Midsomer Murders **** Part 1

From 1997-2008 British TV watchers had a weekly two-hour “who-done-it” to look forward to just as we had a weekly favorite for one hour in Murder, She Wrote from 1984-1996. Continuity in our lives is healthy even in the form of a tv show. We establish a routine around the time of our favorite show; grab the popcorn and favorite seat. Sunday evenings were set aside for 12 years by many to catch the latest problem for Jessica Fletcher to solve. In England, the same process must  have taken place for DCI Barnaby in Midsomer Murders*.  Viewers remained loyal and interested enough to keep it on the air for 11 years.

Waiting until sixty-two, 100 minute shows have been viewed to do  a review didn’t seem wise to me. I would forget details that are fun and my opinion may change as the series matures. I have watched about thirty episodes so far. I decided to divide my reviews into two parts with most of the first thirty-one having Sergeant Troy as the loyal subordinate. We meet other assistants for Barnaby in later episodes.

Carol (actually Caroline) Graham wrote seven Midsomer novels with the same settings and characters. The first five episodes were based directly on her first five novels. The other two written in 1999 and 2004 were made in later seasons with “Ghosts in the Machine” being the last. “The Killings at Badger’s Drift”, the first episode but not her first novel, written in 1988 has been named one of the “Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time”. Quite a prestigious award for a novelist.

Midsomer is an imaginary county in England with a number of small country villages. It seems the biggest town in the county is called Corston with possibly the only police station, courthouse and morgue. It must be an exceptionally violent county since Barnaby and his co-horts are seldom called to solve only one crime in each small hamlet. Yet I would live in any of these quaint places to be surrounded by lush green lawns, colorful flowers and attractive, middle-class, middle-aged people. The architecture is similar in each village making it difficult to remember if this story started in Midsomer Mallow, Newton Magna, Midsomer Wellow or Midsomer Parva. (And the list of strange names goes on and on!) And . . . it didn’t rain a drop in this county for 15 episodes! Imagine that, in England. Dashes all my earlier conceptions of English countryside where I thought it rained daily.

The stories are complex with many suspects, mis-leading clues and a surprise twist to end the mystery. Don’t be fooled by the music. The theme is whimsical and eerie plus light-hearted yet creepy at times trying to lead you into thinking one way and then twisting another for a surprise. Nicely done show.

Nice-guy Barnaby puts up with Troy who acts really dumb but (how did he ever get to be a sergeant ?) comes through occasionally with a bright idea. We meet and see Barnaby’s wife and/or daughter in every episode making us appreciate his ability to stay grounded no matter how nasty the murders are. More about his family next time.

That’s all for now. Part 2 may follow in January. 

*author’s note. After reading the novels this show is based on I may have better details and/or corrections but I begin now with first impressions, suppositions and assumptions based on what I observe and conclude from watching.

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HAMISH MACBETH ****

Hamish Macbeth is a dramedy from the British Isles that made it’s way onto my mystery list. Not full of murders and mayhem – well maybe some mayhem – but entertaining nonetheless. The close captions for these 19 episodes were absolutely mandatory. The accents are thick and the Gaelic terms sounded like gibberish to me, or possibly a foreign language. (Sorry, Margaret, my friend from Edinburgh.)
This is a great fun show to watch evolve and grow over the short two years’ episodes. Watching each 48 minute show in order adds to the richness of the experience. I do rate it PG for some sexual content and loads of smoking! I hope you enjoy this show as much as I did. Add a comment to recommend or criticize.
 

 

Are you ready to see a Scottish version of the The Andy Griffith Show’s neighborliness mixed with a little Northern Exposure isolation? Hamish Macbeth is not exactly Andy Taylor but he is the only Constable (a Sheriff) in a small town. And Hamish’s “TV John” McIver is like Andy’s side-kick, Barney Fife. In fact Lochdubh (pronounced lock-doob) is so small and quiet they have a safe in the constable’s office to hold the one official pistol and official ammunition. They do have a jail cell to hold bad guys, like the guy making eyes at Macbeths’ true love (no friendly drunk like Otis, though). The Lochdubhians have encounters with thieves, escaped convicts, arsonists and space ships. Also with long-haired bovine that wander around town, sheep galore (walking more than 4 abreast -you’ll see the road sign!) and one goat.

