Friday, April 27, 2018

Midsomer Murders; “Death in a Chocolate Box” (Bentley Productions, ITV, American Public Television, 2007)

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

I watched an interesting rerun from the 2007 season of the British crime show Midsomer Murders, an engaging if sometimes overly convoluted mystery story based on a fictional “Midsomer County” in the agricultural regions of central England. I’m not sure why KPBS runs such old episodes of this show when it’s still on the air in the U.K., but this episode proved to be quite entertaining even though the title, “Death in a Chocolate Box,” was deceptive. Of course I’d assumed it would be a story about someone being murdered via being given a chocolate box in which the chocolates had been laced with poison. Instead it was a story about the ninth Lord Holm (played by a quite charming older actor named Edward Petherbridge whose last name makes him sound like a Monty Python character), who 16 years earlier had been convicted and sent to prison for murdering his wife Maria Godbold (seen in flashbacks in which she’s played by Wendy Morgan). Due to extenuating circumstances — Maria had been regularly cheating on him and in fact had worked out a scheme with the local police whereby every Friday night she’d get herself “arrested” for being drunk and disorderly in public, and then she’d take on all comers for a sexual joy ride in her cell — Lord Holm got out in eight years, and afterwards he decided to turn his estate into “Midsomer Manor,” a sort of elaborate halfway house for other ex-cons who wanted to turn their lives around. The estate also features a round structure that contains a camera obscura with which Holm can spy on the rest of the neighborhood, and this figures prominently in the main action. We learn from the chief of the local police force, Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), that Maria’s murder and the press reports of the orgies she staged in jail led to a purge of the local police force; the 16 officers who’d participated as Maria’s sex partners were all fired, and the two officers who, along with Barnaby, were the principal investigators on the case, Jack Colby (Pip Donaghy) and his wife Gina (Clare Higgins), quit and pursued other careers. Jack became the manager of Lord Holm’s estate and Gina went to college and studied psychotherapy, eventually becoming Lord Holm’s therapist.

Matters come to a head when Eddie Marston (Nigel Harrison) gets released from prison and shows up at Midsomer Manor as its latest client — and Jack Colby is upset because he’s been running a blackmail scheme over the events of 16 years before (though just whom he was blackmailing writer Tony Etchells doesn’t make all that clear) and Marston wants in on it. The episode’s title comes from the warning Marston gets early on that he not regard Midsomer Manor as a “chocolate box” full of inviting targets for crime to which he can help himself at will; it’s a serious program that will come down hard on anyone who tries to abuse it. Jack Colby is driving around in the yellow all-terrain vehicle he uses on the grounds when he’s flagged down by a mystery person who stands in the middle of the roadway and forces him to drive off it, stalling his car. When Jack gets out he’s clubbed to death with a blunt object that turns out to be the winch handle by which the camera obscura is moved — and later Eddie Marston is found clubbed to death by the same weapon. We also learn that Lord Holm has an unrequited crush on Gina Colby — we see him rehearse an idiotic declaration of love that makes him sound like a Jane Austen villain and then we see him deliver it to Gina, who politely tries to put him off by saying she likes him but will never love him. Then Lord Holm tries to grab her and kiss her — and just then Barnaby and his officers arrive. From this Barnaby concludes that Lord Holm was the killer of both Jack Colby and Eddie Marston — only [spoiler alert!] the real killer turns out to be Gina Colby, who had also murdered Lord Holm’s faithless wife 16 years earlier. Once again, writer Etchells isn’t all that clear about her motive, or why as a cop she nonetheless allowed Lord Holm to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, but on the whole the show is expertly done and has the sort of character development we get in British mysteries even when there are major holes in the plot and the final solution seems only weakly motivated.