As ITV celebrates 20 years of Midsomer Murders with a new series, we investigate the secret to the show’s success in the UK and across the world.
By Alison James
While there are many excellent fictional crime series on British TV, they can be a bit, well, samey – a murder or murders in an especially scenic part of the country, a police investigation often carried out by a maverick detective, several suspects, and by the end of the episode the ‘twist-in-the-tail’. Midsomer Murders ticks all these boxes and then some. And unlike most murder mysteries, it possesses a whimsical and often genteel other-worldliness interspersed with deep seams of dark humour.
Even the whirling title music is different. Played on an obscure Russian instrument called a Theremin, the sound is decidedly eerie. Actor John Nettles, who played DCI Tom Barnaby from its debut in 1997 through to 2011, once said, Midsomer is a mix of ‘fairy cakes and blood letting.’
Based on author Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby books, the very first episode of Midsomer Murders, entitled The Killings at Badger’s Drift, broadcast in March 1997, attracted an audience of 13.5m.
22 years and 19 series on, Midsomer Murders, the UK’s longest-running contemporary detective drama, is as popular as ever, selling to more than 220 territories worldwide. The series’ setting of picturesque Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and south Oxfordshire countryside with their pretty chocolate-box villages, medieval churches and grand stately homes are a definite draw. However, the nature of the murders’ themselves are inventive and unique – and often so ingenious and outlandish the fear factor is extinguished.
Did you know? Each two-hour episode takes five weeks to film and averages three deaths!
Over the series’ history, there has been death by cricket bat, fire iron, faulty microphone, doped horse, pitchfork, Celtic spear, slide projector, drinks cabinet, hemlock, vintage claret, poisonous frog, longbow arrow, French guillotine, King Neptune’s trident, hatpin, an Iron Maiden… and alien abduction! The killings in this coming 20th anniversary series are just as extraordinary, with murder weapons including a vat of boiling beer, a medieval brewing tool and a surfeit
Midsomer has survived – and some would even say thrived – on the 2011 change of lead personnel with DCI John Barnaby, played by Neil Dudgeon, taking over from his cousin DCI Tom.
In the first two feature-length episodes of this series – The Ghost of Causton Abbey, and Death of Small Coppers – John Barnaby and his sidekick Winter (played by actor Nick Hendrix) investigate a cursed brewery and an elite intellectual society with a dark past, respectively. There is a formidable new pathologist on the scene in the form of Dr Fleur Perkins, played by former EastEnders’ actress Annette Badland.
Did you know? In France the series is aired under the name Inspecteur Barnaby.
Fans also have a special treat in store with regards to the second episode.
“As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we will be treating our very loyal audience with nods back to some of the most memorable moments of the show’s history,” enthuses producer Guy Hescott. So could it be that Midsomer Murders goes on for another 20 series?
“Oh yes!” replies Neil Dudgeon. “The show reinvents itself all the time and we’re always getting new people in – like the wonderful Annette - to keep it fresh. In terms of the killings, I figure that the Midsomer area is about the same size as the parts of south Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire we film in. It’s not one village – more like a county – so there’s more scope when it comes to murders! ”
Midsomer Murders starts its 20th anniversary series in March 2019 with two feature-length episodes, The Ghost of Causton Abbey and Death of the Small Coppers. Further feature-length episodes
Stars love Midsomer
The new series of Midsomer Murders sees the likes of Elaine Paige, Bill Bailey, Angela Griffin, Peter Egan and Anita Harris guest-starring. It is a coveted role with Hollywood superstars Sharon Stone and Johnny Depp rumoured to long to be in it. Here are some of the very well-known faces who have guested in previous series...
Olivia Colman – Olivia appeared in a season 12 episode from 2009 entitled Small Mercies. Her childlike character Bernice murdered three victims.
Jenny Agutter – before Sister Julienne and Call The Midwife, Jenny also appeared in a season 12 episode, The Creeper. She played one Lady Isobel Chettham, an aristocratic woman who was an accessory to two murders in order to hide a family secret.
Hugh Bonneville – best known as Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham, he appeared in a season five episode entitled Ring Out Your Dead. Hugh played a failing stock trader who had designs on his uncle’s fortune.
Sanjeev Bhaskar – in the 100th episode of Midsomer Murders, The Kumars and Unforgotten star appeared in 2014 episode The Killings of Copenhagen filmed on location in Denmark. He played a character by the name of Armand Stone.
Imelda Staunton – in 1999 Imelda played an outwardly religious woman living beyond her means in Dead Man’s Eleven from season two.
Alison Steadman – in 2016 Alison starred as UFO guide Abigail Hill in season 18’s, The Incident at Cooper Hill.
Orlando Bloom – as a young actor, the future Pirates of the Caribbean star appeared as murder victim Peter Drinkwater in Judgement Day, an episode from season three which aired in 2000.
Just some of the famous faces that have appeared in Midsomer over the years
Midsomer Murders filming locations
The historic market town of Wallingford is located just south of Oxford on the Thames. Wallingford was the original home of Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby as the fictional town of Causton. Barnaby can often be seen wondering the streets or driving across the bridge.
This picturesque Grade I listed 12th century family home and farming estate is located in Reading in five acres of peaceful countryside. Filming for Miss Marple also took place at this impressive stately home which is used as a regular filming location.
Midsomer Murders fans will recognise that the popular market and bridge across the river are used as regular back drops in the series. Although Henley-on-Thames also hosts the annual world-renowned rowing race, the Royal Regatta, more people have seen Henley on Midsomer!
This adorable train station appeared in a 2008 episode and since making an appearance, fans have flocked to Chinnor to see this little gem for themselves and even caught a train from there. Some visitors even take the Midsomer walking tour where a cream tea on the 16:30 departure is included.
One of the most popular locations where filming takes place in Dorchester is the George Hotel pub, which appears in a number of episodes from both the outside and inside. The village of Dorchester has been used as the backdrop of over six episodes of Midsomer Murders.
Close by to Dorchester-on-Thames is the village of Warborough which has featured in around seven episodes. The Six Bells pub in Warborough features regularly in the series and you can often find Barnaby in there sipping a pint whilst pondering the latest case.
This beautiful strip of English countryside stretches over Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and is the backdrop to many famous Midsomer Murders scenes. There’re many driving tours that can be taken around the Chilterns to some of the most iconic filming locations.