Some of the faces in this 1995-1997 show you may have seen before. Robert Carlyle plays Hamish Macbeth. You may know him from The Full Monty, nominated for four Academy Awards in 1997 or more currently, Stargate Universe on the Sy-Fy channel. He tries to keep things running smoothly in Lochdubh. If things get close to the edge of legality, he always keeps the greater good of all in mind. Isobel, the local journalist is played by Shirley Henderson, best known for her work as the ghost Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films. As a sexy Junior Constable with her cap set of Hamish you’ll hardly recognize Sharon Small from The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. The other actors may be well known to British audiences as they are quite convincing in these rolls.

Hamish Macbeth is based on characters created by M. C. Beaton and this is the reminder of Northern Exposure. Delightful, interesting and strange yet well defined characters we want to get to know. We have a school teacher, Esme Murray, as the local sex symbol who is secretly involved (ha, ha, everybody knows) with the only grocer, Rory Campbell who is far from sexy. Doc Brown is the handsome physician who always has a pipe in his mouth with familiar smelling – illegal? – tobacco. Barney and Agnes are the only married couple we know. They own the watering hole/inn where everyone meets for any reason, friendly or not. The McCrae’s are Lachie and Lachie Jr. the handymen, junkyard keepers in the early episodes. This father and son team are the source of great mischief and humor, especially when these two and Barney dance naked on a hilltop at dusk to ward off evil spirits. While Major MacLean is the respected manor owner with a daughter Alexandra, the novelist, being Hamish’s first love, She leaves them both for the fame and fortune of big city life in Inverness. Her return complicates things for more than Hamish.

Competition between Lochdubh and neighboring Cnotham is hot and heavy each year. Traveling to Gnotham in a huge bus gives us a tour of the beautiful, strange landscape of southern Scotland. The narrow roads the bus traverses divide lush green hills from craggy outcrops of rocks and cliffs dropping sharply into the sea. A “shinty match”, looks like field hockey, brings out the aggressor in men and women of Lochdubh. The singing contest is held nearer Lockdubh in a grand open field with the singer standing on a butte surrounded by the green glory of a valley. The acoustics of the natural setting are superb.

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Touching Evil ***

Some episodes of this British TV series were shown on PBS Mystery and BBC America. It is one of the few serialized programs I will review. If watched out-of-order it feels like you’ve skipped a chapter in a book, you can catch up but something is definitely missing.

Based on a character  created by Paul Abbott, Robson Green (the blue-eyed brainiac of Wire in  the Blood fame), plays Detective inspector Dave Creegan. A hard-nosed, hot-tempered cop in the OSC, Organized Serial Crimes division, in this dark psychological thriller. In 16, forty-six minutes episodes, eight stories are told with brisk, yet thoughtful pace, daring us to solve the puzzles. Creegan draws us (and criminals) into his personal life with some regret, after the fact, of course. He maintains an interesting relationship with 2 small daughters, his ex-wife and her new man. He is warm and comfortable with female colleagues, and on dates. The guys in his division are respectful of him as peer and boss. Guest stars to the show include Irish actor James Nesbitt (from Murphy’s Law – to be reviewed later – and BBC’s Jeckle series), plus an outstanding performance from Andy Serkis (Lord of the Ring‘s Gollum and Nicola Tesla’s assistant in the movie The Prestige). The stories are interesting and occasionally grizzly so I’d rate this one a PG-13, also for some nudity and language.

A couple of cool points of interest. First, Creegan’s “warrant card” – comparable to a U.S. cop’s badge and I.D. wallet, I think – has an implanted beacon so his office can always locate him. For 1997 this seems pretty savvy, but what do I know. What if he didn’t want to be found is what I wondered. And here’s a tidbit I wasn’t aware of: “Every website has a fifty word description” according to the I.T. guy in the OSC office. He didn’t say where we could find this description though. Maybe only the police in 1997 could access it.

Let me know how you like this one.

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Rosemary and Thyme ****

This is one series of TV shows that I will watch over and over. Not because it has such great complicated mysteries, it’s because I love the settings and the spectacular gardens! Before and after Rosemary and Laura have had their hands (and noses) in both. 
 
Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme are the title ladies of middle age and high energy. (They actually remind me of myself and a friend from the past who now is a professional landscaper in Colorado.) Rosemary was a professor of horticulture, or a forensic horticulturist, who began a gardening /landscaping business when she got downsized out of a job. Laura, a former policewoman-come-homemaker, found a friend and partner in Rosemary when she lost her husband to a younger woman. They make a formidable team in the garden and in other peoples’ business. They get involved because they are overlooked by those around them as they work. If they are working outside windows or behind bushes they tend to overhear important secrets that come into play later in the story. And what fun storytelling it turns out to be. In a short 48 minutes a murder mystery is solved, fabulous gardens are restored and this friendship blossoms.
 
Watch for fresh-cut flowers inside every castle, villa or rectory they visit. With wealthy clients all around Europe, this pair travels to Spain, France and Italy with viewers traveling vicariously with them. We learn a little about plants, flowers and trees if we pay close attention. And the architectural samplings, interior and exterior, catch my eye in every episode.  
No bloody scenes, dangerous chases or gunfights move this series along. It’s not necessary to this imaginative, entertaining show. However, we do find these ladies in dangerous situations. The old Land Rover they have is frequently in need of repair, each of them has a bout with illness or injury and their gardening tools make for great weapons.

Closed captions are not available on the DVD’s yet the speech is less mumbled than some other shows. Women may love these 23 episodes more than men. I rate them PG due to some storylines. And, of course, the theme music will repeat itself in your head just as it did 30+ years ago when Simon and Garfunkel sang about “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

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Wallander *****

(* rating system 1-5)

Kenneth Branaugh plays Kurt Wallander in a series of complex murder mysteries produced for BBC and PBS with characters and storylines taken from the famous novels of Henning Mankell. These three outstanding mysteries unfold with such skill that we are smoothly drawn into the drama and suspense. Tight, serious and complicated puzzles are pieced together as tension increases yet clues are not obvious to detectives or viewers. Not your standard police procedural story line. The focus is more on character development and their powers of deduction than action.

Set in Ystad, in southern Sweden, the vast, featureless landscapes and seascapes set the stage and surround the viewer with a mood that lingers in the minds-eye long after the show is over. This may be due to a new moviemaking technology that makes the overall quality of this production superior to some theatrical movies today. A new camera referred to as a “Red Cam” records a highly digitized crystal clear picture. Scenes of Wallander walking through thigh-high wheat fields in a pre-storm wind; rape fields in bloom (lovely yellow blossoms fill the screen) with parallel lines from a tractor marring natures perfection and fog that exquisitely rolls into a scene slowly increasing in density, are as clear in my mind today as the first time I saw them on my 42 inch TV screen. I was taken there for those minutes with Wallander. Add to this a score that subtly works to guide your emotions to the character and scene unfolding.

Kurt Wallander is not an easy character to root for. He’s hard to like since we can see he’s troubled by personal matters yet he makes no effort to work on them. Add to that the stress of the murder investigation and you can see how close to the edge he lives his life. However, I think all the stress makes him very good at his job and very sad as a man.

You may be able to see the first episode of the new series on Sunday October third on your PBS station (consult your local TV listings) or check out the older ones through your library, Netflix, Blockbuster, etc.

A few facts:

Three episodes made in 2008 each on disk with special features

80 minutes each commercial free

Rated PG-13 (by this blogger), graphic murder scenes

Closed Captions available and help when the accents are thick

Comments welcome.

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Let’s begin

Love a good mystery? Even love the bad ones now and then? Me, too. I am especially drawn to those on PBS or available through Netflix (for a fee). My public library has quite a few at no cost. My current favorites are of the British variety from past and current TV shows. Most were not available on U.S. broadcast TV so they are new to me.
I shall be providing info about them on an occasional basis including my opinion, commentary, critique and/or criticism. From Inspector Morse – seen world-wide by more than two million viewers since it’s premier in 1987-to a new BBC production of the famous Swedish Inspector Wallander created by best-selling author Henning Mankell then shown on Masterpiece Mystery last year. Between these the intensity of a series runs from mild sleuths in “Rosemary and Thyme” to grizzly detailed murders of “Wire in the Blood”.
I haven’t gotten through all of them, of course, but intend to continue checking them out as I become aware of them.
I will point out a detail to watch for in each post.
Let me know your favorite series, episode or movie and I’ll take a look then share my thoughts.
Enjoy! – PTD

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