March 16, 2011

The Face of Murder

The flap over showrunner Brian True-May's remarks concerning the whiteness of the hit show Midsomer Murders shows no sign of abating; indeed, it has spilled over to comments from stars of other shows concerning whether a TV drama ought to reflect reality.

What did Mr. True-May say about the lack of non-white faces on Midsomer Murders? In part, "We just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them." What he seems to have meant is the the "perfect English village" at least in imagination is completely white--no minorities exist at all. Broadcaster ITV was so taken aback that it suspended Mr. True-May, effective immediately. Criticism poured in, aimed not just at Mr. True-May's lack of sensitivity to the realities of contemporary British society, but at the fact that while he does not allow four-letter words or the actual depiction of violence in his scripts, he does allow viewers to imagine violence, and all sorts of horrific crimes actually do go in the quiet imaginary English village of Causton and the other villages around it. Incest, murders of all kinds using every kind of implement or manner, sexual deviance of nearly every kind pops up on Midsomer Murders. While Mr. True-May and the other creators of the show certainly have a right to express themselves, and everyone agrees that the show is fiction, not reality, the critics argue, to suggest that only white people live in it is to propound a fiction so divorced from reality as to be unimaginable, especially when the crimes that go on in the show are actually usually very imaginable. (Unfortunately).

Reporters have been checking out the actual area in which the show films, and note that minorities actually do live in the area. Apparently the show doesn't hire them as extras, perhaps on the theory that the actual area doesn't represent Causton or its fictional county. Well, it's true: Causton is imaginary, like Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead. But Mrs. Christie wrote decades ago, but she actually included ethnic minorities in her work--quite a lot of them. One might not like her portrayals, or her allusions--the original British title of And Then There Were None was actually something quite different. But one can find them in her work. Again, if one supports the notion that Mr. True-May can create whatever imaginary venue he wants, and that venue has only Caucausians in it, then of course Midsomer County could exist and Mr. True-May's vision is as "true" as any other.

Mr. True-May may have specific reasons for not hiring ethnic minorities for the show, including the ones he gives. If he really doesn't cast ethnic minorities because he thinks the viewing audience won't accept them, then that's a shame. But is it so clear that the Midsomer Murders viewing audience would wander away if ethnic minorities turned up among the cast? I'd suggest lack of ethnic minorities isn't necessarily the reason for the show's success. Granted, I don't live in the UK, but I watch the show regularly, and I'd suggest these reasons as some of those for its popularity. One is predictability. In every episode the show provides a murder. It's titillating, it's more or less gruesome, it's puzzling. It provides interesting characters. Another is safety. Whatever the murder(s) is/are they are "safe," because Causton and their surroundings are imaginary, and the whole thing will be wrapped up by reliable officers who are smart, likeable, and trustworthy. A third is comfort, or one might say "reliability." The bad people get caught. Justice is served and the officers serve that justice while staying within the bounds of the law. What could be sweeter, or more comforting? At the end of the day, after the world's problems overwhelm us, what could be more satisfying than to settle into the knowledge that we can return to a well known realm in which we can have complete faith in the honesty, intelligence and reliability of cops who will carry out both the spirit and the letter of the law and who will catch the bad people? Yes, we know it's all fiction, but it's comforting fiction. Most viewers tend to like the popular culture depiction of law when it coincides with justice. But do they really require that it be a particular color of justice?

Whether recurring characters are ethnic or not, when they are intelligent, likeable and sure to get their man or woman, the writing is smart,  and the events not too graphic, an audience will ask for more of the same. To that extent, the success of Midsomer Murders isn't that much of a mystery. If Mr. True-May adds some non-white faces to the cast, for example a couple of recurring characters with whom the audience can fall in love,  he might be surprised at the outcome.

No comments: