For more than a century, the British have mastered the art of murder mysteries.
Lately, some of their younger colonies – Canada, Australia , New Zealand – have joined in. And Americans … well, we get to watch them, at a time when they’re really needed.
Bertie Carvel, starring in a new batch of Adam Dalgliesh tales (arriving in November), points to Dalgliesh’s creator: “I think P.D. James said she thought people like murder mysteries because they bring order out of chaos …. That’s something we need right now.”
Lucy Lawless – producing and starring in the current “My Life is Murder” series (which is shown here, with Lawless and Ebony Vagulans – agreed. “It’s giving people a sense of justice. The world’s been so unjust for the last six years and people are hungry for it.”
So the shows prosper. “Midsomer Murders” has been around for 24 years, but now sees foreign sales increasing, said current star Neil Dudgeon. That’s because people stay at home and seek a gentle escape. “You’re (watching) a nice little English countryside, going, ‘Oh, isn’t this lovely? Oh, it’s the vicar. Oh no, the vicar’s been killed. It’s the woman in the green grocer’s.’”
In the U.S., those three shows are on the Acorn streaming service, which programming executive Dan McDermott calls “the premiere site for mystery programming.” Its competition includes:
– PBS’ “Mystery,” at 9 p.m. Sundays. It has the clever, Scottish “Guilt” Sept. 5 and 12. After pausing, it will start the seasons of “Grantchester” (Oct. 3) and, at 10 p.m., “Baptiste” (Oct. 17).
– Ovation, which puts its mysteries at 7 p.m. ET Saturdays. Currently, that’s Agatha Christie’s “Partners in Crime.” Next is a new season of the Canadian “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” starting Oct. 2.
– Britbox, which is owned by the BBC and ITV. It gets most of the new British shows, forcing Acorn to scramble to Canada, New Zealand, Australia … and a new look.
The British classics have been around almost forever. Christie’s first Hercule Poirot tale was published 101 years ago; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes tale was 33 years before that. By nature, many of them have foggy days, stormy nights and creepy mansions.
Acorn’s Aussies resist that. “Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries,” with a cheery crimesolver in the late 1960s, shimmers with Beatles-era fashions and colors. The first season of “My Life is Murder” had the bright fashions of Vagulans (playing Lawless’ sidekick) and the flow of Sydney’s cityscape.
“We do pump up the colors,” Lawless said. “That’s part of our agreement with the audience. They’ll come for something bright and at the end of the hour, they will feel good.”
For the second season (with episodes currently debuting on Mondays), the show moved to her native New Zealand. That required new writers (except the head writer) and new actors – except Vagulans. “We got Ebony over to New Zealand,” Lawless said, “which was no mean feat.”
Switching countries, Lawless has kept the look. “I’ve done a lot of dark stuff in my career and I was a little bit tired of it …. Murder does happen in bright places, too.”
But the British are masters of darkness. “Midsomer” returns Sept. 27 with four movie-length tales … the first one set in an ominous mansion on a dark-and-stormy week.
And yes, that’s a real mansion, Dudgeon said. “Everything’s always on location.” It was available for a discount price, because of a filming slowdown; he calls it “a bit of a COVID bonus.”
The actors seem to share a disdain for action scenes. “I always hated action,” confessed Lawless – who used to be Xena, an action hero. “I don’t watch fantasy, … but I found myself in this crazy genre.”
When he was a young actor, Dudgeon had to do chase scenes. Now, at 60: “I’ve got a sergeant with me. And now I say to him: ‘Look, he’s gone through all the horse manure. Go after him!’”
Creating mysteries, “writers kind of fixate on plots,” said Ed Whitmore, whose second “Manhunt” mini-series (based on real-life cases) arrives this fall. Still, it may be the characters that really matter.
Carvel pointed to a comment by Jimmy McGovern, who created the British “Cracker” series: “Good drama should be narratively simple and emotionally complex.” As the complexities are cracked, a killer is caught and an unjust world suddenly seems right again.