Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Midsomer Vagueness

Mrs H and I recently watched an episode of Midsomer Murders. The TV isn’t a gadget we use much these days. The grandkids use it more than we do, but old habits and so forth.

As you may know, the main character of Midsomer Murders is Chief Inspector Barnaby who is kept busy by endless bizarre murders in a land of chocolate box English villages where almost everyone is middle class, where sharp-eyed old ladies clip their roses on the lookout for scandal or blackmail opportunities and village fetes are absolute death traps.

It’s all terrifically silly, but to my mind that’s not the most interesting aspect. As characters come and go it isn’t always easy to remember who they are and how they fit into the plot. That's the interesting aspect, because it doesn't matter.

Jemima’s body is found floating in the duck pond. Who the hell is Jemima? Damian scowls his way to an untimely death at the hands of a mysterious archer. Was Damian the guy in the sports car? Or was that Brian? Or was Brian Jemima’s fiancé? And who on earth is pouting Penelope?

Fortunately Barnaby knows all, although he seems to rely on inspired guesswork rather than clues. However as the mystery unfolds a completely different type of clue rears its interesting head, a clue to our own behaviour. It soon becomes obvious that the viewer doesn’t need to know who everybody is or their role in the plot. Gerald may or not be Samantha’s old flame and therefore a prime suspect, but knowing it isn’t essential. It isn't all that important to know who Gerald and Samantha are.

I’m sure there are a number of ways to explain the inessential nature of plot details for Midsomer Murders, but the one I favour is the broad picture explanation. 

Bucolic English villages, people being bumped off, old rivalries, tempers bursting out all over the place, thatched cottages, idyllic pubs, no real work, mild hanky panky and an infallible detective who is bound to wrap it all up on time and within budget. That’s the broad picture and broad pictures are all we need in many areas of life.

We humans are good at relying on vague outlines. We are able to apply the faculty of vagueness to a complex murder mystery because the complexity isn’t what entertains us. To know enough and make do with enough is one of our most fundamental characteristics. Watching Midsomer Murders allows one to see it in action.

Jemima’s body may have been floating in the duck pond and Damian may have scowled his way to an untimely death at the hands of a mysterious archer, but knowing who Jemima and Damian are is not essential. Not because the programme is vacuous escapism, which it is, but because a broad picture is almost always enough in most areas of life.


James Higham said...

Exceedingly dangerous place to live near, methinks.

Sackerson said...

It's a showcase for British character actors, and a very fine one too. Makes most American TV actors look like cardboard.

Demetrius said...

You could try reading Dicken's "Barnaby Rudge" instead, although that might be closer to real life these days.

Sam Vega said...

Interesting concept, that "Faculty of vagueness". It might be what we need to filter out all the inessential stuff which distracts us from the basics necessary to our survival. The production of all those little details which we don't bother with is also interesting. Do you think the details do actually tie up in a tight and convincing set of sub-plots, such that the writers are really very clever but largely wasting their time because we can't be bothered? Or do you think they just ladle colour over it for the general effect?

A K Haart said...

James - nobody lives there for long though.

Sackers - and they learn how to use secateurs and ride a bicycle with a basket on the front.

Demetrius - I was never too keen on that one. A few years ago I read it again to find out why but I'm still not sure.

Sam - no I don't think the details tie up at all. They are full of holes, coincidences and all kinds of absurd behaviour.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed. I thought people* only watched it for the occasional jokes and the bizarre deaths, like that lass out of East Enders being bludgeoned to death with large cheese etc.

* Which is my way of saying "I watch it for..." and assuming that other people are like me.

A K Haart said...

Mark - I'm not sure why we watch it. Even if we've seen an episode before we can barely remember what happened.