Midsomer Murders Season 17

There seems to have been a definite shift back this series into the more quirky, macabre territory that Midsomer Murders used to feature heavily. After a period in which the plots became less unusual and more serious, the current production team have harked back to the earlier days and this year has seen some of the most bizarre murders yet none more so than in the first story The Dagger Club which mixes literary boastfulness with killer roulette wheels. The latter has to be seen to be believed kicking off the series with a real spark. Two of these wheels are delivered anonymously to characters who, upon opening them, find a message saying `whatever you do don’t spin the wheel`. They do of course and it sets off an electric charge that kills them! Even more over the top is a scene in which a character has been squashed by a printing press. When it is opened he has print stencilled across his body! 

"Mmm, I think I need to sample the evidence"

Some people will tell you that Midsomer Murders is a predictable show and it is certainly true that most of the murder’s motivations turn out to be either some birth issue (the show loves characters who turn out to be someone else), people trying to cover up affairs or some issue over a house or piece of land. The guest characters are often larger than life, eccentric or behave suspiciously even if they’re not the killer and this allows quite a cavalcade of well known actors to appear. Amongst the stalwarts popping up this episode are Una Stubbs, Charlotte Cornwall (excellent as a growling matriarch) and James Lance.
The plot involves the apparent discovery of a new manuscript from a dead writer who turns out not to be dead at all but stalking about the place and secretly living with another woman. Midsomer is full of such misfits depicted by a wobbly camera eye view of them watching proceedings from behind a shrub. The murderer though turns out to be someone so unexpected that his confession is heard in silence by the audience at a literary festival in the least likely but most dramatic circumstances. Proceedings are further enhanced by much of the action taking place amidst dusty bookshelves and the lively script also sparkles with the rivalries that sometimes inspire the literary world.
While there’s no doubt the real star of the show though is Sykes, Inspector Barnaby’s dog. His owner  now in his fourth series, has bedded in well. Neil Dudgeon has proved surprisingly good in a role that seemed removed from his usual work. His Barnaby (a cousin of John Nettles’ character) is sharp, prone to psychoanalysis and convincingly sees things beyond what he’s being told. His latest assistant Nelson, introduced last year, is developing into more of a separate character now after initially seeming to be there to ask questions. If he has yet to morph into the full developed likes of his predecessor then it’s not for want of Gwilym Lee trying. The writers still haven’t quite nailed him yet.
The Dagger Club is a suitably bonkers return but for sheer what we might call Midsomerness, the following Death by Magic tops it.
This episode delves into another of the series’ favourite tropes; midnight goings on in the woods. With scenes of magic and several pagan rituals involving masks of leaves and fire, director Charles Palmer has a field day lending the episode a traction some of the series recent shows have failed to achieve. It was apparent during the changeover period between the two Barnabys that some stories barely contained enough material to fill the running time but this is brimful of fire and brimstone thanks also to a stellar cast. Jack Shepard (once a detective himself in Wycliffe) shines as an alcoholic priest whose wife played by Deborah Findlay leads the pagan goings on in her inimitable style. There’s Justin Salinger making an impression as a curate who views developments with a fundamentalist zeal and is an early candidate to be the killer. Amanda Burton no stranger to odd shows after her turn as an unlikely crime solving pathologist in the original -and best- Silent Witness is compelling as a protective mother while Andrew Lee Potts finally gets away from computers (Strange, Primeval, By Any Means) to play enigmatic illusionist Gideon Lambert.
Murders this time revolve around misfiring magic tricks so someone gets squashed by a falling box and someone else shot during an illusion involving Lambert catching a bullet in his mouth. The episode shows why the series sometimes works so well; though what we’re seeing is clearly a bit ridiculous the cast take it seriously and some smart editing ratchets up the tension.
One of the other things that has always given the show an advantage is the adverts. While you might think this breaks up the mood too much it allows for something like 7 or 8 cliffhangers that make you want to keep watching, Amusingly when they repeat old stories in ITV3 they place the advert breaks randomly every 12 minutes so that matters break off in all the wrong places and you can tell the difference.
Death by Magic is one of the best recent episodes in which writers Rachel Cuperman and Sally Griffiths amp up the lurid elements of their plot. It’s the writers’ fourth episode and they are fast becoming reliable arbiters of what makes the show tick. Sure old houses, dark woods, illusions and marital betrayal are familiar themes but this episode shows they can still be made to seem fresh. 
"We've been standing here for half an hour, do you think we should go in, sir?" "Not yet I've just seen a chaffinch"

