Over the years I’ve become a fan of British TV productions, especially those portraying high crimes and misdemeanors. I’m not an authority on these shows, but I’ve watched a few hundred of them. Following are some of my opinions and conclusions.
Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Shetland, Endeavor and other British TV mystery dramas share similar characteristics, or so it seems to me. One of them is that the plots often violate a common assumption that middle-class English people are traditionally well-behaved, law-abiding creatures possessed of few shocking, kinky or other outrageous personal practices.
This notion is often blown to pieces early in each drama. One or more murders get the action going. Causes of death range from shooting, stabbing, poisoning and strangulation to suffocation, drowning or breaking of the victim’s neck. The actual murders are seldom shown as they occur, because that would reveal who actually dunnit. As with most TV crime stories, the fun lies in guessing who is the guilty person. With the Brits, the culprit is usually the person you’d least expect. And you probably won’t recall the culprit’s name.
In fact, if you can remember the names of even half of the characters in a BBC crime drama, you are a genius. For years I faulted myself for not remembering that the rich uncle was named Reginald, not Ian, and that he was married to Edith, while also carrying on an affair with Edith’s half-sister, Winnie, who was a secret alcoholic while also serving as a vicar in the local church.
After years of failing to remember who was who, I finally arrived at what can be a liberating moment for fans of any British crime show —simply gave up trying to keep track of the characters, their names, relationships, perversions, past scandals, arrest records — the entire panorama.
Most of the married couples are unfaithful to their spouses; part of the reason for that is homosexuality (often occurring many years earlier and just now revealed). It gets deeper. An enduring incestuous brother-sister relationship was the climax (excuse the expression) of “Written in Blood,” the title of a 2017 Midsomer Murder presentation.
Other pronounced contrasts exist between British and American crime shows. One is the absence of the “F” word and its variations in the British productions. As you may have noticed, U.S. crime-show writers feel compelled to insert “F’s” into the dialogue for every scene except funeral services and the baptism of infants.
Frequent gunfire is another American staple seldom found in British plays. In earlier columns I’ve grumbled about how, in the old days, any minor pause in American films was a signal for everyone in the scene — including Irish nuns on their deathbeds — to light up a cigarette. Today, in many U.S. films, smoking is frowned upon. But random violence is not. Modern American audiences get restless if four minutes pass without a Glock being fired or a bomb erupting. The Brits, instead, seem to regard any gun display as lower-class.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons British police seldom carry weapons. This, despite the fact that they (the cops) are surely aware that these cozy villages are crawling with well-mannered citizens who loathe each other and would gladly commit one or more of the crimes I listed in my third paragraph above.
The acting, writing and photography in my favorite series — Midsomer Murders — are excellent. Almost every character — even those in minor roles — is memorable. The British stage and movie professions seem to have limitless access to seasoned performers.
UNRELATED ADDENDUM: It’s been almost two months since my TV set gave up the ghost. That’s the longest TV-less stretch of my adult life, and I’m happy to report that I’m still relatively sane and contented. I rely on my computer and Netflix for vital info and entertainment. And, to my delight, I encounter very few commercials!