Racism, He Wrote?: Showrunner’s Ethnocentrism Shakes Up Midsomer Murders

By Arturo R. García

Notice a certain lack of pigmentation in that fan-made trailer? Well, that’s just the way <em>Midsomer Murders</em> showrunner Brian True-May likes it.

“We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them,” True-May told the Radio Times. “It just wouldn’t work. Suddenly we might be in Slough … We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.”

I haven’t watched much of the show, but what I have seen bears a striking similarity to an old American favorite.

Which isn’t to say that True-May and his team ripped off <em>Murder, She Wrote,</em> but there’s a similar formula at work: small-town setting, extra-”juicy” crime scenes, and a detective who is older, and thus more relatable to a particular demographic, a fact he has not denied.

“Maybe I’m not politically correct,” he told the Times. “I’m trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed. And I don’t want to change it.”

He might not have a choice in the near future: True-May has been suspended by All3Media, the show’s production company, and ITV,  the network that has aired the show since it debuted in 1997, has quickly distanced itself from his ethnocentric comments.

As the BBC’s Mark Easton points out, True-May’s idea of the “last bastion of Englishness” calls to mind some foreboding images raised by past studies:

Twenty years ago, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) published a ground-breaking report into attitudes to race in the largely rural South West of England. Keep Them In Birmingham [119KB PDF] took its title from a remark made by a white student on a Plymouth construction course interviewed for the project. The CRE said the findings painted “a disturbing picture of racial prejudice and discrimination directed against ethnic minority residents” in the region.

“What unquestionably exacerbates the problem by reinforcing local prejudice is the presence in the region of large numbers of white migrants from other regions who regard themselves as refugees from multiracialism. In the approving words of a county councillor and college governor: ‘People have come here because they want to get away from the problems caused by the coloureds.’”

In 2003 the Observer newspaper interrogated police records of racist incidents to see where they suggested cultural tensions were most acute. “Race attacks are almost 10 times more likely to happen in rural areas” the paper concluded.

“Northumbria tops the list, but is closely followed by Devon, Cornwall and south Wales, where racial crimes affect 1 in 15 and 1 in 16 of the ethnic minority population. Other race crime hotspots are Norfolk, Avon and Somerset, Durham and Cumbria. Between them, the top 10 worst areas in England and Wales for racist incidents are home to just five per cent of the total ethnic minority population.”

In a column for The Guardian, Hannah Pool recalled an equally uncomfortable reminder of such small-town prejudice less than a month ago:

What True-May seems to be saying is that non-white characters just wouldn’t “fit in”. That some white people think this is not news to black people. In another TV debacle only a couple of weeks ago the locals of the Yorkshire village of Grassington told black Londoners Phillip and Simone the same thing as part of Channel 4′s Love Thy Neighbour series. The only difference being that Phillip and Simone are real people.

When will TV types realise that a non-white character gives you more creative leeway, not less. Race adds an extra dimension to a character. Black characters don’t have to be sitting at the table discussing the Brixton riots every episode, you can still do all the usual incest, blackmail, adulterous stuff but you have whole other world of storylines too. Black characters enhance drama, rather than restrict it.

Or perhaps, given the findings of that CRE study, True-May doesn’t want to bite the hand that’s been feeding him for almost two decades.

 

  • ladyjo

    Of the two POC I can recall in 13 years, one was an Asian man, who vanished into the background by entering a Chinese restaurant… yes Midsomer has Chinese food! He tried to investigate his friend’s murder masquerading as a delivery person. The restaurant owners, knowing the atmosphere in the county knew no one would look twice.

    Indra Ove was also a guest in one episode. Being black, I always think of her as a black actress, but she does have blond hair and blue eyes, so maybe True-May gave her a pass…. They did have to cast a younger girl to play her in flashbacks, so that counts as a 2 for 1!.

  • Anonymous

    From your description, ‘juicy’ crime scenes aside, seems like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is a more likely analogue and inspiration than a US show. In addition, I think it’s pretty terrible that he actually came out and said that. I mean, it’d be regrettable but at least not as outright racist if they had just never really got round to thinking about having ethnic minority actors, but to actually come out and say that having those characters would make things no longer as English.. Gah. Certainly would put me off the show, had I ever been a fan. To realise that this idealised Englishness it depicts is an explicitly, exclusively white one.

