As a fan of British mystery writer Caroline Graham, I was thrilled when her “Inspector Barnaby” books were translated to the television screen in the marvelous British ITV series Midsomer Murders. John Nettles played Inspector Barnaby from 1997 until 2011, a total of 15 years and 81 episodes. With a body count of 277 (an average of 3+ murders per episode), the fictional English county of Midsomer surpasses even Cabot Cove as the deadliest place in the world to live. And Inspector Barnaby never failed to get his man.
What I love most about Midsomer Murders is the acting. In addition to the wonderful main characters, John Nettles (Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby) and Jane Wymark (Mrs. Barnaby), each episode featured cameos by some of the most talented actors in Britain. The roll call reads like a “Who’s Who” of British acting royalty. Playing murderers, victims, and eccentric villagers are the likes of David Bamber, Honor Blackman, Orlando Bloom, Richard Briers, Eleanor Crouch, Oliver Ford Davis, Edward Fox, Malcolm Sinclair, Eleanor Summerfield, and June Whitfield. To name just a few.
Who, you ask? Apart from Orlando Bloom, the elf prince Legolas in Lord of the Rings, the other names are, outside Britain, mostly unknown. And yet, as far as acting goes, they are the cream of the crop. What makes them special, in addition to their incredible acting, is that they look like ordinary people—people you might possibly run into in an English village. Their teeth aren’t perfect, their faces are untouched by plastic surgeons, they aren’t pencil thin, they actually get old. What they are is interesting and real—a sharp contrast to the perfect, plastic people with marginal talent we see on both large and small screens in the United States.
So what do British character actors have to do with East Anglia? In a word, reality.
My husband and I just returned from a week in East Anglia. Where, you ask? East Anglia is comprised of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire–the ancient heart of Anglo-Saxon civilization in Britain. Besides the university town of Cambridge, however, the villages and hamlets of East Anglia are way off the beaten tourist track. And yet the history is incredibly rich, the many National Trust properties fascinating, and the villages impossibly quaint. Villages founded long before the Norman Invasion of 1066 bear such picturesque names as Little Snoring and Great Snoring, Foxearth, Monks Eleigh, Hoo, Molesworth, Birdsong, and Pidley. What I like most about these villages is that, unlike the chocolate-box villages of the Cotswolds, where the thatched-roof cottages are owned by wealthy Londoners and the shops cater to busloads of day-trippers, the towns of East Anglia are real, work-a-day villages inhabited by real people—people who would look right at home on an episode of Midsomer Murders.
Just don’t tell anyone, all right? Let’s not spoil it.