The Midsomer Murders episode `Talking to the Dead` was recently shown on ITV3 as part of that channel’s seemingly endless trawl through the ITV detective archive and what a splendid episode it is. It takes a series of incidents that could easily nestle into a horror film and runs them past the viewer who, if you go with it, will enjoy it tremendously. Its not social commentary we might be familiar with but it taps into rural superstitions and folklore. First shown in 2009, events are vividly realised by director Sarah Hellings’ use of shots of creaking trees at every opportunity and a pale palette that brings out the autumnal. Its the time of year when all Midsomer Murders should really be made and the perfect setting for a tale of a supposedly haunted woods and a pile up of several bodies announced in gruesome style. One of the signatures of the series used to be (they’ve cut back on this more recently) that it ventured as near as it could to fantasy before explaining the melodrama in practical terms. This episode does is as well as any.
Take character’s forays into the woods which are accompanied by unsettling atmospherics and the sudden arrival of fog wafting into the picture, not uncommon signatures of spooky woods in tv shows but normally they’re cooked up solely for the viewer’s benefit, a sort of visual representation of the unease a character is feeling. Here though these things are what the characters are actually experiencing while for our added benefit come sequences of monks being slain by soldiers on horseback. There’s a sepia wash to these images suggesting we’re peeking back into a gory history. The double gag however is that these special effects are being conjured by one of the characters to scare folks away playing on a well- known local legend.
The story isn’t done with its layering there though. For we also have a Germanic soothsayer whose stated aim to free lost souls is hampered by the fact he becomes number one suspect in Inspector Barnaby’s- and in our- head because, well, he’s a satanic type who favours sulphur and red robes and we know what they’re like. Pitted against him is another hell fire character in the form of a local priest who is want to preach on the man street or stride into the woods with a large gold crucifix and a bible. It helps that these two are played with relish by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé and the one and only Anton Lesser who is capable of bringing verisimilitude to even the most odd character. Within half an hour I was already imagining a flat share comedy in which the duo could further expand these already twice as large as life characters. The final twist though suggests that there was something after all in the visions and gives the series probably its best ever episode ending. Even Barnaby looks baffled.
Twist three revolves around the man who turns out to be the real murderer. Having kicked off with four people seemingly going missing from a couple of cottages the investigation ultimately leads to two bodies and a third man who seems to have gone crazy and is speaking in tongues. He keeps this up for so long that everyone, including professionals believe it is genuine. Wise old owl Barnaby – whose ability to see through even the most convincing ruse is admirable- realises that the man is faking leading to his sudden return to normal behaviour. Well as normal as admitting he chucked his wife down a well several days ago. She’s ok by the way, well as ok as someone whose husband threw her down a well after killing their neighbours might be.
The production is tightly assembled with none of the slightly wandering mid section that affects some episodes and despite a relatively small cast there is never a dull moment and frequently you’ll be thinking `how crazy can this go`? The duo of John Nettles and Jason Hughes are probably the best combo the series had leading it; as in many an episode we have examples of Hughes’ DI Ben Jones being made to do the less pleasant donkey work – here he is sent up a tree from which he ends up dangling. By this stage- we’re a decade into the series –Nettles’ Barnaby was becoming more like a benign spectre as he oversaw the misrule and seemed to be enjoying the ride. Even with this darker tale there is space for levity such as the moment when Barnaby slams the door of an iron maiden shut not knowing Jones is inside. Clearly the junior officer is not going to meet a grisly end but the expression on his face when the device is re-opened shows a programme confident enough to add a tinge of macabre to even its lighter elements.