What are the worst deaths on Midsomer Murders?

It’s hard to decide which is the most horrible death ever in Midsomer Murders. Was it the vicar who spontaneously combusted or the chap pinned to the ground by croquet hoops and bludgeoned by bottles of vintage wine fired from a trebuchet? Perhaps it was the poor soul boiled alive in the sanitising machine at the local relish and ketchup factory or the woman stabbed through the ear with an ornate hatpin. As the venerable crime show launches its landmark 20th series, its millions of fans – including the Queen – all have their favourite.

The show is a British institution. Hollywood stars including Olivia Colman, Orlando Bloom, Hugh Bonneville and Superman Henry Cavill have appeared in it. West End superstar Elaine Paige is about to. Household names such as rower Sir Steve Redgrave can be spotted playing themselves: the Olympic champion is an extra in an episode set at the Henley Regatta.

Nick Hendrix (DS Jamie Winter), Elaine Paige (Sylvia Reynolds) and Neil Dudgeon (DCI John Barnaby) in The Ghost Of Causton Abbey

Today, it’s one of the country’s most famous TV exports. Its chocolate-box villages and their ever more baroque murders are a familiar sight in over 200 territories, literally an A-Z of the globe, from Afghanistan to Zambia. (It’s not necessarily always known as Midsomer Murders though. The French have to call it ‘Inspecteur Barnaby’ after the lead character because the French word for murder, meutre, sounds too much like a swear word.)

Veteran producer Ian Strachan has worked on 19 of the show’s 20 series – that’s 347 corpses. So what does he think accounts for such long-lived success? ‘Well, it is not murder on a village green, is it? he says. ‘Midsomer isn’t just a crime drama, it’s like The Archers, but with death and detectives. That’s the first thing. The second is that it’s all handled with taste, decency and a certain degree of flippancy. It’s not The Handmaid’s Tale, where people are constantly being hanged, or one of those cop shows where if the police want to know something they tie you to a chair. We are as imaginative as we can be without turning people’s stomachs. It doesn’t matter if someone is being beheaded with a Samurai sword or thrown out of a plane, you know it’s going to be family entertainment. We’re Midsomer Murders, not a manga novel.’

So an excess of blood, gore and any kind of death that could be mimicked at home are all banned. (The programme has depicted hanging in the past but definitely wouldn’t now.) Actually, the more freakish and macabre the demise the better: the 2013 episode in which Martine McCutcheon was finished off by wheels of Midsomer blue cheese was considered a classic. Killer rabbits, an outlier even for Midsomer, have also featured as suspects. Yet it is not these ludicrous plot lines that get the biggest postbag – it’s the episodes with no murder in them. There have only been two, however, the most recent of which was three years ago. ‘In an episode called Habeus Corpus, there was a bit of body-snatching and a body was dumped but it was already dead,’ recalls Strachan. ‘When that show went out the Midsomer chat rooms got rather alarmed. We had to make it up to the audience afterwards.’

The Midsomer story starts with the Chief Inspector Barnaby series of novels written by Caroline Graham. Anthony Horowitz, the creator of Foyle’s War and author of the Alex Rider children’s books, wrote the first screenplays. He remembers how consultant Betty Willingale, the TV genius behind shows such as I, Claudius and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, introduced him to the books. ‘She described them to me as Agatha Christie on acid,’ he says. ‘I read them and fell in love with the warped, twisted world they portrayed.

‘The show was originally going to be called “Barnaby”, but I convinced the producers that the real hero was the setting. What Caroline Graham had tapped into was this archetypal notion of English decorum, exemplified by the well-kept village of lace curtains, thatched cottages and pansy beds, beneath which was this volcanic wave of blood-spattered, perverse eccentricity, waiting to be unstoppered. One of my favourite scenes has this delightful elderly actress, Elizabeth Spriggs, wheeling a trolley into her parlour laden with teacakes and sandwiches on the top shelf, with a shotgun slung across the shelf below. To me, that sums up the world of Midsomer – demented old ladies, cream cakes and brutal murder.’

Horowitz is correct: it’s such an irresistible combination it’s made the show the longest-running contemporary detective drama in the UK, and has been responsible for a Midsomer tourist industry and a real world property bounce. Gary Hammond, of Hamptons estate agents in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, says: ‘It’s very much a selling point. Everyone knows about the show, even Americans. If you want to do short lets, there’s kudos if someone has been murdered in your bed.’