    Additionally whilst Britain has relatively low numbers of ethnic minorities outside of the cities, it’s not like it would be at all inaccurate to have at least one ethnic minority family there. And television is hardly supposed to and hardly actually ever has actually accurately reflected the demographics of the world it depicts.

    • http://twitter.com/plumrose93 Miss Browne

      actually you’d be wrong, the south east counties have a diverse ethnic mix, the north and south-west not so much. i and about 200 or more black people live outside of a city

  • Anonymous

    Here’s my question as a Dumb American™: has this show ever had a PoC guest star actor, in all of its 14 years it’s been on? If, in 14 years, this show has never had a regular or reoccuring PoC character, or even a guest star, then, it looks really bad. There IS no excuse for that. The duration of this show makes the accusation very damning.

  • http://twitter.com/plumrose93 Miss Browne

    As a black woman who is also English, i find this very telling. David Cameron our Prime Minister said that all immigrant communities must assimilate and multi-cultralism is dead, yet at the same time ther are those like True-May who would seek to “defend” Englishness from the corruption that is POC.

    People from ethnic minorities are constantly being told to claim their nationality, but at the same time, we are subtly being told that we do not belong.

  • Anonymous

    Less than 10 % of the UK is non-white. And those who are non-white mostly live in major metros like London. So it is reasonable that programs set in rural england, scotland, etc have little to no racial minorities.

    I mean the man appeared to be bigoted, however there is no reason to have token non-white characters.

    • Afrobrit

      Sorry, you point is wrong!! There are people of Colour living in rural communities in England but the White English are obessed with keeping thing White as possible to the exclusion of people of Colour, that is problem here! I don’t believe in tokenism either but it the issue of Englishness and who is suppose to represent it. – that is the problem.

  • ms.gray

    My partner ADORES this show! I am only mildly intrigued by it. The last time I sat down to watch it with him, I said to him “this is one violent village, every week someone gets murdered!” to which he pointed out that Midsomer is actually a county and not a village per say. That just makes it worse! We live in what I affectionately call “Farm Country Holland” and I still see sprinklings of people with my hue, so what a load of crap by True-May and anyone who thinks like him. What he says actually suggests that POC take away from the authenticity of a place rather than contribute to it….give me a bloody break!
    On a side note, my partner is devastated that John Nettles left!

  • Winn

    I haven’t seen Midsomer Murders in the last few years, as it is no longer shown on A & E or BBC America. It used to be one of my favorite British series. It is actually a perfect combination of the police procedural and the village cozy, with resemblances to “Murder She Wrote” being pretty superficial. There are certainly some elements of the television series that recall MSW, but Midsomer Murders is based on a detective series by Caroline Graham, and similarities to MSW are more stylistic than tonal or scripted. I don’t find it suprising that a rural English village like Midsomer is depicted as racially homogenous. I DO have a problem with those villages being described as “the last bastion of Englishness” and with yet another person donning the brave mantle of warrior against political correctness, which is basically just a more polite way of saying, “I’m a racist, and I don’t want to be called out for it, so I’ll cloak my comments in the premise that I’m just brave enough to speak the uncomfortable truth”. I sincerely hope John Nettles, the long-time star of the show who left before this debacle, didn’t share these sentiments, but regardless, Midsomer Murders on DVD just got deleted from my Amazon wish list. My Anglophilia only extends so far.

    • AndreaPlaid

      This right here:

      “…with yet another person donning the brave mantle of warrior against political correctness, which is basically just a more polite way of saying, “I’m a racist, and I don’t want to be called out for it, so I’ll cloak my comments in the premise that I’m just brave enough to speak the uncomfortable truth”

      ::fist pump::

      I may have to borrow that.:-)

      • Winn

        Please. As many witty phrases and pertinent info as I’ve borrowed from you (always with proper attribution, of course), this one’s on me. Have at it! ;-)

  • Sleepytime

    I actually enjoy this show but have always wondered “Damn, you mean to tell me they couldn’t find at least one or two actors of color?” But with this revelation we know exactly why people of color have been missing..they point blank don’t want any. Smfh

  • Wanderinglady123

    “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them,” True-May told the Radio Times.

    This comment is sort of surprising, because my son has seen the British cartoons “Postman Pat” and “Fireman Sam”, which both take place in English villages, and which both manage to show a diverse community.

    But OTOH, these cartoons could be the result of “wishful thinking”…