Midsomer Murders: Barnaby's Top 10 is a shrewd, perfect introduction to the long-running mystery series for first-time viewers like me. The show is internationally popular, even here in far-flung Japan (as Banabi keibu, "Inspector Barnaby"), where the entire series is widely available for rent on DVD. I had seen bits and pieces of it on cable television but it struck me as perhaps too mild to be bothered with. I generally prefer harder-edged shows like Cracker or Prime Suspect.
But Acorn Media's release is an ideal sampler, and it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. Watching these good, representative episodes that its star (until recently), John Nettles, felt particularly proud of made me want to see more. And its appeal is now clear: it's a show less driven by its leading and continuing characters than by the mysteries themselves, which are more intricate, more clever, and much less mechanical than most such shows. Nettles's Barnaby is likeable but curiously ordinary, the English everyman who probably wouldn't make a very interesting dinner guest.
The set offers ten feature-length (102 minutes on average) episodes on ten discs, all of which were previously released over the course of Midsomer Murders DVDs, volumes 1-6. Dating from 1997-2002, they feature 16:9 enhanced widescreen introductions by Nettles, though the shows themselves are 4:3 matted to around 1.50:1.
Midsomer Murders is based on novels of Caroline Graham (b. 1931). The first five films were all adaptations, with The Killings at Badger's Drift being not only the first Inspector Barnaby novel, but also the first TV episode. It's a very smart, colorful show, and it's easy to see why its inspiration was named one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time (as published in 1990 by the Crime Writers' Association).
The series has changed considerably over time, with none of the original cast intact by 2011. Nettles's DCI Tom Barnaby left the show earlier this year, replaced with Neil Dudgeon as Tom's cousin, who handily also happens to be a detective chief inspector. This hardly sounds promising, but who knows? Jayne Wymark (daughter of actor Patrick), as Tom's wife Joyce, also left the series at this time, as did Laura Howard as their daughter, Cully. Barnaby's Best 10 is limited to Midsomer Murders' first five years, with no episodes from the nine years that followed for no clear reason. Daniel Casey co-stars in these as DS Gavin Troy, though he'd be replaced in 2003 by DS Dan Scott (John Hopkins) and, later, DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes, 2005-present).
Midsomer Murders is set in a picturesque but completely fictionalized English county, with villages named "Goodman's Land," "Midsomer Chettham," "Malham Cross" and the like. Except for the grisly murders it's an idealized if old-fashioned England that undoubtedly appeals to an older, more conservative generation of Brits, while at the same time it plays into quaint notions of the England foreign tourists imagine. This eventually got the show into trouble, when one of its producers called Midsomer a "bastion of Englishness," later defining the term as excluding ethnic minorities. Though Barnaby himself is tolerant and non-judgmental, DS Troy is singularly politically incorrect in several episodes.
Tom Barnaby isn't as interesting as other "ordinary" detectives. He's not as richly drawn or amusing as Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) or "Dangerous" Davies (Peter Davison), for instance. Barnaby is patient, polite, and efficient, a handsome middle-aged man and a good father but also a little dull. Joyce and Cully are similarly tolerant of Tom's tendency to neglect familial responsibilities while in the middle of a case. In some shows Joyce prepares Tom overly exotic meals that he politely eats though clearly isn't thrilled by. (This same concept also turns up in Hitchcock's 1972 film Frenzy.) Troy is even more of a blank, perhaps the blandest sidekick of a long-running mystery series ever.
But Midsomer Murders scores with the mysteries themselves. The majority of these kinds of shows are weighted in favor of the detectives. Morse and, later, Lewis are really shows about them; the mysteries are secondary. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot were the gold standard of colorful sleuths; Barnaby, I suppose, is more in the tradition of Miss Marple. Certainly Midsomer's setting is part of that same world. What Barnaby lacks in personality Midsomer more than compensates in terms of often exquisitely structured and paced mysteries. The red herrings are eccentric and interesting yet their behavior logical is reasonable. Also, the shows' denouements are logical and satisfying.
The breakdown of the Top Ten:
How It All Began: "The Killings at Badger's Drift"
Favorite Story Line: "Blue Herrings"
Favorite Leading Lady: "A Worm in the Bud"
Best Location: "Dark Autumn"
Funniest Moments: "Dead Man's Eleven"
Most Intriguing Crime: "Death of a Hollow Man"
Most Difficult to Film: "The Electric Vendetta"
Most Dramatic Episode: "Murder on St. Malley's Day"
Most Bizarre Episode: "A Talent for Life"
Favorite Episode: "Strangler's Wood"
Guest stars in these shows include Rosalie Crutchley, Jonathan Firth, Emily Mortimer, Julian Glover, Phyllis Calvert, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Bayldon, Kim Thompson, Robert Hardy, Toby Jones, Angela Pleasance, John Cater, Kenneth Colley, Alec McCowen, Honor Blackman, Kathleen Byron, and Frank Windsor.
Video & Audio
Midsomer Murders - Barnaby's Top 10 arrives in an oversized DVD case containing ten shows on ten discs (about 16 1/2 hours in all), most on a plastic spindle which for me arrived broken and dislodged. The shows are not 16:9 enhanced but rather very moderately cropped to about 1.50:1 and are best viewed in 4:3 format rather than zoomed in on widescreen sets. The Dolby Digital stereo is strong for these late '90s and early 2000s shows, which include SDH English subtitles.
Star Nettles introduces each episode as an optional supplement. These have their share of spoilers so you may want to watch each episode first and then view the introductions, as I did.
Despite blandly-defined leading characters, Midsomer Murders, this set of 10 movie-length episodes at least suggests a fine mystery series anyway, driven by clever and intricate scripts. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.