A sure fire way of knowing whether a Midsomer Murders episode is going to be enjoyable is if you can imagine its key characters in a sitcom. A splendidly playful episode that deals with a serious issue in macabre manner, `Shot at Dawn` opened series 11 and definitely fulfils that criteria. It features a couple of old troopers in the form of George Cole and Donald Sinden in what was one of the final roles for both of them playing, well, old troopers whose military families have been at war for ninety years.
The incident that seems to have set it off is depicted in a well realised black and white flashback to 1916 when Tommy Hicks was executed for cowardice by a firing squad led by Duggie Hammond. In the present day Hicks is finally being added to the village war memorial in a ceremony that calls to mind Dad’s Army with the two old men still verbally feuding and a rather ill- disciplined military troop firing a volley in tribute. In the tradition of the best episodes this one is choc full of eccentrics. Donald Sinden plays Henry Hammond, the familiar but always enjoyable bluff very British character the actor specialised in. Though he disappears from the narrative fairly early on he’s there long enough to make a deep impression. Hammond’s family is a real mixed bag- his son Johnny is (not so) secretly gay so the parentage of his two daughters is in question while Johnny’s wife Arabella (a splendid Samantha Bond) exists in her own world. She’s having what she is affronted is later described as “an affair” with Dave Hicks, the dodgy building magnate who has somehow managed to become the Mayor. The Hicks family is equally out there- patriarch Lionel seems playful but this can be deceptive. George Cole gives it twinkle or gravitas as required. Brian Capron is great as the wheeler dealer Mayor and Gemma Craven almost steals the episode with her portrayal of the Mayor’s foul mouthed and paranoid wife Judy.
The episode gives its murders a remote theme in that each is controlled by a device controlled from afar thus throwing off suspicion. So there’s a wheelchair sent into the wheels of a milk float, machine gun fire activated by a garage door control and a harvester piloted from a distance. The last one is a bit messy in that you just keep thinking- well why doesn’t the character stand up or roll to one side. There is also one of the series’ set piece local events. Here a re-creation of a First World War battle is staged in a sequence that allows characters to interact (and eat and drink) as these sequence were there for. Atypically nobody is murdered during this event!
Michael Aitken’s script is surprisingly bold for the series; I can’t think of another episode with more mild swearing or insinuation and there’s even a full frontal view of a female character usually a no-no for the show that can be broadcast as early as 6pm. Then you get a key revelation about the Hammonds that might make you drop your scones! There are also rich characterisations from some of the supporting characters having moments when we see who they really are. It is a large cast but utilised well.
Richard Holthouse’s direction is excellent too- even in that farm scene he manages to make the situation look more menacing than it should. The identity of the murderer is a genuine surprise when you see it the first time hinging on something key that has been staring us all in the face from the start. It is revealed in a scene that has Barnaby in Poirot mode addressing the suspects one at a time. Jones doesn’t have a lot but Barnaby’s tendency to run with theories and not let him in on it giving Jason Hughes plenty of opportunity to pull expressions of frustration.
Oh yes and Joyce, who of course is always involved on the periphery, dresses up as a nurse for the festival for no discernible reason. How she fits all these hobbies into her life remains Midsomer’s biggest mystery.