Tag Archives: Midsomer Murders

Midsomer love-in

Airing in more than 200 countries, Midsomer Murders is celebrating its 20th season on television this year. DQ visits the set of the popular crime drama, which boasts some of the strangest deaths on screen.

At its heart, Midsomer Murders can be described as a traditional murder mystery – but there’s nothing orthodox about the way the show’s plethora of victims meet their grisly end. The long-running British drama, which ushers in a remarkable 20th season in 2018, has seen victims drown in a cauldron of soup, electrocuted while riding an exercise bike and poisoned by a tropical frog.

Even more bizarre was the death of a woman crushed by a wheel of cheese, while another killing was the work of a headless horseman. One man died after being hit by bottles of vintage wine while he was pinned to the ground as a human target.

But that’s part of the charm of the long-running series, which delicately blends stories of serious crimes and its light-hearted tone to concoct an antidote to the darker, more brutal crime series on television.

It also continues to strike a chord around the world, with the new season of the ITV series already picked up by ABC (Australia), DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), SVT (Sweden), VRT (Belgium), Sky (New Zealand) and Acorn Media (US). LA 7 (Italy), Fox (Portugal), RSI (Switzerland), ZDF (Germany) and France TV, meanwhile, have renewed their long-running deals for the show with distributor All3Media International.

“My personal favourite was [season 16’s] Wild Harvest, where a man is tied to a tree, covered in truffle oil and eaten alive by wild boar,” reveals leading actor Neil Dudgeon, who has played DCI John Barnaby for the last seven years. “It’s not the sort of thing where you think, ‘That could have been me.’ It’s a really twisted and bizarre way of killing someone but it’s kind of fun. We’ve never gone in with people getting bashed over the head with a shovel. Mostly the writers try to come up with the most exotic deaths they can, which I think is part of the fun of the show.”

Midsomer Murders stars Neil Dudgeon and Nick Hendrix during filming

It is a sunny June 2017 day at a secluded building, surrounded by woods, on the outskirts of north-west London when DQ finds the Midsomer cast and crew preparing to shoot the final scenes of season 20’s third episode, Drawing Dead, which centres on a comic-book convention featuring scores of new superheroes imagined by writer Jeff Povey. There are no capes or masks here, however, as DCI Barnaby and DS Jamie Winter (played by Nick Hendrix) have joined new pathologist Dr Fleur Perkins (Annette Badland) in the lab to discuss her forensic findings after examining the latest victim’s body.

“We generally finish in the police station and mortuary, which is a good thing because it usually just involves me and Nick explaining the plot to each other,” Dudgeon jokes. “On odd occasions, we’ve had to do the police station stuff at the beginning of the episode, which is a bit of a car crash because we haven’t been to any of the locations, we haven’t seen any of the murder scene or met the other characters. We’re just explaining something we’ve barely got a handle on. So doing it at the end is much preferred.

“We’ve spent most of the last two weeks on a lovely village green with a big marquee and various stalls and stands with extras all dressed up as new superheroes we’ve invented for the purpose of the show. All these people come to this village where they celebrate all things comics and this terrible thing happens. Then while we’re on the trail, somebody else bites the dust.”

Dudgeon describes Midsomer, set in the fictional eponymous county, as a police show that’s less about the police and more about the characters the detectives meet during their investigation, each with something to hide. “Everybody’s got secrets but only one person is lying about the fact they’re actually the murderer, and that feeds Barnaby’s interest in all of the characters,” the actor explains. “I’ve always liked that the police aren’t very interesting. [Creator] Betty Willingale’s idea was for an antidote to the police shows of the time where it was about having an interesting policeman, whereas this is not – he’s not an interesting policeman, he’s happily married, goes out to work and investigates murders, then goes home and puts his feet up.”

Dudgeon joined the series to replace original star John Nettles, who played DCI Tom Barnaby (John Barnaby’s cousin, owing to the fact the series is known as Inspector Barnaby in many overseas territories) for 13 seasons. Between them, they have worked alongside several partners, with Hendrix joining the main cast ahead of season 19. His move to Midsomer came as the actor sought to step into a leading role, having previously appeared in The Crown and Marcella.

Dudgeon says his favourite death in the series is in season 16 when a man is eaten alive by a wild boar

“It’s a fun job and every episode’s different – every four weeks you get a new group of actors, a new story, locations and fun things to do,” Hendrix says. “It has to have jeopardy but, whereas in a gritty drama I’d jump out of the way of something, hit my head and knock myself out, in this I’m face-down in manure. This particular season is quite a lot funnier and the producers have encouraged us to embrace that tongue-in-cheek humour a little bit more. There is a line, because it’s still murder, it’s still crime, but they’ve embraced that fun side of it, which is what I think people love about the show.”

