Tired of economic woes and political shenanigans? Frustrated by world crises and natural disasters? All in over abundance. The three latest British TV series releases from Acorn Media have provided some wonderful escapism. Murder might belong among those listed negatives, but it is so casually and deftly dished up in Midsomer Murders and Rosemary and Thyme that it’s hard not to enjoy. And Fresh Fields is about a middle-aged couple adjusting to life without the kids—and enjoying it, a refreshing comedy aided by domestic wisdom and two of British TV’s most charming actors.
Let’s start with the longest-running series and the only one still in production, Midsomer Murders. The series premiered in the United Kingdom in 1997, meeting with much success, with over eighty movie-length episodes so far in circulation. In the United States, the mysteries have been seen on A&E, The Biography Channel and, most recently, PBS.
If unfamiliar with the program, just envision a combined update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. As it is never wise to be around any of these characters, for death and mayhem flourish, so murder follows Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and Sgt. Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) around Midsomer County, with its unusually high crime rate. And the settings, too, are quite like Christie’s—quiet, seemingly innocent English villages, with garden parties, cricket games, afternoon teas and fox hunts.
For this ten-disc set, Nettles has presumably selected his top ten favorite mysteries from the first six seasons, under such categories as Most Bizarre Episode (“A Talent for Life”), Favorite Story Line (“Blue Herrings”), Most Difficult to Film (“The Electric Vendetta”) and Most Intriguing Crime (“Death of a Hollow Man”). This may be another ploy to sell more DVDs in a different packaging, since all these episodes have already appeared in various sets.
No matter: all the mysteries are intriguing—and this latest set is an excellent introduction to the series.
One of my favorites, the third episode of the second season, “Dead Man’s Eleven,” is fortunately among the chosen ten (Funniest Moments). Barnaby’s long-suffering wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), who is often left with a cold dinner while hubby investigates the latest, wishes to move to a new home in Fletcher’s Cross—aren’t these British place names delightful?
Murder, not unexpectedly, raises its ugly head. For starters, a woman is bludgeoned to death with a cricket bat. The episode is graced by Robert Hardy, known best as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films. Here he is nasty Robert Cavendish, a Nazi souvenir collector, hunter and cricket enthusiast. Of course more murders interrupt Joyce’s house-hunting, and it is, in fact, when Tom reluctantly joins her at the latest “ideal” home, that the realtor’s turn of phrase gives him the final clue.
Rosemary and Thyme
The camaraderie between Barnaby and sidekick Troy, always congenial, sometimes competitive, is akin to that between Rosemary and Laura. Add to that women’s intuition and emotional sensibility and the result is Rosemary and Thyme, another British detective series, which aired for three seasons, 2003-2005, in the UK and later on PBS. Previously released by individual seasons, this Acorn Media seven-disc volume includes all twenty-two, 50-minute episodes, now with subtitles and an eight-minute interview with the two stars.
Actually, R&T provides an unlikely premise for a mystery series. The settings here are not confined to picturesque English villages. The British are masters at turning any setting into a place for murder—witness their long and distinguished history of crime novelists—so now the filming is done at numerous English manor houses and their adjacent gardens, but also at London’s Kew Gardens and Regent’s Park, Surrey vineyards as well as locations in France, Spain and Italy.
The first episode, “And No Birds Sing,” introduces us to Rosemary Boxer (Felicity Kendal), a horticulturist who travels the British byways—and quite fast, too—in her land rover. She has come to examine a deadly tree blight and finds the home’s owner ill. In the process she meets a distraught wife, Laura Thyme (Pam Ferris), whose husband has cheated on her and who has lost a friend in a suspicious car accident. Rosemary, after taking Laura under her wing, soon finds that she, too, is at loose ends, having learned she has lost her job. The two quickly become friends—and sleuths. The owner of the sick trees dies of an apparent suicide—or was it MURDER?
The series is sprinkled with a number of guest stars: Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited, 1981), Margaret Tyzack (A Clockwork Orange), Julian Wadham (The English Patient), Phyllida Law (The Time Machine, 2002) and Oliver Ford Davies (several Star Wars episodes).
In a way, the mystery element of these first two sets is indirectly involved in the third of the Acorn Media releases. In Fresh Fields, it seems that Julia McKenzie, the most recent incarnation of Miss Marple in a British TV series, had a previous life—as Hester Fields, wife of William (Anton Rodgers). With Series 1 and 2 previously released, this two-disc set of Series 3 and 4 contains all the remaining episodes except “A Dickens of a Christmas” from the third season. The oldest of the three series, Fresh Fields ran in the UK from 1984 to 1986, and was later shown on PBS.