Countryside Synergies

A tale of Cricket and Midsomer Murders

 

Has there ever been a television program more suited to the genteel, bucolic vision of cricket than the crime drama Midsomer Murders? Amid the countryside surrounds of the quintessentially English image a game of cricket seems to fit nicely with the tongue in cheek plotlines. Indeed, the murders themselves seem something of an inconvenience and an irritating interruption as day to day village life, with its inherent quirks and eccentricities, continues unabated. That village fete with its lustrous tombola still needs to be taken care of after all. In Midsomer denizens possess charming monikers such as Otto Benham, Olive Beauvoisin, Hugo Balcombe, Vic Lynton and Anthony Prideaux that sound ideal for the average village cricket team. Thus, the episode last week entitled ‘Last Man Out’ witnessed a reconvening between one of the nation’s favourite whodunnit’s and the national summer sport.

Cricket’s first appearance in the drama arrived almost twenty years ago in the eighth episode, aptly entitled Dead Man’s Eleven. The Barnaby’s arrive in the village of Fletcher’s Cross (Littlewick Green in Berkshire in reality) as a match is in progress, leading to Cully’s suggestion to her father that he could join the club and bat for the team each Saturday, a suggestion, as with most that involve significant activity, that is met with short shrift by the Detective Inspector. As if to underline such a proposed folly an almost archetypal, confused, calamitous run out, involving the batting side’s wizened old skipper and its young colt takes place, the former returning to the pavilion to a faux vignette of sympathy from his wife. Said skipper, clearly using the team as a personal fiefdom, later drops the young colt post a cringing pep talk, as a punishment for his part in the run out despite said colt having clouted a six and apparently winning the contest. Operating the scoreboard would be his sole contribution to the next match. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Troy (Barnaby’s bag man) has signed up for the Midsomer Worthy team, the next opponents of Fletcher’s Cross, much to the delight of the skipper who seems rather too zealous at the prospect. All very English, very Midsomer and very cricket.

Rather incongruously, the opening murder in the plot is soon carried out with the offending weapon a bat owned by the son of the captain from the Fletcher’s Cross team, a somewhat ancient looking willow that appears to have been resurrected from the 1930’s amusingly known as a ‘Trueblade.’ Purchasing some of the modern day railway sleepers certainly would have been out of the question for Stephen Cavendish, the bat’s owner, but surely a Duncan Fearnley or a Gray Nicholls could have been purchased from Causton Sports and Leisure in readiness for the big match?

The match itself, and its predecessor, provides an undercurrent throughout the episode. Despite the recent murder the match is scheduled to continue. This is Midsomer afterall. With the familiar country tune providing background music, the aforementioned Sergeant opens the bowling and takes an early wicket before taking umbrage at a supposed four being posted by the scorer off of a later delivery, a moment critique in the plot. Troy traps a batsman leg-before wicket, indulges in a finger-wagging send-off to his victim and is about to continue his spell of effective spin bowling when the episode’s second murder is discovered: the victim being the same young player who had been banished to operating the scoreboard at the conclusion of the previous game. Not even this particular match can survive such an occurrence.

Cricket’s next appearance in the murder mystery series proves almost as fatal and Barnaby himself nearly meets his end courtesy of a drugged cup of tea and an under the influence bimble through a set of washing conveniently placed by the murderer in an attempt to lure the Inspector into a trap during ‘Death and Dreams’. The cricket itself proves almost incidental, save for an amusing moment of bumbling fielding, but the sight of the beautiful Stonor Park Cricket Ground in Oxfordshire provides a fabulous setting for the handful of cricketing scenes.

Sitting idly by and watching had proved the limit of Barnaby’s input during the first two occurrences of cricket and Midsomer Murders but the third instance, during the episode ‘Secrets and Spies,’ thrusts the cerebral detective into the action, albeit remaining in his role as law and order courtesy of filling in as an umpire in the match between Allenby House and the village of Midsomer Parva. Initially very much against the idea, Barnaby is persuaded by his new Sergeant, Ben Jones, to even out the dodgy decisions of the regular, somewhat biased umpire, Malcolm Frazer. In a more amenable moment, Barnaby is next seen sat on his sofa, swatting up on the rules of cricket and zealously practicing his signal for a boundary. His good mood soon evaporates though when he discovers the litany of rules involved with umpiring, complaining the following day to Jones about the forty-two basic areas, numbered subheadings and thousands of clauses. The conversation ends with him claiming that he will never forgive his deputy.

