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Thursday, October 13, 2011

MIDSOMER MURDERS: BARNABY'S TOP 10 -- DVD review by porfle

I've already watched a couple of these "Midsomer Murders" DVD sets from Acorn Media (sets 17 and 18, to be specific) but it's such a long-running show (1997-2011) that I still feel like a bit like a newbie.  Fortunately, the release of MIDSOMER MURDERS: BARNABY'S TOP 10 provides an ideal sampler of the show's best episodes (culled from the first six seasons) as chosen by its star, John Nettles, getting straight to the heart of what makes the show so appealing.

Nettles, who stars as former MI6 agent Tom Barnaby, now chief inspector for pastoral Midsomer County, is on hand to introduce each episode and add his own personal reflections on why they were chosen.  (First-time viewers are strongly advised to watch these intros after seeing the episodes, as they contain major spoilers.)  His observations about fellow actors, shooting conditions, and the stronger and weaker points of each script should be of great interest to fans.

The collection begins, aptly enough, with "How It All Began: The Killings at Dodger's Drift."  This initial murder investigation by Barnaby and his callow but likable assistant DS Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) introduces us to the main characters and their beat, known in the show's tagline as "the deadliest county in England."  We also meet Barnaby's wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and their daughter Cully (Laura Howard) as the dogged detective solves the case of a little old lady murdered in her cozy cottage.  Julian Glover guest stars.

"Favorite Storyline: Blue Herrings" has Barnaby visiting his aunt in a nursing home and getting caught up in a series of murders taking place there.  Are the high-living doctor and his shifty-eyed nurse operating an inheritance scam, or is one of the old folks a killer?  Charming performances by some elder actors, including Phyllis Calvert and Nigel Davenport, make this episode fun to watch.  "Favorite Leading Lady: A Worm in the Bud" gives Nettles a chance to act with veteran Wendy Craig in a baffling multiple murder case which Barnaby solves with the help of two inquisitive children.

"Best Location: Dark Autumn" is the story of a postman whose romantic flings with various women in a picturesque village result in his near decapitation during his morning rounds.  The emphasis is on cricket in "Funniest Moments: Dean Man's Eleven", in which the young wife of a widely-disliked millionaire is found dead by a quarry where other mysterious deaths have occurred.  Actually, this one's not nearly as funny as some of the other episodes in the set, but apparently Nettles had a good time filming it.

"Most Intriguing Storyline: Death of a Hollow Man" (which, incidentally, I found way funnier than "Dead Man's Eleven") is a cracking mystery in which the star of a local theater production of "Amadeus" is tricked into killing himself onstage at the climax of the opening performance.  Caroline Graham, Barnaby's creator, penned the screenplay from her own novel, making this one of the series' best and most literate stories. 

"Most Difficult to Film: The Electric Vendetta" involves naked corpses found inside crop circles, and, while intriguing enough with its references to UFOs and other strange phenomena, gets a bit tiresome after awhile.  The most interesting thing about it, as related by Nettles in his introduction, is the fact that one of the murders is left unexplained due to an oversight in the screenplay!  Kenneth Colley, familiar to STAR WARS fans as Darth Vader's underling Admiral Piett, appears as a local UFO expert suspected of staging the murders to look like alien abductions.

"Most Dramatic Episode: Murder on St. Malley's Day" is another corker, this time taking place in an exclusive boys' school where a student is stabbed to death during a cross-country race.  The mysteries surrounding the school's strangely sinister "Pudding Club" and some very suspicious faculty members involved in various shady dealings make this one a good choice for "most dramatic." 

"Most Bizarre Episode: A Talent for Life" is of special interest to fans of OO7 and "The Avengers" since it features guest star Honor Blackman as a vivacious older woman bludgeoned to death while fly-fishing.  Finally, Nettles' choice for "Favorite Episode: Strangler's Wood" is a dark and twisted tale of a serial strangler killing women in the forest, with a respected husband and father the main suspect.  But even as his family's deep-seated dysfunctions come to light, Barnaby begins to doubt the overabundance of evidence against him. 

Genre vet Peter Eyre (DRAGONSLAYER, FROM HELL) does a wonderful guest turn as an eccentric oddball who lives with his invalid mother.  Also appearing in this one are Sting's wife Trudie Styler, and Jeremy Clyde of the 60s pop duo Chad and Jeremy (who had me thinking "Who is that guy?" the whole time).

The 10-disc (approx. 16 1/2 hours) DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby stereo and English subtitles.  There are no extras, but each episode is prefaced by a 4 1/2-minute introduction by John Nettles.

Adding immensely to my growing fondness for this addictive series, MIDSOMER MURDERS: BARNABY'S TOP 10 provides a wealth of must-see entertainment for fans and newcomers alike.  If you love English murder mysteries that take place in those lazy little villages simmering with intrigue below their placid veneer, this show should be right up your garden path.

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