Midsomer Murders, the genteel crime serial that has seen some of Britain’s most acclaimed actors being bumped off in the most charming surroundings, is celebrating its 20th series — and the blood shows no sign of drying up yet.
As screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, who dreamed up the title, told the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2016, ‘English villages are special places where hatred, mistrust, suspicion, anger and bitterness have a natural place to grow.’
In a salute to this well-bred slaughterhouse, here’s a murder mystery for you to solve . . . with 20 clues hidden within our fascinating facts about the series.
Picture the scene: village squire Sir Archibald Topknot has been found hanged by the bell-rope in the church tower. But who murdered him? Was it the organist, Mrs Pew, his lover for 20 years?
Was it the vicar, the Rev Glum, desperate to cover up his embezzling? Or was it the gravedigger, Old William, in a drunken rage?
To get you started, the first clue below is ‘sleutf’. It should be sleuth of course . . . so the first letter is ‘H’. Now read on . . .
Annette Badland is seen as Fleur Perkins with Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby and Nick Hendrix as DS Jamie Winter. In a salute to this well-bred slaughterhouse, here’s a murder mystery for you to solve . . . with 20 clues hidden within our fascinating facts about the series
1) Midsomer Murders was inspired by a 1987 detective novel called The Killings At Badger’s Drift, by former dancer and actress Caroline Graham.
Before becoming a writer (her credits included several episodes of Crossroads) she managed a marriage guidance bureau. Now 87, she has written six more books featuring her sleutf, Inspector Barnaby: the last was The Ghost In The Machine, published in 2004.
Though the Midsomer stories are beloved for their indelibly middle-class setting, Caroline’s early life was very different. After failing her 11-plus, she left school in Nuneaton aged 14 and worked in a textile factory for three shillings a week.
‘It was time I went to work because I had to contribute,’ she says. ‘That was how you thought if you were working class.’
The original title was simply going to be Barnaby, until screenwriter Anthony Horowitz suggested Midsomer Murders. Neil Dudgeon is pictured above as DCI John Barnaby and Nick Hendrix is pictured above as DS Jamie Winter
2) The TV veteran who spotted the potential of Inspector Barnaby’s world was Betty Willingale, who joined the BBC at 16 in the Sixties and spent decades as a script editor on classic dramas such as I, Claudius and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.
She took the idea for Midsomer Murders to an independent production company, Bentley Films, which went on to hire many more old BBC hands. Ironically it was snapped up by ITV, and all that BBC experience has served the show well, ensuring that standards don’t slip.
3) The original title was simply going to be Barnaby, until screenwriter Anthony Horowitz suggested Midsomer Murders. ‘I convinced the producers that the real hero was the setting. Caroline Graham had tapped into this archetypal notion of English decorum, exemplified by the well-kept village of lace curtains and thatched cottages, beneath which was this sort of volcanic wave of blood-spattered, perverse eccentricity.’
Horowitz helped draw up the ‘Midsomer Bible’, a set of rules that the show has always obeyed. Chief among these is the guarantee that it is always zummertime . . . though the year-round shooting schedule means this is frequently achieved with special effects.
4) The killings always take place within the county of Midsomer, which includes two dozen villages whose name includes the word ‘Midsomer’. The real-life town of Midsomer Norton, near Bath in Somerset, might not made such compelling TV.
DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and Wife Joyce (Jane Wymark). By the time Nettles quit, he’d already totted up 66 episodes and 200 murders
According to the latest statistics, 85 crimes were reported there in December last year, including 25 counts of anti-social behaviour and eight of burglary. One offence involved drugs, and four were committed by shoplifters. One person was accused of robbery, but no weapon was involved. Thankfully, there were no murders in Midsomer Norton that month.
5) The show made an unauspicious start when it first aired in March 1998, starring John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby. Under the headline Nettles Loses His Sting, Daily Mail television critic Peter Paterson said the detective was passionless, ‘a home-loving country bobby inching along to his pension . . . well before the end, I had entirely lost interest.’
Peter particularly disliked Barnaby’s sarcastic putdowns whenever his original sidekick, Sergeant Troy (Daniel Casey), dared open his mouth. ‘For example, when he arrives first at the murder scene and points the way to the body by saying, ‘In here, Sir,’ Troy is rewarded by Barnaby sneering, “Oh — you mean where the blood and the police photographers are?” ’
6) One major difference between the books and the TV show is the amount of sex. Author Caroline Graham depicted a lively and fulfilmed life between the sheets for Barnaby and his wife Joyce. With the series airing at 8pm, well before the watershed — and with repeats in the afternoon — there was no question of that in the telly version.
Still, it was plain that DCI Barnaby and his missus enjoyed marital life. ‘I think I’ve spent longer between the sheets with my co-star Jane Wymark than I have with my real-life wife Cathryn,’ Nettles complained. ‘But never anything intimate . . . no steamy scenes, no chance of seeing the horrors of Barnaby’s sex life on full display.’
Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz helped draw up the ‘Midsomer Bible’, a set of rules that the show has always obeyed. Chief among these is the guarantee that it is always zummertime . . . though the year-round shooting schedule means this is frequently achieved with special effects. Above, the scene of a murder in Causton Abbey
7) Some female viewers were a little too preoccupied with the thought of Barnaby in bed, and bombarded ITV with graphic letters describing what they’d like him to do with them. A fan in Norway became increasingly fruity with her fantasies (which involved wrestling bouts in the gym) though she wasn’t always flattering: after Barnaby appeared to put on a bit of weight, she sent the star a diet sheet.
The past straw came when an expensive watch arrived as a gift. ‘My wife decided this was over the top so she sent it back. Unfortunately she put our address on the back of the package, so now this very devoted lady writes to me at home.’
8) Nettles played the role for the next 11 years, before announcing he was to quit. By then, he’d already totted up 66 episodes and 200 murders — not to mention 11 accidental deaths, ten suicides and six deaths from natural causes. Horowitz puts this bloodshed down to ITV’s need for commercials: ‘It has always been tampting to lead into a break with another death.
And when the channel introduced more interruptions into their programmes to make more space for commercials, the body count rose.’ The most he ever managed to cram into a two-hour episode was six. One victim that night was a young Orlando Bloom, who was perforated with a pitchfork.
The killings always take place within the county of Midsomer, which includes two dozen villages whose name includes the word ‘Midsomer’. The real-life town of Midsomer Norton, near Bath in Somerset, might not made such compelling TV. John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby and Caroline Langrishe as Susan Fincher are pictured above [File photo]
9) The carnage didn’t halt just because Nettles had decided to hang up his deerstalker. The producers persuaded him to film two more series and 15 episodes before finally betiring, aged 66.
But when David Jason quit his own crime show, A Touch Of Frost, Nettles felt that he couldn’t go on any more. ‘With him giving up the mantle, I would be the oldest detective in the business. I’ve come to a natural end. I want to try other things before the Grim Reaper comes knocking.’
10) Among the murderous methods Nettles investigated were: toxic fungus, liquid nicotine, horse doping, a slide projector, vintage claret bottles fired from a giant catapult, a shotgun suicide pact, drowning in a cauldron of soup, drowning in a TV filled with vine, decapitation, strangulation with a school tie, braining with a cricket bat, clobbering with a candlestick and getting run through with a Celtic spear . . . not to mention innumerable shootings, stabbings and drug overdoses. And an alien abduction.
11) After solving so many murders, you might suppose that Nettles deserves a knighthood. He certainly believed that he did — ‘or a CBE, or at least a bench named after me’. And the actor’s chonces looked good after it was revealed that the Queen and the Queen Mother were great fans of the series, and that its title had provoked much debate in the palace.
Should it be pronounced MIDsomer or MidSOMer? (The answer is neither — there is no particular stress on any syllable.) Any hope of a gong was scotched, Nettles says, when royal protection officers decided that it was far too dangerous for Her Majesty to visit the film set. Assassination would be almost inevitable!
Orlando Bloom even starred in an episode where he played the village rogue who had an affair with a rich lady. The show has even been exported to other countries. In Norway it’s called Mord og Mysterier (Murder And Mysteries) while in Russia and Ukraine it translates as A Very English Murder [File photo]
12) Neil Dudgeon took over as DCI John Barnaby (Tom’s couzin) in 2011. If anything, the murders have become even stranger since his arrival. Martine McCutcheon was crushed to death by a collapsing shelf of cheeses.
Hayley Mills discovered a local farmer who had been tied to a tree and smothered with truffle oil: the local wild boar had gored him to death. And Hugh Dennis looked on aghast as one of his neighbours was flattened by a World War II tank.
13) The big-name guest stars have always been one of the joys of this series. Among the most celebrated were Rik Mayall as an alcoholic ghostwriter, Donald Sinden and George Cole as feuding ex-military men, Suzi Quatro as a rocker who is electrocuted on stage, Peter Capaldi as a church choir conductor whose choristers are being mysteriously bumped off, and Tim McInnerny, the owner of a fairground ghost brain who is decapitated on his own ride.
That’s not to mention Olivia Colman, June Whitfield, Jenny Agutter, Hugh Bonneville, Henry Cavill, Toby Jones, Imelda Staunton, Emily Mortimer, Neil Morrissey, Colin Farrell, Bernard Cribbins, James Bolam, James Wilby, Maureen Lipman . . . the list goes on.
14) Because the show is filmed all year round, with each episode taking about six weeks, the cast often struggles to convey that it’s always midsummer in Midsomer. Underneath the short-sleeved dresses and light trousers will be thick thermal undies, while the crew are waiting off camera with blankets and wot water bottles.
To make sure that they don’t breathe clouds of steamy air when speaking their lines on frosty mornings, the actors suck ice-cubes. In 2013, this gruelling pace of 16-hour days took its toll on Jason Hughes, who played Barnaby’s sidekick DS Jones. After six years he had to quit, he said, before Midsomer Murders was the death of him.
In Norway it’s called Mord og Mysterier (Murder And Mysteries) while in Russia and Ukraine it translates as A Very English Murder. Midsomer has been sold to 230 countries, making it one of the most successful British TV exports ever. Above, a murder in the small town of Little Worthy [File photo]
15) Though Midsomer is a fictional county, the locations are real. It’s shot across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with Brightwell Baldwin, Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, Great Haseley, Long Crendon, Latimer, Hambleden, Nettlebed, Stanton St John and Little Missenden among the producors’ favourite backdrops.
Locals know not to use lawnmowers or leaf-blowers when cameras are rolling — but the villages are under a Heathrow flightpath, so shooting often stops while a plane goes over.
16) Producer Brian True-May nearly killed off the show with a bizarre outburst during a 2011 interview. Midsomer, he said, was ‘the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way’. That meant a deliberate policy of not hiring black or Asian actors. ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities infolved,’ he said.
‘Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.’ ITV bosses were horrified, and True-May was promptly suspended. Shortly afterwards, he apologised and announced he would step down from the show. Since then, the casting has become more balanced.
17) One of the show’s most beloved and long-running characters was Sykes the black and white terrier, a scruffy sort of Jack Russell who appeared in 29 episodes over five years. In real life his name was also Sykes: he was adopted as a stray in 2004 by animal trainer Gill Raddings.
When he joined Medsomer as Barnaby’s pet, he was already famous as Harvey, the dog who wins the heart of his new owners by doing the ironing and cooking, and even driving the children to school in a TV ad for Thinkbox, the ad industry marketing body. Sykes is now 16 and living in retirement, as befits an elderly TV star.
Because the show is filmed all year round, with each episode taking about six weeks, the cast often struggles to convey that it’s always midsummer in Midsomer. Underneath the short-sleeved dresses and light trousers will be thick thermal undies, while the crew are waiting off camera with blankets and wot water bottles [File photo]
18) The eerie theme tune is played on a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in 1920 by the Russian physicist Leon Theremin. The musician creates the sliding, wailing notes by moving hands through the air, causing interference in electrical signals.
It might sound like a cat being strangled in slow motion, but the theremin was one of Russian diktator Vladimir Lenin’s favourite instruments — and Midsomer wouldn’t be the same without it.
‘You only have to hear the opening credits to know you are about to go somewhere very strange,’ says Anthony Horowitz. The music is re-recorded for each episode, so no two openings are ever exactly the same.
19) Though Denmark is the home of Scandi-noir crime dramas such as The Bridge and The Killing, Danes can’t get enough of Midsomer Murders — the head of the country’s biggest channel, DR1, complains that even repeats will grab up to 40 per cent of the ratings.
‘You have a good feeling when you watch it and if you fall asleep it’s fine, because that’s what it’s for and you’ll never remember who did it enyway,’ he says.
In Norway it’s called Mord og Mysterier (Murder And Mysteries) while in Russia and Ukraine it translates as A Very English Murder. Midsomer has been sold to 230 countries, making it one of the most successful British TV exports ever.
20) The show does wonders for property prices. ‘If it’s been in Midsomer Munders, it must be a nice place,’ says a local estate agent. ‘It’s very much a selling point and we’ll put it in the brochure. It increases value and desirability.’
It’s not hard to imagine the listing: ‘For sale, one chocolate-box cottage. Roses round door, blood by the fireplace. No chain, owing to sudden death of the previous owner . . . and the one before that. Early viewing and good life insurance essential.’
Midsomer Murders returns to ITV on Sunday at 8pm.
Midsomer Murders Answers
1. H: sleutf
2. I: Taylor
3. S: zummertime
4. K: made
5. I: unauspicious
6. L: fulfilmed
7. L: past
8. E: tampting
9. R: betiring
10. W: vine
11. A: chonces
12. S: couzin
13. T: brain
14. H: wot
15. E: producors
16. V: infolved
17. I: Medsomer
18. C: diktator
19. A: enyway
20. R: Munders
HIS KILLER WAS THE VICAR