Brian True-May, the producer and co-creator ofÂ Midsomer Murders has been suspended by ITV over remarks in an interview in theÂ Radio Times, which has just popped through my letterbox, in which he says ‘It’s not British, it’s very English. We are a cosmopolitan society in this country, but if you watchÂ Midsomer you wouldn’t think so.’
This is a fairly unarguable observation about the programme but he then goes on to say ‘It wouldn’t be the English village with [ethnic minorities]. Suddenly we might be in Slough.’ He then says Causton in the series is based on Slough, although in the series both Wallingford and Thame (both places extremely unlike Slough) are used for filming the town. He then goes on to make the comments that probably earned him his suspension ‘And if you went to Slough you wouldn’t see a white face there. We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.’
This raises all kinds of general questions about drama and fiction and their representation of authenticity. There are plenty of books, TV programmes and films that concentrate on certain ethnic groups — one of my favourite TV series, Larry David’sÂ Curb Your Enthusiam, largely features (and derives its humour from) Jewish characters. Most soap operas now have a sizeable proportion of ethnic minority characters that reflects the diversity of modern urban society so it might be argued thatÂ Midsomer Murders is similarly reflected the demographic of its location.
I’m particularly interested in this as my novel is set in notional Midsomer county. I’ve just submitted an extract to my tutor on the MA where the characters actually say that the pretty lanes and cottages that surround the Angel are used for filming ‘murder mystery things’. Midsomer county isn’t anywhere near the Somerset village of Midsomer Norton as many people might think — it’s essentially the Chilterns and a bit of adjoining Oxfordshire and Aylesbury Vale. (The proposed HS2 high speed rail line is almost going to run straight through Badger’s Drift — which is a village near Great Missenden called The Lee in reality.) The locations are of great interest — Joan Street runs a very informative website on this and has even published a book on the locations.
His comments, however, applied to the TV series rather than any particular real-life geographical area andÂ Midsomer Murders is hardly the most gritty and realistic of dramas. It’s set in the present but its world is a stylised version of escapist nostalgia — a mix of every clichÃ© about rustic rural England that probably stretches way back to Agatha Cristie, H.E.Bates, Stella Gibbons, Enid Blyton and many more. In that context, I don’t see that an absence of ethnic minorities is an issue, any more than it would be inÂ The Darling Buds of May, and many of the ‘most English’ characters inÂ Midsomer Murders are extremely loathsome. But, equally, it’s not right to claim that this is a good thing, which is what appears to have caused offence, even when done in a fictional context.
I live in a village right in the middle of it and I can tell Mr True-May that he has his facts wrong about pure English ethnicity. Just in two or three roads I know of at least two French people, a Ukranian, a Latvian and at least half a dozen people with Asian backgrounds (one has a business making home-made Indian chutneys and sells them at the local school fÃªtes).
Admittedly this is at the end of the village with less thatched cottages and more modern housing but if I drive up the winding lane in the morning towards the church and the chocolate box cottages with wishing wells in the garden then I often pass a very friendly black chap who walks a circuit of the village every day. It’s maybe under the UK average in terms of ethnicity but it’s certainly not all-white and I’m sure most people who live in Midsomer-like locations would find it offensive if Brian True-May’s comments were used to suggest there’s any more racism in the countryside than anywhere else.
If there’s a skewed demographic in the countryside, it’s nothing directly connected with race, it’s more to do with the age of the population — and this may inhibit social mobility more widely. Even in the Chilterns there are a lot of retired people in the prettiest thatched cottages and while there’s a fair number of school age children as their parents move out of more urban areas for quality of life, there’s a lack of affordable housing for people in their twenties.
In The Angel, Emma comes from the village but has had to work hard at her career and marry a similar high-achiever to afford a nice place to live. There’s no way Kim could ever afford to live there if she didn’t get accommodation with the pub and barman Gabriel lives with his very rich parents. The ageing demographic is a real obstacle for James as his geriatric diners prefer to have scampi and chips rather than some creation with palm hearts and pomegranate juice.
The question of reflecting the ethnicity of characters in my novel’s setting is something that has crossed my mind, especially as it features the pub as a meeting place for the whole village. I’d like to try and represent this aspect authentically and naturally but as a novel has a limited number of principal characters and a number of minor ones it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking in terms of quotas.
The wider subject of integration into a different culture is, however, one of the major themes of the novel and I have a non-British protagonist who will hopefully explore some of these issues. Kim’s lived in London for a number of years and certainly feels quite comfortable in her identity as a Londoner — but move 40 miles away into Midsomer Murders land and she’ll find attitudes are quite different.
Also, she’s the nationality that it’s probably still most ‘permissible’ for the British to insult — even more than the French, Irish or Australians — she’s a German. She’ll have to put up with a similar sort of ‘banter’ to that which passed for comedy on ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ Â forty years ago. But she’s give as good as she gets and The Angel will be partly the story of the sort of integration in deepest, rural England that won’t be found onÂ Midsomer Murders.
One fascinating fact is that Kim would very likely have watched Midsomer Murders (or Inspektor Barnaby as it’s called)Â in Germany (or her parents would) as its version of Englishness is exported to 231 countries. A Google news search on the Brian True-May story today brought up three German websites with the story — including this one from Stern — so a story set in this location definitely has international appeal.
And spring seems to have arrived here. The countryside is a beautiful place to live when the days are long and the sun is out but it’s horribly bleak during January and February — dark, wet. muddy, dormant. But despite the awful December weather, the bees (and wasps) were out today and I finally finished off the 12.75kg sack of bird seed that has seen through the winter countless robins, wrens, sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, various tits and finches and even woodpigeons and woodpeckers when the weather was at its worst. And if you listen carefully you can hear the newborn lambs bleating from the fields.