It may look like a sleepy rural idyll, but there are few places on Earth more lethal than the county of Midsomer. Over the past 18 years, this benighted corner of England has witnessed no fewer than 246 murders (plus 12 accidental deaths and 11 suicides), many of them executed in the most extravagantly baroque manner imaginable. Victims have drowned in tomato soup, been flattened in a printing press and stabbed through the heart by King Neptune’s trident, while several villagers suffered death by poisonous frog. That’s to say nothing of the poor souls dispatched via hammer, hemlock, hatpin and toxic fungus – and who could possibly forget Martine McCutcheon being crushed by a giant cheese?
‘It’s brilliant, isn’t it?’ beams Neil Dudgeon, Midsomer Murders’ chief investigating officer since 2011. ‘Such a rich variety of strange and unlikely deaths, all happening in one county over six weeks.’
The 18th series of the enduringly popular drama, which is currently airing on ITV, promises to add to the Midsomer madness with stories about ‘bodysnatching, competitive cycling and UFOs’. Just another day at the office, then, for DCI John Barnaby (Dudgeon) and DS Charlie Nelson (Gwilym Lee), plus their new colleague, pathologist Dr Kam Karimore, played by Manjinder Kirk.
The show’s great strength is that it never fully reveals its hand as to how much of a pastiche it’s designed to be. Would Dudgeon go so far as to call it a spoof?
‘No, I think you have to play it completely straight,’ says the 54-year-old when Weekend meets him at ITV’s head office. ‘I think of it as a rural mystery drama. If the murders are a bit out of the ordinary, some of the characters a bit larger than life and some of the settings a bit rococo, then it has to be rooted in a human truth and reality. Otherwise it starts to look a bit smug and self-referential, and the audience will start to think, “you’re enjoying this a lot more than I am”.
But with the show broadcast in more than 220 countries, it’s fair to assume not all viewers will be in on the joke. ‘Yes, I think in North Korea they view it as a documentary about the terrible decadence of Western capitalism,’ laughs Dudgeon.
The Doncaster-born actor once declared his job on Midsomer Murders was to play it straight, while an A-Z of British acting royalty ‘marches through, chewing up the scenery’. ‘I’m a bit like Geoffrey Boycott,’ he explains. ‘You go in at number one and stay there for days, doing this,’ – he mimes his fellow Yorkshireman’s famously solid, defensive batting style – ‘and then you bring in someone like Diana Quick at number two to slam it over the boundary.’
Dudgeon first appeared in Midsomer Murders in 2000, playing a randy gardener. When the show’s original star, John Nettles, decided to turn in his badge after 13 series as DCI Tom Barnaby, the producers approached him with a view to him taking over as Tom’s cousin (the familial continuity is important, as in many territories the show is called Inspector Barnaby).
Did he feel under pressure, taking over such a successful, long-running series? ‘A bit,’ he says. ‘But I thought I could do it. I’d always loved the show, so it was an honour and a thrill, really.’
Was there a formal handover, Barnaby to Barnaby? ‘No, John’s far too humble and nice a man to ever offer anything like that. No actors that you would like would claim to know how you should do something.
‘Of course,’ he adds, ‘turning up the first morning, it felt a bit like the first day at a new school. I was aware people who had been working with John for 10 years would be wanting to have a look at me. But then you’re doing a show that’s watched by 10 million people, so you’ve got to be okay with people having a look at you.’
Dudgeon’s first taste of life in the spotlight was being made to read aloud during a school carol concert. It was supposed to be a punishment for shooting his mouth off (he was a ‘gobby kid’, he says) but he discovered he loved the attention, and went on to study drama at Bristol University.
‘Acting is not the sort of thing you choose to pursue as a career if you don’t want to get up in front of a lot of people and say, “well, look at me”,’ he concedes. ‘But then there comes a point in your life where you think, actually I don’t want the attention, I don’t want to be noticed, so maybe by then you’re doing it for different reasons.’
And that’s the exact point someone offers you your own TV show? ‘Yes, now everyone’s looking at me and I don’t want them to,’ he says in mock protest. ‘It’s that Tom Cruise thing: “Don’t look Tom in the eye, he doesn’t like being looked at!” Well don’t become an international film star then!’
With five series and 30 episodes of Midsomer Murders under his belt, Dudgeon exudes the same quiet confidence and relaxed, easy charm as Barnaby, albeit with a more wicked sense of humour. Though he took a slow and steady, Boycott-ish route to leading man status, he’s been a regular face on television since the mid-80s, with a particular emphasis on police procedurals such as Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, Between the Lines and four series of Messiah. Was it useful training, in retrospect, being able to observe the likes of John Thaw, David Jason and Ken Stott up close?
‘It’s quite an apprenticeship, isn’t it?’ he muses. ‘I have seen some pretty good people being policemen – including John Nettles himself, of course. You do sort of absorb it.’
Dudgeon rarely takes other jobs between series of Midsomer, preferring to spend time with his wife Mary, a radio producer, and children Joseph, 12, and Greta, 10.
‘We’ve just finished eight months of filming, which is a long time, and it’s early mornings, late nights, a lot of scripts to learn,’ he explains. ‘So I like to spend time at home when I can, baking cookies for the kids, picking them up from school, doing their tea, doing all those lovely things, which are very important.
‘But it’s not a hard and fast rule. Obviously if someone came along with a marvellous part, I’d say, “Kids, get your own tea. Get a paper round and buy some cookies – I’m off filming in Australia for six months!”’
And what’s the betting someone would suffer a violent death-by-kangaroo within five minutes of him arriving?
Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 14, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend