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Sunday, July 1, 2012

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20 -- DVD review by porfle

Fans of the "Midsomer Murders" DVD sets who have been dreading the end of John Nettles' run as Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby can breathe easier.  Although his successor, Neil Dudgeon as cousin DCI John Barnaby, appears prominently on the front cover with him, the baton doesn't get passed until the last minutes of the final episode of Acorn Media's four-disc set MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20 (which finishes up season 13 of the series), giving us four more all-Nettles Barnaby mysteries to savor while we can.

Regular viewers will know why this is a good thing.  John Nettles is wonderfully cast as former MI6 agent Tom Barnaby, now a no-nonsense Detective Chief Inspector in rural Midsomer County where one of the area's rustic charms is its rather shocking murder rate.  Barnaby isn't one of those dazzling masters of deduction like Sherlock Holmes, but a wise, insightful, and patient detective who works each case as though it were a fascinating puzzle. 

Barnaby has few quirky eccentricities to make his character more interesting--in fact, aside from being so brilliant at his job, it's his seeming ordinariness that sets him apart from the rest.  When not on a case, his ideal situation is to be at home watching telly with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) or tagging along to one of her many modest social affairs, while looking forward to the occasional visit from their daughter Cully (Laura Howard). 

He has an amusing but not overly comic relationship with his younger partner, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), who must grudgingly do most of Barnaby's grunt work for him even though we know he's on his way to becoming an outstanding detective himself under Barnaby's wise tutelage.  As is the case with most detective teams of this nature, Jones is often amazed at Barnaby's keen leaps of logic and acts as a surrogate for the viewer.

With his career winding down, Barnaby's not the tireless bloodhound he once was--in fact, in three of the four stories here his participation is due to his wife being involved in situations that lead to murder.  The first and perhaps best of the bunch, "Master Class", finds Joyce helping to stage a competition for young pianists in which the four best get to attend personal classes with virtuoso Michael Fielding (James Fox) in his stately home, where one will be ultimately be chosen as his prodigy. 

One of the four, Zoe, is a troubled girl who claims to witness a mysterious blonde woman with a baby drowning in a nearby river, although the police can find no trace of her.  Interestingly, the first murder doesn't occur until well into the story after the competition among the four finalists and their parents has become fierce.  Suspects abound, including Fielding's creepy sisters and a fifth contestant who doesn't react well to being cut from the contest.  The typically gruesome murders include a hanging and a throat slashing. 

Death by electric sliding door and a broken wine bottle to the kidneys are featured in "Not in My Back Yard", with Barnaby once again tagging along as Joyce attends an open house for a modern mansion that has been built in rustic Great Pelfe against the protests of local residents.  With members of the Midsomer Conservation Society accusing town council members of a scam to develop their precious land, dead bodies start cropping up and Barnaby is forced to put his detective hat on as a parade of suspects file by.

"The Noble Art" is a boxing themed story with a local boy winning the world middleweight title, which causes some grief to those who bet a bundle on him to lose.  When a solicitor is murdered by mysterious means, three people who had secret dealings with him at the time are cast under suspicion, including the boxer's manager, the manager's unfaithful wife, and a prominent citizen who was being blackmailed by the solicitor's assistant after having a homosexual affair with him.

The boxing atmosphere helps make this one interesting as does the performance of Kevin R. McNally, who has a voice and carriage reminiscent of Orson Welles, as Barnaby's old friend Gerald Farquharson.  Farquharson is hosting an upcoming recreation of a historic bout on his estate which will serve as a scenic backdrop for the ever-growing body count.  Interestingly, Barnaby's instincts and understanding of human nature fail him notably during this investigation, and it isn't until late in the episode that he even begins to sort out who the killer is. 

Finally, "Fit For Murder" has a nervous Barnaby (his police fitness examination is coming up) accompanying Joyce to Swaveley Manor health spa, where a property dispute between owners Luke and Phoebe Archbold and Phoebe's former friend Miranda Bedford escalates into various acts of murder including death by tampered-with weight machine and drowning in a floatation chamber.  The health spa setting is reminiscent of "Thunderball" but without the international intrigue. 

What really makes "Fit For Murder" so involving is the fact that it's Tom Barnaby's last case.  The anniversary of his father's death--at the very same age that Barnaby will be on his next birthday--makes him uncharacteristically wistful and introspective here, as he ponders his past life and current circumstances with an increased awareness of his own mortality. 

I've never seen this side of the character before and it humanizes him in a poignant but not overly sentimental way.  It also, needless to say, prompts him to consider retirement while he's still able to enjoy life with Joyce, handing over the reins to cousin John in a touching farewell at the episode's close. 

The four-disc set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Extras consist of a photo gallery and a text essay entitled "Goodbye to Barnaby."  (Also available in a 2-disc Blu-Ray version.)

John Nettles' tenure as the top cop in Midsomer County comes to an end in typically entertaining style with MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20, which should be of interest to both longtime fans and newcomers to the series.  As usual, some episodes are outstanding while others are simply par for the course, but they're always fun to watch.

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