More classic, murderous Midsomer bedlam. Acorn, now repositioning their Midsomer Murders releases along proper, original U.K. broadcast order, has released Midsomer Murders: Series 3, a two-disc, four-episode collection of the third "season" ("series" in BritTV-speak) of the long-running international smash hit mystery. Episodes included are: Death of a Stranger, Blue Herrings, Judgment Day, and Beyond the Grave, all of which aired in the U.K. back in 1999. Minor text bonuses are included in these okay full-screen transfers.
For those new to the series, Midsomer Murders details the continuous mayhem (which nobody seems to notice or comment on) that afflicts rural, affluent (and fictitious) Midsomer County. Bodies drop like flies, and in the most appalling ways, and it's up to Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) of Causton's Criminal Investigation Department, to clean up the mess. He's aided by Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), a young, callow officer who frequently states the obvious to the sarcastic Barnaby, and who makes no bones about his prejudices--but whom Barnaby finds increasingly helpful during their investigations. Lending a hand with vital forensic data is seasoned, sardonic coroner Dr. George Bullard (Barry Jackson), with blase, unconcerned Dr. Dan Peterson (Toby Jones) stepping in a few times here for Bullard. Barnaby's settled home life is represented by Joyce Barnaby (Jane Wymark), Tom's put-upon wife (who frequently loses her husband to a case right before an important event in their social life), and Cully Barnaby (Laura Howard), their somewhat directionless daughter (she wants to be an actress), making frequent appearances.
As I wrote in my previous Midsomer reviews of Acorn's re-release re-boot, having sort of jumped into the middle of Midsomer Murders back in 2006 when I first started reviewing for this site, I couldn't resist the chance to "start over" with these new Acorn re-releases, arranged in proper U.K. broadcast order (a big plus for DVD-OCDers like myself). As I've written before, what marks Midsomer Murders as unique is its knowing embrace of the genre its simultaneously sending-up and celebrating, with its delightfully strange, English black humor mixture of eccentric, deceptively quaint characters, a delicious sense of reveling in the macabre (as only the English seem to do with a straight face), and a distinctly English standoffishness in the face of Midsomer County's utter mayhem. Much of Midsomer Murders is smart send-up of the classic "English village" mystery genre; however, it's so competently done, with a genuine intent to surprise and mystify, that it can be enjoyed as either straight representation of that form, or as farcical commentary on it.
DEATH OF A STRANGER
"As the Upper Marshwood hunt heads off into the woods, a filthy tramp runs for cover, stumbles and falls into a pit...screaming. This suspicious death--and the puzzling behavior of several villagers--leads Barnaby to discover a tangle of sordid secrets." on-screen synopsis
Written by Douglas Livingstone, Death of a Stranger is another enjoyably convoluted puzzler from Midsomer's early files, with three particularly strong subplots: the mystery of the tramp living in the woods; the obnoxious retired police detective/parvenu (beautifully played by James Bolam), and the shady dealings, both financial and more...earthly, of the local aristocracy--any one of which would have been sufficient for an intriguing mystery. Midsomer's executive producer Brian True-May quite rightly identified one of the series' biggest draws internationally as the deliberate exploitation of the readily recognizable semiotics of "English" country life, as depicted in countless novels, movies and TV shows. Utilizing a traditional foxhunt here in Death of a Stranger certainly falls within those most-welcome qualifiers, but it's clear from Livingstone's mockery and outright contempt for his characters and their way of life (particularly the aristos), that he doesn't hold with the nostalgic, romanticized view many Americans have, of the "simple" life in England"s green countryside. Nicely directed by Peter Cregeen (the fox hunt is quite lively, while the deaths are suitably bloody), with another superlative supporting cast (lively old Richard Johnson is, as always, quite amusing playing a scheming, blustering toff).
"When Muriel Harrap's lifeless body is found late one night in the elevator of Lawnside, a home for the elderly, everyone assumes she died of natural causes. But when another seemingly healthy woman dies, rumors of fraud and murder terrify the residents. Alice Bly calls on her favorite nephew, Tom Barnaby, for help." on-screen synopsis
Tom takes a breather here while his beloved aunt, Alice Bly (Phyllis Calvert), takes over as a senior sleuther without a real mystery in the marvelous Blue Herrings. Written by Hugh Whitemore , Blue Herring at first seems resolutely planted in Christie-land, with Aunt Alice a fair Miss Marple substitute...before she puts 2 and 2 together and gets 5 at a nursing home where nothing is as it seems. The title, of course, should have tipped me off, but I fully went along with Whitemore's ruses, until the realistically downbeat ending caught me up short (the end gives a nice moment for Nettles to discuss his mother's final illness, in relation to the main mystery's unanswerable moral dilemma). It's fun to see Nettles take a back seat in this entry to the lovely Calvert, while the supporting cast is top-notch. A particular treat is seeing one of my favorites, Nigel Davenport, portraying an aging gent with a love for fast motorcars and freedom (he's quite touching, discussing with Calvert how whatever one used to be when one was young--good or bad--slips away into invisibility when one become old). Mary Wimbush is also effective as a pensioner who's not as sharp as she used to be, seeing conspiracies where there are none (her final shot, left alone at the home, is uncharacteristically sad for a series that usually takes delight in its cruelty towards its characters), while marvelously funny Geoffrey Bayldon scores in a small but important part. An unusual entry in the series, which works quite well.
"Amid the excitement of preparations for the Perfect Village Competition in Midsomer Mallow, a local rogue is found brutally murdered. Barnaby discovers a wealth of suspects--all of whom appear to be lying--and a determination by the villagers to keep his investigation quiet so as not to jeopardize their chances in the competition." on-screen synopsis
An amusing entry from scripter Anthony Horowitz, Judgment Day hangs its mystery around a typically droll English country life framework--a "Perfect Village" competition--made ripe for satire as Horowitz chips away at the facade of one of those "perfect villages," Midsomer Mallow. If the mystery seems a tad too easily solved--rather like a strange amalgamation of Christies' The Mirror Crack'd and Hammer's The Shuttered Room--there are plenty of funny one-liners and put-downs, particularly from Maggie Steed and Nickolas Grace as two bitchy D-listers, who, when they're chosen as judges for the competition, are horrified at the locals and their antics. Funny touches throughout the episode keep this one light, such as the children's orchestra playing Midsomer's theme music (cranked at creepy half-speed when director Jeremy Silberston shoots a nicely-subjective sequence where someone is poisoned), or Tom's blankly put-out, "Oh, for heaven's sake," when he discovers the dead body of future star, Orlando Bloom (Robert Goodale gets special mention for his very funny turn as a doctor with dyslexia). A solid go-around.
BEYOND THE GRAVE
"First the portrait of a wealthy village forefather is found slashed to shreds in the local museum. Then a string of unearthly happenings in the museum and its graveyard terrify the community. Barnaby and Troy are called upon to separate fact from fiction." on-screen synopsis
A somewhat repetitive entry, Beyond the Grave makes the mistake (and it will happen again in future series' outings) of providing a concrete coda to supposed supernatural goings-on: always a misstep that turns the deadly cynical Midsomer from satire to "quaint." Certainly the episode's most successful element, from scripter Douglas Watkinson, is the on-the-job training of Cully's boyfriend, soap actor Nico (Ed Waters), who is taking tips on small-screen detection from a disapproving Tom (Nettles has a lot of fun, ditching his "correct," nice-guy image in favor of snotty father). Now...where Nico came from is itself a mystery, since previous episodes had Cully either single or fated to see a romantic interest snuffed out early. Where Nico came from--a boyfriend of sufficient durability, apparently, to score a bedroom in Tom's house for two weeks--is anybody's guess, if you're watching these in broadcast order (as Acorn wants you to). Still, Waters is amusing in the role, and it's funny to see both Tom and Troy push off unpleasant duties on the trying-to-please actor. As for the mystery itself, it's no great shakes, with the ending sussed-out early enough (the last act becomes tiresome with its overly-familiar "he said/he said" flashbacks), and with far too many scenes that seem to repeat information we already have at hand (I can't say the cast was all that impressive, either, quite frankly--a rarity for a Midsomer). Not the best way to end up this season.
As I wrote in my Series 1 review: can you imagine a major television program from 1999 still shot in 16mm? The full-screen, 1.37:1 transfers look pretty good within the limitations of the stock...but the bigger problem is why didn't someone at Acorn upload these full-frame transfers to an anamorphic platform? What are they just windowboxed flat? Too bad they missed the boat there (if you want to re-package these for sale, you need some kind of marketing angle other than "original U.K. broadcast order,"). Otherwise, image quality is okay, with expected grain and a reasonably sharp image.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is better, with infrequent but discreet separation, reasonable base, and no hiss. For the first time, these transfers included English subtitling, which is a big plus.
Two minor bonuses, both on-screen text: a map of the fictional Midsomer and production notes (new extras would have helped sales, as well...).
More homicidal bedlam in that deceptively quite English county. Midsomer Murders: Series 3 may end on a clinker note with Beyond the Grave; however, its three preceding outings are quite good, and indicative of the series gaining speed. I'm highly recommending Midsomer Murders: Series 3.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.