HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 19 -- DVD review by porfle

With Acorn Media's 4-disc collection MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 19, we return once again to that sleepy English county where every quaint little village has a murder rate that would make the average urban dweller's hair stand on end. 

Putting forth his best effort to root out the killers and make those unquiet burgs safe again for farmers, shopkeepers, and greedy country squires is former MI6 agent Tom Barnaby, now a detective chief inspector who'd rather be having a pint in front of the telly if there weren't a murder to solve every five minutes.  He seems a hair's breadth away from retirement in the small town of Causton with his lovely wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), with whom he shares an amusingly prickly relationship, but every new case clearly gives him that certain buzz he undoubtedly lives for.

As played to a tee by John Nettles, Barnaby's easygoing demeanor and wry wit are only one side of the coin--the tenacious, no-nonsense detective has a razor-sharp intellect and little tolerance for lawbreakers or suspects who try to dodge his probing questions.  His dignity is rarely ruffled, which is more than can be said for his younger partner, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), who, while capable enough, is often the brunt of both Barnaby's mischievous sense of humor and his withering criticism.  But we know that the older detective is confident his partner will evolve into a top detective with the benefit of his daily tutelage.

The four feature-length episodes in this set should be familiar stuff to longtime fans of the series while varying considerably in quality.  First up is "The Made-to-Measure Murders", a typical Midsomer tale in which a series of gruesome murders sparks smalltown intrigue and keeps the local gossip mill churning.  It begins with an unlikable man dying of a heart attack in his garden, whereupon we find his widow on the two-year anniversary of his death suffering from some mysterious guilt that she's about to confess to the village vicar before she's brutally murdered right outside the church.  

Meanwhile, the tailor shop owned by the deceased man's brother and son is one of the businesses in danger of being closed by their landlord, a wealthy landowner who runs the town like a feudal estate.  As tempers flare and desperation mounts, more murders are imminent even as Barnaby and DS Jones are being fitted for new suits (Jones wants one just like Cary Grant wore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST).  Forensic expert Dr. Bullard (series regular Barry Jackson) ponders the strange symmetrical slash marks on the victims' throats while Barnaby tries to find a motive for the killings among the various suspects.  It's a solid episode, though one the writers could probably come up with in their sleep at this point.

Much more fun is "The Sword of Guillaume", in which our detectives accompany the Causton town council on a bus trip to Brighton beach where the mayors of the two towns are enmeshed in the usual shady land dealings which seem to fuel many of these stories.  A festive setting and colorful cast of guest characters make this one of the livelier entries as does a series of gory beheadings by a cloked figure wielding an ancient sword, one of which takes place in the seaside amusement park's spook ride. 

With a very unusual motive for murder, some intriguing surprises, and enough morbid touches to make Dario Argento smile, "The Sword of Guillaume" is my favorite episode in this collection.  Mark Gatiss, currently a producer, writer, and co-star (as Mycroft Holmes) of the successful "Sherlock" series, is in peak form here as Rev. Giles Shawcross, a profoundly conflicted priest with a terrible secret.  Also making his first appearance as Barnaby's cousin DCI John Barnaby is Neil Dudgeon, who will eventually replace Tom Nettles as the series' star.

Next comes "Blood on the Saddle", which is, I can say without reservation, the goofiest installment of the show that I've seen thus far.  Not that it isn't fun, because it is, with our protagonists taking part in a Wild West fair that includes ropin', ridin', gunfights, and, of course, murder.  However, the writers must've been smoking something funny when they came up with this one.

Once again the apparent motive involves a land dispute between dueling families, the sort of plot complication that I find totally uninteresting in this sort of story, so instead I concentrated on how weird it was seeing a bunch of Brits dressed like cowboys and acting like Billy the Kid.  After watching one victim get roped and dragged to death by an unknown outlaw, we're treated to a fantasy sequence with Barnaby and Jones in full Western regalia fleeing down the main street of Dodge City with the killer blasting away at them with both six-guns.  You haven't lived until you've seen John Nettles as Wyatt Earp--it's kind of like watching Fred Dalton Thompson play the Duke of Windsor.

Lastly, "The Silent Land" brings us back to (relatively) normal Midsomer territory with a dark and atmospheric tale in which a lonely man is murdered upon the grave of a long-dead girl with whom he's become mysteriously obsessed.  The graveyard adjoins an abandoned sanitarium where people suffering with TB once came to die, now empty but host to some strange goings-on that might possibly be supernatural in origin. 

Even the level-headed Mrs. Barnaby drives off the road one night when she sees a ghostly figure passing in front of her car, although her skeptical husband and their daughter Cully (Laura Howard) suspect her of seeing things.  Danny Webb (ALIEN 3) gives a delightful guest performance as a con man running "ghost tours" through the old graveyard and sanitarium, while the lovely Christina Cole plays a librarian who stands to benefit from the original murder.  There are plenty of other suspects, however, in this eerie tale which ends on a suitably spooky note.

The DVD set from Acorn Media contains four discs in slimline cases, all of which are in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  The sole extra is a brief photo gallery for "Blood on the Saddle."  (Also available in a 2-disc Blu-Ray version.)

Midsomer fans will want to check out MIDSOMER MYSTERIES: SET 19 while newbies should find it a fairly pleasing collection of detective stories that presents the long-running series at both its best and worst.  Even when not quite up to par or coasting over familiar ground, the adventures of DCI Tom Barnaby continue to be a satisfying and often delightfully amusing way for mystery buffs to pass some quality TV time.

Buy it at

No comments: