October is a red letter month for UKTV viewers who enjoy their crime dramas laced with a healthy dose of dark humour. We are heading back to that idyllic and corpse-ridden fictional county of Midsomer for a countdown of the best celebrity cameo appearances. What better time to look a bit closer into the weird and wonderful world of Midsomer Murders?
Watch The Midsomer Murderthon all long weekend, from October 5 on UKTV.
There is no doubting it: Midsomer Murders is a phenomenon. For a television programme that started in 1997 depicting a uniquely English take on the murder-mystery genre, it has proved strangely popular worldwide. Variety, the entertainment trade magazine, named the drama as one of the biggest British drama exports globally. At present, Midsomer Murders airs in over 200 countries and, closer to home, it is one of the most-watched shows on UKTV.
So what draws so many viewers to this bucolic, deadly corner of England?
Without question, there is something rather strange about Midsomer Murders. From the very start of each episode, we are greeted with a clarion cry that is distinctively off-centre. The eerie theme tune is delivered thanks to an unusual, electronic musical instrument called a theremin, which is played without any physical contact. Used on film soundtracks such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still and Howard Hawks’ science fiction-horror movie The Thing, the theremin has become associated with the strange and unexpected: it’s hard to imagine a more haunting sound for the Midsomer opening sequence, setting up that perfect sense of things not being quite right in the fictional county.
In Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, Miss Marple declares “In an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out.” And that is pretty much the blueprint for the Midsomer mysteries. There’s definitely something enticing in the contrast between the picturesque, genteel village settings and the frankly macabre murders that fill each episode.
Despite the neatly-manicured hedges, the charming village greens and thatched-roofed pubs, you do wonder who would want to live in a county with such a terrifying death rate.
By the start of Series 19, the stories have referenced 351 mortalities. That’s a terrifying trade of roughly 3.19 deaths per episode for the Midsomer undertakers to look after!
And it’s not just the sheer volume of dead bodies that’s remarkable. It’s the very unusual circumstances in which some of the Midsomer residents meet their maker. Remember when an alcoholic housekeeper was pushed into the hotel’s industrial-sized tumble dryer and was “dried” to death? How about when the victim was electrocuted on an exercise bike that has been wired to the mains? Or that time when that nasty property developer was decapitated by an antique sword while on "The Horror Hotel" amusement ride on Brighton pier. That one needed two Barnaby’s to solve the mystery! Strange Tom had never mentioned his cousin John in all these years…
You’ve got to hand it to Midsomer’s more murderous element – their array of murder weapons is far from commonplace. Ones that come quickly to mind would be death by hat pin pushed through the ear, squishing inside an iron maiden, beating from a slide projector, stabbing by the fossilised teeth of a Sabre-toothed cat, drowning in a kettle of gazpacho soup and suffocation from being wrapped up as an Egyptian mummy!
One of the dark delights of Midsomer is our guilty pleasure in savouring the outlandish murders that the writers serve up in each story. It’s not every murder mystery where you’d find the victim was stabbed in the back and then tied down in a model village to make it look like Gulliver’s travels. Who didn’t revel in the episode “Wild Harvest” where the local farmer was tied to a tree and rubbed with truffle oil causing a fatal attack from a hungry, wild boar? You’ve got to admire the inventive chutzpah of a murder where the thoroughly-unpleasant victim was stapled to the lawn by his own croquet hoops and then was assaulted by wine bottles being fired at him from catapult.
There are a lot of TV crime dramas with bloodshed at the heart of their stories, but how many of them have such thorough homicidal types? Take for example the death of elderly Colonel Henry Hammond. He wasn’t just shot - just to make sure his wheelchair was sent careering into a milk float by remote control. That’s deadly dedication! Another favourite killing in terms of sheer attention to detail was when a business rival was lured the factory warehouse of a preserve factory where he was crushed by a forklift truck loaded with relish jars. You’d think, in the run of things that would have been enough. But no! Just to make sure, the murderer threw the body into the 200 degree steriliser!
But deliciously-despatched deaths are not the only charm of the world of Midsomer. Through the years, you may have clocked some strangely familiar faces among the residents.
In the village of Midsomer Mallow, Peter Drinkwater, the local thief stabbed through the heart with a pitchfork, bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Will Turner and Lord of the Rings’ Legolas. Another doppelganger was Midsomer Worthy’s teenager Simon Mayfield who looked a dead ringer for the Man of Steel, Henry Cavill – of course Superman was probably unlikely to be so easily injured by a bite from an angry fox.
Surely that couldn’t be time-travelling drama Outlander’s heartthrob Sam Heughan swinging from a Masonic rope in Midsomer Magna? Or former EastEnders actress and pop star, Martine McCutcheon, being gruesomely (and hilariously) bludgeoned by a wheel of cheese? In fact, the roll call of lookalikes in Midsomer is impressive: we’ve seen villagers looking like Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman, Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi, Call The Midwife’s Jenny Agutter, Harry Potter’s Imelda Staunton and Hollywood’s Colin Farrell! Who knows who is going to show up next!
Watch The Midsomer Murderthon all long weekend, from October 5 on UKTV – don’t miss it.