Tuesday, January 7, 2014

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders - The Early Cases Boxset

Midsomer Murders: The Early Cases Collection DVD 10-Discs (31 hours)
Released by Acorn Media on January 7, 2014. SRP $119.99 (DVD)
Subtitles: English SDH 4:3 & 16:9

I am a huge fan of British television, obviously, but I am also a big advocate to set people straight on what British television is about. I think a lot of people in the US don’t realize or forget that British television is made up of more “real-life” television like Special Branch, Z Cars, or Dixon of Dock Green. Not every British television series about a class struggle set in the 1920s or a man who travels through time and space in a Police Box. It is important to know that good British television is made that is not fantastical. Now that I got that rant out of the way, let’s talk about fantastical British television.
Of course murder is not a fantastical topic. No matter how it is dealt; it is serious and devastating but I have been watching for the past 2 years a series that delights as well as horrifies me. It is Midsomer Murders. Detective series have been around for a long time. We, as a society, are interested in how law-abiding people catch villains. Sometimes it takes place in gritty locations which makes the setting real and unpleasant. Very often in the villages of Midsomer the murders are unreal which is ultimately the charm of this series.

This review looks at a DVD boxset released by Acorn Media looking at the first 4 series of Midsomer Murders. It is a series I had seen advertised on A&E long ago prior to the channel’s Duck Dynasty days but never tuned in. This is the perfect time to start watching and collecting this series with this wonderful boxset of the first 4 series. When I started to review DVDs, I knew this one would be a series I would like watch sooner than later. I instinctively knew it. I am a true testament to the fact that even though we are 16 series into it, one can start anywhere when watching Midsomer Murders. I started with the Series 10 episode Dance with the Dead. By this point Tom Barnaby was paired with Ben Jones. I think it’s simplicity with its main characters is what makes it easy to get into. There are continuing developments in the lives of these characters but they are not overly intrusive. In this boxset I am reviewing, a couple of episodes focus on Tom and his wife Joyce looking to get a new house. It’s not Downton Abbey and that’s why I like it. It’s simple. The complexity lies with the murders.
Of course there are murders which is why this is called Midsomer Murders. Murders are a nasty business which often revolves around greed. Midsomer Murders is deceptively simple because the murders take place in an amazing contrast of some of the most English and wonderful locations in any TV series. It’s all well and good to go on about how US viewers of British television should remember there are more grounded British series that should be remembered but when I look at Midsomer Murders, there is a certain amount of eye candy involved. No, I do not mean Daniel Casey or Laura Howard. We are talking about big manor houses, long never-ending fields of luscious crops or even quaint village churches that you would only find in The Vicar of Dibley. It is beautiful to watch and as much as I know that there are countless locations like this in the UK, I am still amazed that I keep seeing new unique places for these murders to take place.

Just as unique as the locations is the kind of people who are murdered and who are the murderers. If there are seedy people in an episode of Midsomer Murders, chances are they are not the murderers. It is often white collared people or people of wealth and entitlement. They are imaginative and twisted. They kill people in the most horrific way. As the series went on, it wisely increased the number of murders and murderers to bring a new dimension to the episodes.
Another aspect to this series which I love is the melding of certain interests that I hold. Episodes such as Beyond the Grave uses the influence of people’s fear of the paranormal or The Electric Vendetta where it is believed deaths are caused through extra-terrestrial means. Just as enjoyable as that is, sometime the purely British traditions are the focus of murders such as Destroying Angel where there is a focus on Punch and Judy shows or Dead Man’s Eleven that has the game of cricket central to the plot.

It is wonderful to go back to the beginning of this series. I did a full review of the first series set last year that can be found here. As mentioned earlier, watching Series 10 and going back to Series 1, there are only a few noticeable changes such as Barnaby’s original partner Det Sgt Troy. Barnaby’s wife Joyce and his daughter Cully are basically the same as they were when I was watching Series 10, just younger.  Even Dr. Bullard is there though occasionally replaced by Dr. Petersen played by Toby Jones. Though I can’t quite put my finger on it, I feel that the series doesn’t hit it’s completely recognizable stride until Series 3. I am not saying that is good or bad. The series is consistently strong throughout all series but for me, when Series 3 started, it all completely clicked for me.
Although all the episodes held my attention and I really loved watching them, some really stood out for me. I loved episodes like Death’s Shadow as it takes very separate plots and somehow ties it together with the church being central to it. I loved the tradition and deceit in Dead Man’s Eleven. Blue Herrings is one of my favorite episodes. I have never seen a murder mystery take place in an old age home which of course looks like a manor house. What I really enjoyed was the way the episode was lit. Much of it takes place in dark places in the house and everything is only lit through natural light. It is so good.

