Agatha Christie on acid

The writing life: 5 

This is a slow time of the year for the writing life, because from Christmas to pretty much the end of January, we enter the great Annual Publishing Stupor when publishing offices are eerily deserted and agents rarely call and publicists have disappeared off the face of the earth. No new books come out during this time, or only under extreme duress. And yet ironically this is also the prime time for reading, on holiday beaches and sofas nationwide..and prime time for bookshops to fill again as the post-Christmas sales make the cash registers ring merrily all through the land. 

For authors, it’s a bit different. The great Annual Publishing Stupor doesn’t apply in quite the same way to the primary producers at the beginning of the food chain, because there are still those February and March deadlines to meet, and those hopeful new proposals to get ready for when everyone arrives back at their desks, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But it’s still a time when we compulsives of the pen or the keyboard might take it a bit more slowly: a time not only for catching up on the reading, but also on that other delicious past-time, catching up on boxed sets of favourite TV shows. 

And hence it’s the season for Midsomer Murders. In our own bleached midsummer, that mythical corner of England that’s forever sunny, green Midsomershire is one of the great pleasures of my slowed-down writing life. With their bizarre murders and recherche plots, vast cast of eccentric characters, all set against a cosy background of village life and the unflappable normality of Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and his various sidekicks, the Midsomer Murders series have won legions of fans. 

We delight in their light, ironic touch, the perfect pitch which allows both humour and real suspense to coexist most cheerfully, the sure-footed method in their madness (the plots might be way over the top, but strangely they very, very rarely ‘jump the shark’ into embarassment!) and of course John Nettles’ wonderful portrayal of that stubbornly normal copper in the face of such complete insanity and perversion as is displayed in these picture-postcard-perfect villages of Midsomershire, where perhaps most wonderfully and miraculously and insanely, it never seems to rain! 

And we especially love the way in which the series creates its own world, a world where artifice is always present, but never self-consciously, just deliciously. It is a celebration of that mythical England just as much as it’s a cheerful send-up. Midsomer Murders doesn’t try to be ‘realistic’ in the lugubrious manner of some self-conscious crime shows; it knows it’s an entertainment, a frivolous glass of fizz, a crazily striped bonbon, and it doesn’t try to be what it isn’t. No pseudo-psychological analyses or PC po-facedness or societal wringing of hands for MM, thank goodness! And though there can be pretty gruesome murder methods involved, and some pretty unpleasant murderers, the horror is of a Grand Guignol variety, not a consciously ‘realistic’ one, and never lingered over for its own sake. 

If you’re not only a fan of MM but also of the great Agatha Christie, and you’ve noticed in the entertaining concoction of MM an atmosphere and a spirit that is somehow familiar, you’re not wrong! In fact, as one of the creators of the series, British writer Anthony Horowitz, told me, ‘We originally thought of the world as “Agatha Christie on acid” – and that was the fun of it…very perverse murders against a backdrop of thatched cottages and little old ladies on bicycles.’ 

Anthony Horowitz, who had also worked on several episodes of the classic, gorgeous Poirot TV series, and who is also the creator and writer of that equally wonderful British crime series, Foyle’s War (and a bestselling children’s novelist, whose Alex Rider series has sold by the truckload all over the world) was in it from the beginning, as he told me: ‘I actually wrote seven of the original episodes and came up with the name Midsomer Murders for what it’s worth. The show was originally called Barnaby but I felt that the location was more of a hero than the detective. The first two I did ("Written in Blood" and "Badger’s Drift") were based on books by Caroline Graham but after that I wrote my own stories. I was first approached by Betty Willingale, a wonderful and much revered script editor with years of work at the BBC behind her (she was in her late seventies herself) – she is the real heroine of MM as she discovered the books and brought in me and my friend – the late Jeremy Silberston who directed all my episodes. Sadly, he died of a brain tumour three years ago (he had also directed Foyle’s War). Betty knew me from my work on Poirot.’ 

I asked him what he thought of how the show had developed over the years: ‘My own view is that the Midsomer death rate seems to have accelerated wildly but that the show retains its immense popularity quite deservedly. It’s a clever, ironic look at a sunny, gin-and-tonic, cricket bat England – both smiling at it and yet quietly revering it. I loved writing it and still enjoy watching it from time to time.’

He’s certainly not alone in that!

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