Saturday, July 1, 2017

Midsomer Murders: “Death in Chorus” (British Indepedent Television Service, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a quite interesting KPBS rebroadcast of a 2006 episode of the British ITV (that’s Independent Television Service, the commercial network the Conservative government of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden authorized in 1955 as a competitor to the publicly funded BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation) series Midsomer Murders — the odd spelling of the first word is explained by “Midsomer” actually being a place (it’s fictitious, according to Wikipedia, but it’s based on the real-life South Oxfordshire region in England just north of Reading and London). The episode they showed was from September 2006 and was called “Death in Chorus,” in which the Midsomer Worthy Church’s choir is rehearsing for a four-choir local contest and their director, Laurence Barker (Peter Capaldi), is preparing them with an martinet’s determination that makes Herbert von Karajan and Otto Preminger seem easygoing by comparison. He’s upset because the director of one of the rival choirs did him out of a prestigious and well-paying church organist job, allegedly by falsifying his résumé; the other director has also planted a spy in Barker’s own choir to find out what he’s up to, including what pieces he’s having his choir sing and how well they’re doing. The action kicks off when one of the choir members, artist Connor Simpson (Patrick Drury), faints shortly after he arrives for a rehearsal and then later is found murdered, bludgeoned to death in his cottage. As if that isn’t enough plot for you, there’s also an unhappily married couple, Giles and Carolyn Armitage (Ronan Vibert and Sara Stewart); a young man recently returned after a long stint out of town, Sam Judd (John Cording), who used to date Carolyn before she got married and who still wants her, and who’s also an ornithologist and art photographer; a plot by Giles Armitage to keep his wife drugged up with Rohypnol until he can get her to walk into a pool on their estate and drown herself so he’ll be rid of her and her death will look like a suicide à la Virginia Woolf; an affair between Laurence Barker’s wife Ellen (Annabelle Apsion) and Connor Simpson; and a period drawing of Johann Sebastian Bach by a German artist who knew him personally, which is part of the ancestral collection of the Armitages and which figures prominently in the plot’s resolution. Obviously the purpose of this plethora of plots and motives writer David Lawrence has given us (the series is based on characters created by Caroline Graham) is to make it as hard as possible for us to guess the murderer and the motive by keeping as many balls in the air as possible so we don’t know just where the intrigue will land. 

Eventually it turns out that Connor Simpson, who originally had a different last name, served a prison term for art forgery; he was also part of a group of habitual gamblers that also included Giles Armitage and Leo Clarke (the marvelously named John Shrapnel), the curmudgeonly old man whom we’d previously seen just as a creepy guy in the choir. It seems that this group had lost a lot of money at cards, Armitage especially, so he conceived the idea of secretly selling the Bach drawing and having Connor paint a copy which would hang in his ancestral hall, taking the place of the original so no one would be the wiser. Clarke actually killed Connor but it was Armitage who later shot Sam out of jealousy, and in the end the lead “sleuth” characters, police director Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his younger, more vigorous sidekick Ben Jones (nice-looking Jason Hughes), arrive at the Armitage estate just in time for Jones to rescue Carolyn from her husband’s murder plot. Like a lot of the British mysteries shown on PBS, this isn’t a great show but it’s a comfortable one — for some reason most British writers have kept their mysteries in this rather genteel mode, setting them in and around the British upper classes (there are usually less affluent people in the dramatis personae but they’re generally servants, hangers-on or the proletarians who work at the support businesses that keep the houses and cars of the 1-percenters running; James Hadley Chase’s 1939 novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish, of which George Orwell wrote a scathing review, was as far as I know the first British crime novel that adopted the conventions of noir Americans like Hammett, Chandler and Cain to the British scene, and of British writers I’ve read the most successful at the “dark arts” of noir has been the marvelous Ruth Rendell, who in her books seems to be going out of her way to dispel all the stereotypes Agatha Christie created of what British mysteries written by women would be), and this is one of the better ones, with genuinely quirky characters and inventive settings and plot devices, even though the cops are really annoying and I think I shall scream if I see one more British police procedural in which the lead cops, both male, are a long-time veteran of the force and a younger detective he’s showing the ropes!