’ they shouted (at least, I think that’s what they shouted).
Fortunately, the tension seems to have gotten to the show’s producer, Brian True-May, who has the sort of name which sounds like it was made up while stuck in a motorway services just outside Thurrock. Reviewing the success of a series which has to date produced over 80 two-hour episodes of mild-mannered detectives investigating murders in the fictional county of Midsomer, True-May concluded that it owed its popularity not to the notorious appetite of the British public for countryhouse murder-mysteries or the skills of gifted and experienced screenwriters such as Alan Plater or David Harsent. Instead, with a real storyteller’s insouciant flourish, he pointed to a metaphorical sign saying ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ and went back to his pint of ale and game of cribbage.
Well, not quite (Well Not-Quite presumably being True-May’s cousin). He actually suggested that what irritates many trendy TV critics and non-viewers about the show – its comforting and bland unfashionability and rejection of the gritty realism of much urban drama – is part of its strength, and that by rejecting the kind of enforced diversity casting common to a lot of other programmes, it amplifies its appeal as ‘the last bastion of Englishness’. ‘I’ve never been picked up on it but I wouldn’t like to change it’, he told a journalist from the Radio Times, in a moment of extraordinarily self-defeating revelation. ‘If it’s incest, blackmail, lesbianism, homosexuality… terrific, put it in’, continued True-May in his anguished howl of existential despair against the moral turpitude of modernity, before concluding that the show was watched by ‘certain people’ who would object to multi-racial casting.
ITV bosses, spotting a rare opportunity to remind the world of their existence, were quick to suspend the Home Counties’ answer to John Galliano. ‘Certain people’ most certainly did not watch any of their shows, they insisted, trying to find ways to fill the time where meetings with advertisers used to go before the recession. Their shows are watched by good Christian folk of all religions, they must’ve felt tempted to add. As befitting a row over a programme of safe, unexciting adequacy, everyone responded depressingly to type. The UK director of the Black Environment Network, which encourages ethnic participation in the natural environment, said True-May wasn’t doing much to encourage ethnic participation in the natural environment, which sounded in no way like a self-justification at a time of massive government cuts. The PC-gone-mad-brigade assembled into formation and said that this time political correctness genuinely had started making strange comments about being followed by the CIA and ripping up the floorboards in search of robotic spiders. Radio 4’s Today programme brought on columnist and National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins to defend the show, who, for a change, sounded like he just wanted a comfortable pair of slippers, a nice lie-down and a cup of tea.
It is, of course, faintly weird that anyone should take particular pride in not casting actors on the basis of the colour of their skin. Similarly, the notion that Midsomer Murders is such a finely honed work of layered art, or its viewers such incorrigible racists, that the merest hint of multi-ethnicity will bring the whole edifice tumbling down is bizarre. That Midsomer Murders has gone 14 years with this policy, entirely unnoticed, also indicates that TV producers are not exactly being strong-armed by a multicultural Stasi to turn the entire schedule into a Benetton advert. But, to some extent, one does warm to True-May’s pride in seeking to give the viewing public – at least a section of it – a bit of genteel escapism without feeling the need to lecture them or change their (assumed) deviant thoughts, something which does seem to underpin repeated calls for diversity and representation of minorities in the media.
Besides, as some have pointed out, large parts of the countryside are white and homogenous – such as the Oxford village where much of the series is filmed, which is 98 per cent white in population. Indeed, if understood as a piece of gritty social realism, Midsomer Murders may possibly be the most politically progressive programme currently on the box. This is because I can’t believe anyone who watches it could possibly oppose the building of desperately needed houses on at least some of that incredibly vast green space, or insist that Britain needs immigration controls when there’s so much space between trees in the countryside that you can have more murderously incestuous lesbian orgies than you can shake a stick at.
Quite why there is a fuss about encouraging ethnic minorities to move to the country is beyond a fancy-pants city-boy like me who, like New York poet Frank O’Hara, ‘can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’. That many ethnic minority actors are relegated, as some have complained, to gritty urban dramas says more about television’s backwards attitude to the enormous benefits of modern development and city-life than the strange goings-on in the sticks. Let’s start worrying about that lack of good UK drama which says something meaningful about contemporary modern society, and leave Midsomer Murders alone for those who just want something nice to nod off to.
David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.