The third episode initially seems to repeat themes from the first, with a dead artists’ final work the cause of deadly deeds. In this case it’s the rumoured unheard final album of folk singer Johnny Carver recorded before he committed suicide 25 years earlier. The cottage where it happened is owned by his brother Danny but kept locked up and you just know this is where the climax will play out.
Before that however we have victims being dispatched with signatures taken from the song `Ballad of Midsomer County` from which the episode takes its name. There’s plenty of folk music playing through the episode including the key song itself which can be heard during each murder which adds a macabre feel to a trio of fatalities. This week’s methods include drowning in a bowl filled with eels and eggs (well don’t tell me you’ve never heard of that!), crushed by a fallen speaker and speared by a garden umbrella. The latter opens out when the victim has copped it in a wonderfully odd touch. Dry pathologist Kate Wilding later notes that there’s no need to look for the murder weapon.
It’s not quite as strong an episode as its two predecessors and the folk festival which the protagonists argue about seems rather sparsely attended; some folk experts claimed it didn’t really pass muster. However there are enough odd Midsomer moments vividly portrayed by one of the series’ regular director Renny Rye to make it worthwhile. The opening is particularly striking as a cleaner nonchalantly tidies up the kitchen while her employer festival organiser Toby Winning lies dead with his face in the bowl.
The lost album ultimately proves to be a red herring as the murders turn out to revolve around Johnny’s death which turns out not to be self inflicted at all. Nelson suspects this though you do wonder why his predecessors a quarter of a century back didn’t consider that. Family orientated issues echo earlier episodes though writer Paul Logue does a good job in keeping the culprit and motives hidden till the last possible moment. It’s a good episode for Nelson whose personality has emerged more this year and who know seems more proactive in his methods. It does seem unlikely though that he would be the only candidate available to babysit for the Barnabys when the Inspector doesn’t even seem to know his first name and gives him the sort of legwork you’d expect to be assigned to a PC. Guest cast this week includes formidable though brief appearances from Rosalind March, a typically robust Sean Gilder as Danny Carver and Claudia Blakely whose quiet performance belies the character’s importance in the story.
What A Vintage Murder lacks in humour or bizarre murders, it makes up for in incident and pace. The most tightly edited of this year’s four films it kicks off as it means to go on with a crane shot over a vineyard wall and an opening that includes a vitriolic on the spot critique of a new wine followed by half those assembled for its launch keeling over. Throughout director Lisa Holdsworth makes this episode more thrilling than it might otherwise be whether by long shots to emphasise the lacquered luxury of The Vine Hotel or depicting the murders with a devilish delight. Each is shot with suitable melodrama; in the first the aforementioned wine critic is knocked down by a car then dragged into the brewery and left to perish amidst the dry ice of carbon monoxide. Later someone is pushed from a hotel window by a point of view camera perhaps making the viewer feel guilty.  There is also one real shock moment when a character has a sack suddenly placed over their head. There is even something of a sense of urgency that can sometimes be missing from Barnaby and co. That being said the Inspector does seem to potter through this story as if on a country outing leaving Nelson to do all the hard work.
The narrative itself swings along with lively dialogue and soon plays into a five year old crime and who was responsible. Nobody mentions Tom Barnaby who must have been away at the time, instead we meet PC Florrie who seems to have been the chief investigating officer. There’s a sub plot revolving around her obvious attraction to Nelson and his colleagues’ attempts to set them up which provides some lighter moments. As does the Barnaby’s deadpan Spanish babysitter.
Such is the close involvement between the bickering families that run the wine business and the hotel that almost everyone comes under suspicion so the final revelation is a genuine surprise and played with more emotional heft than usual.
Four episodes a year may not seem a lot but each is a crafted filmic delight and this season has been the strongest for a while. Midsomer Murders remains something of curio these days yet with a strong ration of good episodes each run earns its keep as one of ITV’s stalwart performers. 

