Adieu, Dear Sleuth

Posted on Saturday, March 26, 2011, under ,


CDI Barnaby
one step ahead
of all concerned. 
There is no dead 
man’s shoe
out of his step.

A missing piece
of the puzzle
hidden in his
lady’s chamber,
in the chamber of the
missing piece.

British television has recently parted with two of the greatest and dearest sleuths in recent history. First it was David Jason’s Frost last year, now it’s John Nettles’ Barnaby. The latter’s departure has been coming for quite some time, in fact the first hints came as long as two years back if memory serves me well, which made me watch the later episodes with a sort of premature nostalgia. Yet Nettles hung in there, and his exit seemed to have been put off indefinitely. When Barnaby finally announced his ‘long holiday’ in ‘Fit for Murder’ (watched it last night) it came across as a shock.

I loved to watch ‘A Touch of Frost’ in the late 90s and the early noughties and always thought of it as being superior to Midsomer because of the former’s realism, grittiness, and of course Jason’s marvellous performance. He imbued Inspector Frost with such depth that it was difficult not to root for the old bugger scene after scene. It was much easier to love a maverick DI, an anti-hero with more misgivings than you and I both account for, constantly at war with everyone and most of all with himself, the truest fighter for justice and a carer for his fellow-man that you’ll ever see on the box. Frost the incorrigible romantic.

On the other hand, Barnaby’s by and large understated performances were harder to be impressed by, yet no less impressive. Tom Barnaby was everything that Jack Frost wasn’t: methodical, well-spoken, systematic, dependable and trusted all around, even by his superiors. He had a quiet appeal of a thinking man, yet taking action when the situation called for it. I particularly liked Barnaby in the later episodes as there was a twinge of sadness forming round the edges of his slowly diminishing eyes (maybe to do with those announcements of early retirement). That Nettles managed to keep his Barnaby engaged and engaging, and avoid slipping into a routine, was no mean feat.

He was certainly helped by the professional supporting cast and a host of splendid guest appearances, and perhaps most of all by the picturesque countryside setting. And then there were the village fetes, the societies and clubs of all sorts teeming with jealousy, greed and unspeakable infidelities, there were of course all those murders, 222 of them to be precise, ranging from the mundane to the grotesque to the over-imaginative (my favourite two: a man decapitated on the ghost train, and that impalement inside the iron maiden). In short, the world of Midsomer county confounded by its own idiosyncrasies, the world most of the outside viewers would have been hard pressed to identify with, be they white, black, or yellow (the programme is broadcast to 231 territories around the world). Perhaps Midsomer is supposed to represent, in its producer's words, ‘the last bastion of Englishness’. Well, be that as it may (pun intended), people will continue watching the show for what it is – a quaint piece of entertainment that celebrates and pokes fun at its own idea of 'Englishness', at times succeeding in passing off murder as serious art-form.

In John Nettles’ ultimate ‘Fit for Murder’ Tom Barnaby and wife Joyce take a mini-break at one of those spa ‘rehabilitation centres' where you pay through the nose for having hot rocks placed over your body, for being doused in mud with a pair of cucumber slices for your eyes (there’s an amusing scene in which Barnaby talks rather intently to a woman covered in mud for few minutes thinking she is his wife). At the spa one is surrounded by silence – silence being a pretty rare commodity these days. Silence is sacred in the ‘garden of contemplation’ where one is supposed to practise yoga while sitting opposite a ‘golden’ statue of Buddha across a small pond, while keeping one’s voice down to a whisper. Then there’s the ‘volcanic massage’ where a girl called Cloud will arrange the ‘Himalayan’ stones in line with you chakras. If for some reason you don’t feel up for it, she’ll read your mind instead, as an extra. Cash in hand.

Silly as this may all sound (especially to men: it's rather odd that in the industrially developed countries, it’s usually women who more readily buy into yoga and all things transcendental, as opposed to Buddhist monks who are almost exclusively male), it is nevertheless curious that we find Barnaby at the end of the episode announcing his retirement to friends, stating that ‘something happened recently… that made me take a long, hard look at…’. Yet we never find out what that something is. Well, it has to do with Barnaby’s fear of dying on his birthday like his own father did years ago, compounded by the sense of guilt for being unkind and refusing to join his old man for what turned out to be a fateful spot of fishing. Funny that Tom, being the man of logic and deductive reasoning, should leave the viewers wondering if his retirement decision had been brought on, in part at least, by the powers of the occult. His decision, after all, did come after a couple of impromptu sessions with a girl who dabbles in occultism.

Has the power of chakra penetrated Tom’s mind after all? Has he finally succumbed to the all-seeing third eye? Well, we’ll never know won’t we. I am probably reading too much into this anyway. The man had to retire from the show one way or the other. Well, retire he did. And rarely has there been a more low-key, if slightly cryptic, farewell by a long-standing television icon than Barnaby’s in Midsomer Murders. Thank you John Nettles.

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