‘The viewer demands nice countryside, pretty houses and posh people with a gamekeeper or a gardener in there somewhere,’ agrees Strachan. ‘But each episode is a different world in which Barnaby has to immerse himself to solve a murder. If there’s any shared theme, it’s darkness.’

DCI Tom Barnaby, played by John Nettles, said as much himself during the first show, The Killings At Badger’s Drift, which aired in 1997 to an audience of 13.5 million. ‘You wouldn’t think, would you, that one small village could have so much trouble bubbling away under the surface…’

In the 22 years since then, Midsomer’s crime rate has soared and the production team has long since run out of cosy pubs and stately homes to film in. ‘There’s a finite number within a 30-mile radius of Pinewood Studios,’ says Strachan. ‘You have to keep an eye on them and work out when it’s time to use them again. We have also done away days to Snowdonia, Devon and Brighton, and we went as far as Cirencester for a canal bridge once.’

He recycles props too. There’s a large barn in Oxfordshire where all the used weapons and specially made Midsomer stuff is stored. ‘Candlesticks, mantraps, soft branches for whacking people, labels from Midsomer jams and beers…’ says Strachan. ‘The Causton Advertiser, the local paper, that’s used again and again. We also have the police station and the mortuary in there ready for Series 21. It was cheaper to make our own rather than to hire them. They get a lot of use.’

The barn’s precise location is secret because Midsomer fans can be a fanatical bunch, and some would be likely to turn up in search of a souvenir. ‘We used to pander to the Belgian fans,’ says Strachan. ‘They wrote us such a nice letter that we invited them over and they came for three years on the trot, a dozen of them. But on year four they filled a 55-seater coach, which came trundling down a country lane towards the set. Wherever we are, people find us.’

Ten years before her Oscar triumph as Queen Anne, Colman was wreaking havoc as the murderous Bernice

Ten years before her Oscar triumph as Queen Anne, Colman was wreaking havoc as the murderous Bernice

Celebrity fans are rumoured to include Graham Norton, Angela Merkel, Sharon Stone and the godmother of punk, Patti Smith. In the UK the series is peculiarly popular among students because sanitised versions used to be shown on ITV in the crucial 4pm to 6pm after-school slot.

Nobody seems to have minded that in 2010 Nettles’s DCI Tom Barnaby morphed into DCI John Barnaby, his younger cousin, played by Neil Dudgeon. Strachan admits: ‘We did take a bit of criticism for making them cousins but it was the best we could come up with at the time, given that we had to keep the name Barnaby. Anyway, it wasn’t as bad as Bobby Ewing and the shower in Dallas.’

It means the show can celebrate its 20th birthday having survived two Barnabys, working out of seven police stations and living in three different houses.

Starry cameos at Midsomer Mallow

Orlando Bloom The future Hollywood heart-throb’s turn as a local thief and womaniser ended brutally (death by pitchfork). Season 3, ep 3, 2000 

Hugh Bonneville Someone is killing off bell-ringers and – ding, dong – stock trader Bonneville is in the frame. Season 5, ep 2, 2002 

Henry Cavill The future Superman swooped in to play a local hooligan who scuffles with a hermit – and ends up with a bullet in his head. Season 7, ep 1, 2003 

Olivia Colman Ten years before her Oscar triumph as Queen Anne, Colman was wreaking havoc as the murderous Bernice. Season 12, ep 5, 2009 

Imelda Staunton Christina Cooper (Staunton), a very religious woman, is under suspicion after the wife of a local landowner is murdered. Did she or didn’t she? Season 2, ep 3, 1999

The new series launches this month with two feature-length episodes and four more will follow later in the year. First on screen will be The Ghost Of Causton Abbey, a double death in a cursed brewery. Then there’s Death Of The Small Coppers, which, with a butterfly collector discovered pinned to the wall like one of his precious specimens, promises to be a vintage Midsomer murder mystery.

Touchingly, it pays tribute to the previous 19 series with a string of clues to past plot lines. Strachan’s going to sit back and see who solves them. Unlike the people he’s seen off over the years with a cricket bat, a guillotine, a crank shaft, tailors’ shears, a slide projector, a gargoyle, a meteor and a 16th-century pike, had drowned in a bowl of eggs and eels, pitchforked through a deck chair, fermented to death or done in by toxic frogs, he’s lucky still to be alive to do so. As he says: ‘Nobody’s safe in Midsomer, not really.’ 

‘Midsomer Murders’ begins at 8pm, March 10 on ITV1


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