The day of the contest soon arrives and is played on the majestic Sir Paul Getty Ground on the Wormsley estate. Former county player Geoffrey Larkin (played by Clive Wood of The Bill fame) is conveniently drafted into Allenby House’s XI due to his residence in the safe house, a controversial choice amongst the opposition, one of which is Detective Sergeant Jones, although Larkin’s inclusion had been agreed by Barnaby himself.

Almost inevitably, Jones opens the bowling, to the sounds of Soul Limbo, that tune made famous by the BBC’s long running coverage of test cricket, and lustily appeals for a close leg-before wicket decision off of the opening delivery. Barnaby, somewhat amusingly, calls ‘not out,’ a wry smile edging across his face as Jones skulks back to his mark. Jones’ ire is further provoked when Barnaby turns down another wicket, signalling a no-ball after his Sergeant has castled the batsman. There can be no denying the Welshman next time though, a caught and bowled effort producing a look of disappointment from Barnaby as he ruefully raises his finger. The dismissal brings Geoffrey Larkin to the crease and his prowess is soon to the fore, although his rather agricultural batting technique dictates that the county in question that he represented was more possibly Orange in Los Angeles as opposed to any of the first-class shires.

Nevertheless, sixes and boundaries flow as Larkin leads his team to a respectable total. Jones and team captain Jimmy Wells protest to Barnaby about his umpiring and the inclusion of Larkin during the interval but Barnaby dismisses their claims, mischievously telling Joyce that he is enjoying his role as umpire. Jones and Barnaby’s personal duel again comes to a head when the former is batting, the latter giving Jones out leg-before wicket from square-leg, much to the chagrin of his deputy.

Despite the acrimonious dismissal of the Sergeant, the village team threaten a famous victory courtesy of a fine innings from Wells before Barnaby again intervenes, asking to see the ball and noticing that it has been scratched. He soon finds the offending item, discovering a filed down button on the back of Nicky Frazer’s trousers. Larkin continues to influence the match though, dismissing much of the village lower order. Midsomer Parva oddball Seth Comfort is the last man to bat with the villagers requiring two runs from the final ball. Seth proceeds to bludgeon a long hop from Nick Frazer toward the boundary but Larkin, rarely out of the action, circles theatrically before taking the catch. He very noticeably treads on the rope though but Malcolm Frazer turns away the vociferous appeals from the village players. Turning to the personification of law and order, the fielding team are disappointed as Barnaby claims to have been unsighted, a contretemps ensuing from the controversial decision. Barnaby amusingly claims to be off duty and leaves Jones to sort out the escalating scrap.

 

Prior to the inaugural airing of ‘Last Man Out’ the last genuine frisson between Midsomer Murders and cricket took place on familiar ground at Littlewick Green during the episode entitled ‘Death and the Divas’ but the play appeared somewhat forlorn and lost amid what clearly was an early spring filming. The greener than green wicket could certainly have been the result of wet weather but the skeletal, leafless appearance of the surrounding trees proved to be the giveaway regarding the time of year. Barnaby (the new incarnation) and Jones discussed the minutiae of a case in front of a match during ‘The Sicilian Defence’ but the plot offered but the merest glimpse of the attractive ground at Warborough, cricket as an extra (excuse the pun) rather than part of the story.

Thus, we are brought to the fictional village of Lower Pampling and a cricket festival in the latest episode and one’s initial thoughts surround the nature of the cricket on show, particularly as some eight years had passed since the last significant cricketing contribution whilst various personnel changes had taken place. In old Midsomer Murders (the episodes where Bergerac was in charge) the cricket was of an unrealistic, agricultural, hammy variety. One guffawed at the prehistoric kit and equipment utilised as well as the hilarious passages of play but these were very much in keeping with the generally unrealistic ethos of the program along with eccentric, quirky characters. In contrast, new Midsomer Murders (those where Bergerac’s cousin is in charge) feature a somewhat less gauche, idiosyncratic dramatis personae with plots largely devoid of eccentricity. Would the cricket be similarly shorn of the quaint hilarity that had pockmarked the previous instances?

Within moments of the famous Theremin music beginning the questions are answered as the famous Wormsley ground utilised in ‘Secrets and Spies’ is inundated with the effects of T20 cricket: cheerleaders, coloured clothing, a white ball, a couple of hooked sixes (one rather expertly caught by Barnaby’s wife) and a beautiful on-drive for another boundary highlighting that the hammy, hilarious cricket from previous episodes has been consigned to the past. Within moments of witnessing such batting brilliance the perpetrator, Lower Pampling Panthers’ star batsman and skipper Leo Henderson, has played his last as he is pummelled to death by a barrage of balls (twenty to be precise) from a bowling machine in the nets.