For executive producer Jonathan Fisher, who joined the Bentley Productions show in September 2016, Midsomer Murders is underscored by its great sense of theatricality, best seen in the various deaths invented for the show. He’s also keen to keep pushing the idiosyncrasies of the characters that appear in each episode to create an eccentric, larger-than-life ensemble.

Early in the development of each episode, Fisher will meet with the writer to discuss story ideas, usually beginning with the world the episode is set in. As well as a comic-book convention, season 20’s six episodes include a monastery that has been converted into a brewery, a chocolatier and somewhere the producer describes as a cross between a circus and a pig farm.

“We like to have a specific world per episode,” he says. “We try not to repeat where possible and we’ve got Ian Strachan, the coproducer who has been on the show for 18 years, who’s fantastic at identifying what we’ve done before. He’s a great source of knowledge for us.”

But that’s just the starting point for creating what Fisher stresses are very tautly plotted murder mysteries, each with nine or 10 potential suspects. “It’s harder than people think to get that right because they’ve all got to stay in play until the denouement at the end, so you can’t just eliminate one by one. Then we try to add some characteristic Midsomer flair and colour where possible.”

Midsomer Murders originally starred John Nettles (left), who exited the show after 13 seasons, and Daniel Casey, who left in season seven

With the trend for gritty and often brutally violent crime dramas on screen, it’s Midsomer that provides a “refreshing” alternative, Fisher believes, describing the show in terms of its escapist quality and sense of joy. “The crime drama genre is pretty crowded at the moment and we’re really set apart from that in the fun of what we do,” he continues. “At all times, murders are taking place but the thing about Midsomer is those murders can be fantastically theatrical and elaborate, and that’s something we pride ourselves on.

“I can reveal one death from season 20 – we’re going to do our first ever ‘death by chocolate.’ So our poor victim is going to have his head encased in chocolate and made to look like an Easter egg, which I think will be really good fun. The challenge for me is to get the deaths as colourful and imaginative as possible, but everything has to be underscored by an emotional truth. So we allow our killers to kill in these theatrical ways but, ultimately, come the denouement at the end, the motive has to have some emotional truth to it.”

As Dr Perkins, Badland joins the cast this season playing a pathologist she describes as a strong lady who knows her own mind and enjoys winding up DCI Barnaby and DS Winter. But she admits that she tries not to get too attached to any of the characters or guest cast members, as she doesn’t usually see them on set unless they’ve met an untimely end.

“I meet characters at the read through and then they’re dead by the time I see them again,” she deadpans. “So they’re lying on a slab or somewhere uncomfortable in the countryside. Usually they’re cold, tired, grumpy or laughing, or it’s a double for the body. That is odd because I come in and do my four or five days in a [shooting] block but the crime’s happened, so you don’t have an emotional journey. You don’t have those connections. You come in and work – she works it out.”

Fleur’s arrival is a step change for Midsomer, with Fisher explaining that those behind the show wanted to move away from the romantic frisson between previous pathologists and the detective duo, instead casting a more established actress to shake-up proceedings. “She’s got some fantastic, acerbic putdowns so I think she’s going to bring a new energy to the show,” he says of Badland’s arrival. “The scenes we’ve shot with her have been fantastic, a real treat.”

The series will have run for 122 episodes by the end of season 20, with 333 deaths up to the end of season 19 (the producers wouldn’t confirm how many more there will be this season). Nevertheless, the show’s longevity continues to surprise Dudgeon, who first signed up not knowing how many episodes he would be involved in. “It’s all got a bit out of control and it goes on and on,” he says. “They keep saying they want more and I’m powerless to resist.”

Similarly, Fisher believes there’s no reason why Midsomer can’t run for another 20 years. “The thing about Midsomer is it has a timeless quality to it, so while new trends will come and go, Midsomer remains constant and at the top of its game,” he says. “The fans love it and keep coming back to it. People do forget Midsomer is a relatively large county, so the death rate is not ridiculously high, but obviously that’s the running joke and we’re fine with that. We’ve far from run out of murder methods. There’s plenty left to go.”

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Out with the new, in with the old

As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.

In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.

Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.

Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.

Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?

ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.

Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.

Nordic noir drama Jordskott
Jordskott has performed well on ITV Encore

From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.

Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?

At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.

Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.

One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.

It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).

And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.

Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.

Law & Order
Law & Order is a popular re-run choice among viewers

With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.

But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.

As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.

FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.

Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).

Love Hurts
Could classics like Love Hurts be remade, or sold as formats?

After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).

The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.

Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.

“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”

Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.

US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.

The Sweeney
We could see a remake of the hit series The Sweeney

UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.

Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”

Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”

As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).

In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.

Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.

And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.

Antenna Spain's Grand Hotel
Antenna Spain’s Grand Hotel

Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”

Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”

Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.

One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.

AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.

The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).

This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.

Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.

These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.

With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

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