Haddenham, famous for the roof on its duck pond, is so quintessentially English that in ‘Judgement Day’, under the name of Little Kirkbridge, it became a contender in a ‘perfect village’ competition • pic: Simon Kozhin

The Murderous Heart Of England

24th August 2012

With the Olympics over, and the Paralympics not yet begun, unsuspecting sports fans in search of an out-of-town awayday might find themselves lured into the Chilterns' ivy-clad vicarages and bay-windowed tea shops, where something terrible awaits them…

Kathy Miller investigates

Ask a bunch of foreign visitors what they like best about this country and the chances are they will say our half-timbered pubs, our thatched cottages and our television. Many will add our detective fiction to their list. Put olde worlde English charm on the tv, throw in a grisly death or three and you can't lose.

It’s a simple enough formula but it’s one that clearly works for Midsomer Murders, now in its 14th series. In fact, this ITV series is so popular that the murders keep happening, right in the sleepiest corners of Buckinghamshire.

Much of the series is filmed in villages and hamlets of the Chilterns and Aylesbury Vale and its worldwide appeal brings thousands of tourists to the area every year, all of them eager to visit the crime scenes investigated by DCI Barnaby, played until recently by John Nettles. Visitors from Belgium alone, which boasts the series’ biggest fan club, come in their coachloads. The Visit Buckinghamshire website, which has already received more than three million hits, cunningly features a Midsomer Murder trail. ‘Niche tourism’ generated by the series has been identified as a key weapon in Aylesbury Vale's tourism policy, with pubs, cafés and hotels all hoping to make a killing from visitors to this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Midsomer Murders on Location has long been the best-selling book at Aylesbury Tourist Information Centre, which now has, along with local bookshops, another to promote: Chris Behan’s Exploring Midsomer: The towns and villages at the murderous heart of England.

The fictional but deadly county of Midsomer was created in 1987 by crime novelist Caroline Graham, and first appeared on our screens a decade later. The opening episode, ‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’, was filmed in Little Missenden, still considered by many to be the series’ spiritual home. The original working title of the series was actually ‘Missenden Murders’, but this was rejected after residents complained that their village would be forever associated with dastardly deeds. They needn’t have worried about negative impact; Midsomer Murders proved an instant success and some 15 years on, the series has been sold to more than 200 countries, although in many it’s known as the more easily pronounceable Barnaby after its hero, DCI Tom Barnaby. When Nettles left the series last year, it was decided that Midsomer’s new detective, played by Neil Dudgeon, would be Tom’s cousin, also conveniently called Barnaby.

Every episode takes about five weeks to make and costs around £1.3million to produce. On a normal ‘set day’, a hundred people may descend on a village, with many hours’ work distilled into just a few minutes on screen. Episodes are classic whodunnits, generally featuring eccentric or sinister characters, and with often incongruously pretty settings.

The picture postcard village of Dinton, which makes several appearances in the series, is home to the man who helped ‘sell’ the area to the producers. Douglas Watkinson, who wrote eight of the early episodes, first suggested his home patch to ITV. “It was on my doorstep, the area hadn't been done before and it was near to London so they didn't have to pay the actors overnight,” he says.

And, fortunately for Mr Watkinson, who now owns a B&B in the village, the continuing popularity is dead good for business. “I could fill my B&B every night with Midsomer fans, who are amazed when they learn that I write for the series. The Aussies, Ukrainians and French can't get enough of it when I let on… but the Germans never believe me,” he adds.

So, long live Midsomer Murders! With so many people visiting the area, the deaths – and the programmes – look set to continue. Of course, HS2 could kill off some of the area’s best scenery, but if the latest clues from Downing Street are to be believed, this project may yet be strangled at birth. Perhaps DCI Barnaby should investigate…

Locations To Spot…

The Crown Hotel in Old Amersham, where Hugh Grant spent the night with Andie MacDowell in the film Four Weddings and A Funeral, also appeared in Midsomer's similarly entitled ‘Four Funerals and A Wedding’. For the same episode, the Red Lion public house in the village of Brill was 'roughed up' for filming and renamed The John Knox.

The celebrated gardens at Chenies Manor proved the ideal host for the Midsomer annual flower and orchid show in the ominously named ‘Orchis Fatalis’ episode.

Chesham High Street was funkily decorated when it stood in for the village of Causton in ‘The Axeman Cometh’, in which Jack 'Axeman' McKinley pursued a group of hippies at Midsomer's rock festival.

In ‘Blood Will Out’, Barnaby visited Beaconsfield to go to a gents' outfitters, but would-be shoppers won’t find suits and ties there today… in reality, it’s a women's dress shop.

In 2008, the Cuddington village fête included a ‘murder weapon hunt’, in which the weapon was a letter opener donated by the Midsomer props department. The store-cum-post office in the village appeared in both ‘Shot At Dawn’ and ‘Death in Disguise’.

Missenden Manor in Great Missenden stood in for a doctor's house in two episodes, and the real-life NatWest premises in the High Street were the setting for an unusual bank robbery in ‘Painted In Blood’.

The 16th century Lions pub in Bledlow became The Queen's Arms in ‘Dead Men's Eleven’ and The Dog and Partridge in ‘King's Crystal’ – one of several examples of how one location or building is filmed from different angles for different episodes.

Long Crendon must be irresistible to the programme makers as it has appeared in some ten episodes to date. The village hall became Midsomer Library in ‘Blood Wedding’, while ‘Dead Letters’ showed off the magnificent 17th century courthouse, now a National Trust property.

Dinton, once home to John Biggs, Charles I's executioner, lent its church for a wedding in 'Who Killed Cock Robin?'. The same episode revealed a body in a well in neighbouring Westlington, although visitors hoping to find the well itself will be disappointed – it was mocked-up by the producer.

When Barnaby took a holiday in France in ‘Death of a Stranger’, he didn’t have far to travel… one of his meals was shot in the restaurant of Waddesdon Manor, the chateau-style residence built by the Rothschild family. In 2003, the Manor itself became a crime statistic when one hundred priceless snuff boxes were stolen – a mystery as yet unsolved by the trusty DCI.

DCI Barnaby and his sidekick, Sergeant Troy, are often found drinking in the Cock and Rabbit pub at The Lee, a pretty and secluded village still partly owned by the Stewart Liberty family, founders of the London store Liberty's. Life mirrored art when John Nettles opened the village fête there in 2003. The camera obscura seen on The Lee Village Green in ‘Death in a Chocolate Box’ is, however, sadly fictional…

Chris Behan’s new book Exploring Midsomer: The towns and villages at the murderous heart of England is available from Chorleywood Bookshop, 4 New Parade, Chorleywood (01923 283 566) and from Aylesbury Tourist Information Centre, The Kings Head Passage, Market Square, Aylesbury (01296 330559)

Chris will be signing copies of the book at Waterstones, Aylesbury, on Saturday 1 September, from 11am till 3pm.

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