Midsomer Meandering

  • To date 104 episodes have been shown since the series began in 1997.
  • The series was originally based in books written by Caroline Graham and early episodes were adapted by Foyle’s War creator Anthony Horowitz.
  • The first Inspector Tom Barnaby played by John Nettles did 81 episodes between 1997 and 2011. That probably amounts to over 600 times he was seen getting in or out of his car.
  • Since leaving the series, according to Toast of London, John Nettles has become a poacher. This is unlikely to be true.
  • We often see a little of the Barnaby’s family life; his wife Joyce (played by Jane Wymark)  is unfeasibly involved in every possible society or club that pops up from painting to history to the local theatre to archaeology. Presumably her husband’s salary is enough to keep them. Early series saw Joyce’s dubious cooking skills and Cully’s acting ambitions becoming their relative signatures but later on this broadened out. There was a period when, like Miss Marple, if you invited Joyce to something somebody would drop dead in front of her.
  • Because the show is called Inspector Barnaby in a number of European countries it was decided that the new detective should be similarly monikered. Being Midsomer Murders it is quite conceivable that they’d send a new bloke who just happened to have the same name but in fact John Barnaby is Tom’s cousin.
  • He had appeared previously when the character worked in Brighton in a 2010 episode. The actor who plays him Neil Dudgeon had also appeared back in season 4 playing a different role. So far nobody in Midsomer seems to have noticed.
  • John’s wife Sarah played by Fiona Dollman is a head teacher and the couple have recently had their first baby girl who they have given the unlikely name of Betty. ITV could be planning a series to start in 20 years called Betty Barnaby Investigates.
  • Undoubtedly the best ever character in the series and possibly any series is John Barnaby’s dog Sykes. Surely the day when Sykes solves the murders cannot be far off.
  • There have been four Sergeants assisting the Barnabys the first being Gavin Troy played by Daniel Casey. He was prone to bad driving and politically incorrect opinions and appeared in 29 episodes.
  • Next up was Dan Scott played by John Hopkins who had been transferred from London and was a bit headstrong. He vanished after only 13 episodes and nobody knows why, either fictionally or in real life.
  • The longest running assistant so far is Ben Jones played by Jason Hughes who notched up 51 episodes and thus became the most developed character who was initially seen as a PC unexpectedly bumped up to Sergeant but properly promoted later. He added a comedic side to the series and initially came up with deductions that were somewhat wide of the mark. He is also the only one to have appeared with both Barnabys and initially did not take to John at all.
  • Currently Charlie Nelson played by Gwilym Lee is the assistant and has so far done 9 episodes. He, too, comes from London but is less chippy than Scott was and is a lodger at the home of pathologist Kate Wilding played by Tamzin Malleson.
  • She’s the second pathologist we’ve seen after the perennial George Bullard played by Barry Jackson whose wry approach to the job made him a fun addition to the series.
  • To date there has been over 70 different villages named which makes Midsomer comparatively crowded considering each place we’ve seen has been fairly substantial and often includes a large house or farms. There is still a place for lots of woodland as well
  • The series was the subject of some controversy in 2011 when producer Brian True- May intimated that there was no place for characters from multiple ethnicities in the series which prompted observers to realise that almost all the characters across the series’ history had been white. Since then the producer has left and a number of non white characters have turned up though generally only one per episode.
  • There must have been something like 300 murders by now as each episode averages 3 deaths (though some have more)

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