A look at the future?
Of course one that everyone loves is Judgement Day. When we watch these episodes and are trying to figure out the murderer, it is sometimes that the obvious that trips us up. Episodes like Garden of Death shows us once again the beauty of the British gardens and what someone will do to protect those places and keep the truth away from other people. It is the way the plots deceive us is what keeps me tuning in. There were a few times I guess who the murderer was but what about the other times when there were more than one murderer?
The lead character Tom Barnaby is a fair man. He is a good cop and he is extremely perceptive. He will look at a situation and file items he saw in the back of his mind to use later when he has a better understanding of the situation. With his long suffering wife Joyce, he is active in the community. As good of a husband and father he is, he is on call 24 hours a day. Even when he is off duty to get his new house ready in Blue Herrings, he still involves himself in a case because people are in danger. Sgt Troy is an officer who wants to do well in his job but he is still learning. He has a lot to learn. Troy is also a horrible driver which we see all throughout these episodes. As time goes on, Barnaby has a closer relationship with Troy but it starts off with Barnaby giving Troy a lot of ribbing and sarcastic responses. This never really goes away but over time they seem to spend more time together actually building a strong friendship.

Being a fan of British television, I am always happy to see actors I have seen in other series or films. Some of my favorite guest star roles in this set include: Robert Hardy, Richard Briers, Prunella Scales, James Bolam, Samantha Bond, Phyllis Logan, Terence Rigby, Kevin McNally, John Duttine, Honeysuckle Weeks, and Orlando Bloom. It even has Neil Dudgeon in Garden of Death. He returns later to take over the series from John Nettles, of course as a different character than here. There are also great writers attached to this series such as Anthony Horowitz who wrote for Poirot and created the wonderful Foyle’s War, Peter J Hammond (PJ Hammond) responsible for Sapphire and Steel, and even the creator of the Midsomer Murders novels Caroline Graham write an episode from Series 1.

The set itself is a repackage of the recently released series DVD sets from Acorn Media. It takes the outer box packaging from the earlier cases set but the individual DVDs are housed in the new series covers. This set is 10 discs which is reduction from the original release of this box set which was 19. I am not sure how that worked unless there was one episode from Series 5 on the original set. There are a total of 18 episodes in this set.

The quality of this set is fine. It reflects the age of the series. I know it sounds absurd to say that since the series started in 1997, the quality can still be seen. Telecine technology has come quite away even in this short amount of time. These episodes have the A&E logo at the end of them. These episodes exist in SD. Maybe someday the film can be retransferred to HD and we could get Blu Ray editions. I would love to see some of these locations in HD. The series starts off in 4:3 aspect ratio but move to 16:9 in Series 4.

Making of Feature: This is only 8 minutes long but it is very good. It is a standard making of feature but the real stand out for me is the interview with John Nettles. I have been blabbing on for a while in this review and not be able to quite explain why this series is so unique but Nettles sums it up perfectly. He calls it a comedy drama which I didn’t really think about until he said that. Plus the two words I keep missing out which he say right away: gothic and eccentric. That is perfect. He also says that he doesn’t believe Tom Barnaby is particularly bright but I do disagree with that. Otherwise Nettles and I are on the same page!
Midsomer Map: On the DVDs there are maps of the villages of Midsomer which are kind of fun to look at and see where everything is located.

John Nettles on Midsomer Murders Essay: Perhaps one of the hidden treasures which I almost accidentally threw away is a little leaflet that is a short word from Midsomer Murders Star John Nettles. His honest and straightforward way of describing the series is fun. He has an obvious humility to him which is refreshing. I really think he is a terrific actor and a wonderful ambassador for the series. Well worth a read.
Disc breakdown:

Disc 1: The Killing’s at Badger’s Drift, Written in Blood
Disc 2: Death of a Hollow Man, Faithful Unto Death
Disc 3: Death in Disguise

Disc 4: Death’s Shadow, Strangler’s Wood
Disc 5: Dead Man’s Eleven, Blood Will Out

Disc 6: Death of a Stranger, Blue Herrings
Disc 7: Judgement Day, Beyond the Grave

Disc 8: Garden of Death, Destroying Angel
Disc 9: The Electric Vendetta, Who Killed Cock Robin?

Disc 10: Dark Autumn
I seem to say this with every review I write for Midsomer Murders but I love this series. Having all of these episodes together in one compact box is great. I love watching these episodes over and over again. There are too many to always remember the murderer but I also love watching them to take in the wonderful locations. I can hardly wait for Series 5 onwards! Well worth the investment!

Next week: I visit some old friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I watch an episode of the “final” trilogy of Only Fools and Horses called Modern Men. It has been so long since I have sat down to watch and episode of this series it really was like seeing old friends again. It was a joyous experience.
Have a great week!

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