All of which is expected but the circumstances prove somewhat vague until we are introduced to the Midsomer County C-10 Slam, the newest format to triumph over T20 which is clearly so last year. Despite the murder of their captain, the Lower Pampling Panthers are through to the semi-final, one murder certainly isn’t enough to curtail an important event in Midsomer, with the winners of the competition progressing to play in the prestigious Australian C-10 Slam. What happened to the English equivalent?! Straight from Midsomer to the Antipodes?! Surely not?! Lest we forget though, we are in Midsomer.

Investigations soon take an interesting turn when Barnaby stumbles upon his old compadre Ben Jones sporting a five o’clock shadow and masquerading as the Panthers’ middle-order dasher Jack Morris. Jones obfuscates as to his presence in Midsomer, despite some astonished looks from his old boss, claiming to be just watching the cricket. Meanwhile, Barnaby’s current right hand man, Nick Winter, mischievously enquires as to whether Mrs Barnaby will be up on the incident board due to her presence at the contest in and around when the murder took place. Barnaby and Winter continue their investigations of potential suspects including the tournament organiser whose comment about 5 days of dreary test cricket proved rather thought provoking.

There’s no time to dwell on cricketing existential angst though as the semi-final looms. Jones is discovered in the nets (weren’t they a crime scene earlier?) displaying some impressive stroke making despite the protestations of Esther from New Tricks regarding his stance. The former Sergeant is soon promoted to open the batting in the semi-final but it is during the Panthers’ spell in the field that more becomes clear as Jones questions the new captain’s wide bowling against Morton Shallows Sharks. Something is afoot but Jones carries on regardless playing some classical, orthodox shots much to the delight of traditionalist Esther from New Tricks. One more boundary is required for the Panthers to progress and Jones doesn’t disappoint, cutting another four to edge his team into the final. Skipper Fitz Theara does not look impressed though and is soon ordered to get Jones onside before the final.

The game is very much afoot though and Jones rumbles Theara but the latter soon ends up on the victim list courtesy of being stabbed in the back with a stump; an occurrence that prompts Jones to approach Barnaby and Winter to reveal the real reason he is back: an investigation into match-fixing with the C-10 under the spotlight. Present problems in the real cricket world are then further highlighted by Jones explaining spot fixing, a sign that Midsomer Murders has left behind its quaint, oldy-worldy version of the game. Almost inevitably, Jones is approached to fix the final and, post the initial sweetener, he conducts a bizarre contretemps with an electronic scoreboard on the hallowed Wormsley sward under floodlights as he attempts to discover the identity of the match-fixing head honcho. His bargaining only succeeds in him assuming the captaincy for the tournament’s denouement.

Tension, in a number of forms, hangs around the stunning Wormsley ground prior to the contest between the Panthers and the Causton Crusaders. Jones prepares for his bow as skipper in the changing rooms but is incongruously whacked over the head with a bat similar looking to the ‘Trueblade’ used in ‘Dead Men’s Eleven’ just prior to the contest. One question naturally arises: is he dead? Viewers are left little time to linger on such a thought as the undercover Detective Inspector is seen being dragged by the murderer (Esther from New Tricks) to be eventually hung from one of the groundsman’s tractors. Curiously, the final begins despite the Panthers being without their captain and despite no-one appearing to notice that Jones is absent. What happened at the toss?!

Such minutiae is not important though as Jones has a tete-a-tete with Esther from New Tricks, amusingly commenting on her poor grip of the offending bat. Another whack is about to be administered when Barnaby saves his old bagman’s skin. The plot offers one last twist by revealing that the murders were not even about match-fixing after all.

Somewhat aptly, Jones recovers from his ordeal and faces the last delivery of the final, requiring a six for victory. Naturally, he blasts the ball over the rope. This is Midsomer after all.

 

Thus, the question offered prior to the episode was succinctly answered. The advent of T20-esque cricket, the alluded to threat to traditional game, the improved acting of the actual play and the inclusion of match-fixing all highlighted that Midsomer Murders, cricket and all, had moved away from the hilarious, tongue-in-cheek version of the sport that had been prevalent in previous instances. Midsomer has moved on, as Barnaby himself alluded at the end of the episode.

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