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.