Monday, March 5, 2018

Midsomer Murders: “Last Year’s Model” (Bentley Productions, All 3 Media, American Public Television, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve got a number of movies I’ve seen recently that I want to write about in these pages, including The Beast of Hollow Mountain and Miami Exposé (two films I dredged up over the weekend on a home-recorded DVD I’d taken off Turner Classic Movies in 2013), but the item I’ll have time to write about now is an interesting episode of Midsomer Murders, the oddly named British TV show about a police force in the relatively rustic Midsomer County, England (the county is fictitious, invented by creator Caroline Graham for her Chief Inspector Barnaby book series, but there is an actual English town called Midsomer Norton near the Mendip Hills in Bath and North East Somerset, and it’s called that because the Somer River runs through it — I’m not making this up, you know!). Some of the Midsomer Murders episodes have had that weird sort of gentility that makes British mysteries considerably less thrilling than they could be, but not this one: the show they aired last Thursday on KPBS, San Diego’s local PBS outlet, was called “Last Year’s Model” and was about a self-contained middle-aged woman, Annie Woodrow (Saskia Wickham), who as the show begins is about to go on trial for the murder of her lifelong friend, Frances Trevelyan.

Supposedly her motive was that she was infatuated with Frances’s husband John (Brian Protheroe), though he had no interest in her “that way,” and she figured she could win John’s affections if she just knocked off his inconvenient wife. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), the series lead, helped build the case against Annie but as the trial winds on becomes more and more convinced she didn’t do it. Annie is married to Lance Woodrow (Miles Anderson), a boor who tries to look younger than he is, produces rock bands’ recordings in his home studio (he’s currently working with a band called “Hidden Agenda,” and given all the secrets percolating in David Hoskins’ script, I suspect the writer picked that name as deliberate irony), and publicly insists that he believes in his wife’s innocence but he’s actually the one who’s cheating. There’s a nicely lubricious scene in his hot tub with Samantha Flint (Josette Simon), who hears the doorbell ringing and hurriedly puts on a dress and a pair of shoes to answer it; it’s Chief Inspector Barnaby, and he notices her shoes are dripping water and deduces from this that Lance is having an affair with her. There are also some oddly quirky aspects, including the Trevelyans’ two children, Sophie (Rosa Hoskins) and “Ed” (Emily Gloyens) — presumably the name is short for Edna, but she wears a jacket and tie and has her hair cut short that only her wearing a skirt below the waist “outs” her as a girl. (I couldn’t help but wish they’d do a sequel about her when she grows up and keeps challenging gender norms!)

Where I thought this was going was that Lance Woodrow would turn out to be Frances Trevelyan’s real killer — he knocked her off and then framed his own wife for the crime to get rid of her à la Ray Milland in Dial “M” for Murder — but in fact Hoskins throws us a curveball: the real killer is antiques dealer Jamie Cranmer (Jamie Glover), and his motive was that he was working as a volunteer for a local support group for senior citizens and in that capacity had offered to sell the home of Joyce Barnaby (Jane Wymark), octogenarian who lived between the Woodrows and the Trevelyans and who, because she’d seen Annie going to the Trevelyan home in the middle of the night Frances was killed, was one of the key prosecution witnesses against Annie. Jamie had convinced Joyce that he could get a good price for her home by selling it privately and avoiding any estate agents (Brit-speak for “realtors”); of course what he really wanted was to sell the house at a good price, tell Joyce he got far less for it, and pocket the difference. He killed Frances when she caught on to his scheme and threatened to tell Joyce she was being scammed — and there’s a marvelous piece of acting on Jane Wymark’s part when she finally realizes the friend she trusted was a swindler and a murderer to boot. Another thing I liked about this show was that the prosecutor in the British court trying Annie was a young Black woman — and I thought it was cool to see her wearing the traditional white powdered wig of judges and attorneys in British courts. All you Hollywood people who are prattling on about “inclusion,” here’s a real example of it, powerful precisely because it’s presented so matter-of-factly, as if it isn’t a big deal!