Imagine, if you will, a hi-tech secret bunker underneath ITV headquarters on London’s Chancery Lane. Instead of the broadcaster’s present chief executive, Dame Carolyn McCall, the broadcaster is headed up by Dame Judi Dench, in M mode. Her gaze is fixed upon a video relay coming directly from the enemy ops room. Not Smersh in this case, but something much worse – the BBC.
M’s face is full of foreboding, and her fears are confirmed when a message flashes across the screen: “Coming soon: Line of Duty.”
ITV is facing a ratings wipeout. So who does M call for? No, not Bond. But Barnaby, DCI John Barnaby.
A decade since taking on the lead role, Neil Dudgeon (and the rest of the Midsomer Murders cast) remains at the helm of a ratings machine that ITV has deployed previously to great effect against big FA Cup ties being shown on the BBC and Silent Witness. Now he’s going toe-to-toe with AC-12 – although Dudgeon is not, perhaps, a naturally macho hero.
“I’m quite feminine,” he says, Zooming from the attic of his west London family home. He then immediately qualifies his own statement. “Though it depends what you mean by ‘feminine’, I suppose. It becomes a bit loaded, when we try to say which characteristics we are determining as feminine and which are masculine. So…”
Neither, as you can see, is he naturally decisive. But he does possess a far more elusive quality that he brings to the role that has made him famous: trustworthiness. Compared with other on-screen detectives, DCI Barnaby is unquestionably a good guy, a saint among sinners. Unlike Line of Duty’s coppers, there’s little chance that Barnaby or his sidekick, DS Jamie Winter, played by Nick Hendrix, are corrupt. Aliens would sooner land in Midsomer than the AC-12 team might burst into the station house and demand everyone stopped typing.
In fact, aliens have landed at Midsomer before. In 2016’s The Incident at Cooper Hill, a UFO skimmed over a caravan and crashed into woodland. The episode is among Dudgeon’s favourites and one that most obviously marks the series apart from the many gruesome police procedurals that threaten to swamp our televisions with misery. “Midsomer, hopefully, is a lot more fun than other series,” Dudgeon says, “and possibly more bizarre. That’s what I like, actually – when things are nuts and over the top.”
On British TV, trustworthiness has long been indicated by a Yorkshire accent and Dudgeon retains his own, modulated only slightly by years in London. He was born in what was then industrial Doncaster in 1961 (he turned 60 in January); his dad delivered bread and his mother was a supermarket manager. It has left him flat-vowelled and forever unflappable, happy to meet a crashed UFO with a calm note of sceptical enquiry, or indeed a corpse covered in swarming killer bees (as witnessed in last Sunday’s episode).
This, it turns out, is just what we wanted when we went in search of comfort TV during lockdown. You may have been glued to a 12-part Norwegian thriller set in a port where it’s perpetual winter and a hammer-killer haunts the quayside, but middle England has been hooked on old Midsomers.
You can see the UFO episode (and more than 120 others) on BritBox, where subscribers will find some of Dudgeon’s and his Midsomer predecessor John Nettles’s favourite cases. There’s also a guide to guest stars, from Emily Mortimer to Peter Capaldi and Olivia Colman, a murder map and even – should you be inclined – an option to search by murder method.
There’s a terrible irony about it,” says Dudgeon. “To escape terrible news about terrible deaths, you go to a programme that’s all about terrible deaths.”
Dudgeon has solved nearly 150 terrible deaths, mostly ones that many of us are unlikely to encounter, I venture, aware that he might have lost a friend under a wheel of cheese or an elderly aunt to a killer bee attack in Doncaster. “Oh no,” he agrees. “I’ve always thought our deaths are sort of fantastical. They aren’t the sort of ways that people are generally fretting about dying. But I’ve heard it quite a lot – people have binged. Foreign channels bought two years of Midsomer Murders and, because of lockdown, they’ve shown all of them, binged the whole two years in two months! It’s fantastic and lovely to think people do enjoy the show. I find it comforting and a solace.”
And yet it’s odd to think that locked-down Poles, Italians and Germans have also found solace in Midsomer, a county that is both charmingly bucolic and, on its many bad days, a bloodbath.
“I’ll tell you what is an odd thing,” he counters. “When I went out shopping before lockdown, in my shorts, T-shirt and hat, just walking up the high street, there was a lady, I think she was French, who would sit outside a pavement café and used to shout at me, ‘Oh, it’s you, Barnaby!’
“It was really weird. You’re walking along thinking, ‘What time will I go to football?’ and someone says, ‘You’re Barnaby!’ And you go, ‘Oh, no, I’m not.’ You forget who you are in the eyes of other people. And when you encounter that, it jolts you. It’s quite a dislocated sensation.”
Dudgeon lives with his wife Mary Peate, a BBC radio producer, and their children Greta, 15, and Joe, 17. He’s a long time out of Doncaster, but he still retains a residual inner Yorkshire-ness that makes him sidestep anything that might suggest he suffers from airs, graces or – perish the thought – self-regard.
As Dudgeon sees it, he is the steady hand of Midsomer, and it’s the people that appear around him that are the entertainment – this season’s guest stars include Griff Rhys Jones, Miles Jupp, Siobhan Redmond, Keith Allen and Aneurin Barnard.
Naturally, he uses a Yorkshire cricket allusion to make this point. “I always see myself as the Geoffrey Boycott in the side, not The Flash-ing Blade,” he says. “You get in there and you stay at the crease for days at a time, grinding the innings out, then you bring in Claire Bloom and she whacks the ball out of the ground. I don’t really imagine people switching on Midsomer to watch me. I wouldn’t switch on and watch me. I get enough of me at home.”
And yet we do switch on in our millions. Dudgeon has been in the role for more than a decade and one reason he is so liked, perhaps, is because he reflects back at the menfolk of Middle England an image of how they would like to see themselves: smartly turned out without being flash (he’s wearing a white shirt and black tie for our Zoom in the attic, shaming my old shapeless jumper).
He gets cross about politics, but is not ideological as such; he just has a sense of fairness that, when thwarted, can lead to anger. When we mention nurses’ pay, he says, “Obviously, you look at nurses and say you’ll pay them whatever, twice, five times as much as they’re being paid and trim it off hedge-fund managers.”
He’s fond of a pint and misses the pub badly. “The whole social eco-structure that you pop in and you see people and say hello and chat, I miss doing that. And beer, of course, is a common denominator in all the things I like, too, apart from reading Gabriel García Márquez, which I do without a drink in my hand.”
Dudgeon also misses Saturdays at Craven Cottage cheering on Fulham FC, his nearest team, “and shouting at the millionaires on the pitch”. He even stopped going to matches to keep the Midsomer crew safe. “When we started talking about going back to work in October, just after that a few fans were allowed to football matches, and I got a ticket for the home game against Liverpool – fantastic! Then I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t go.’ If I got COVID and went down with it, even if I was reasonably OK, we’d still have to stop shooting. There’s 80, 100 other people apart from me working on Midsomer, who’d down tools and have to go home and isolate for two weeks as well.
“You know when they say, ‘I’m not wearing a mask to protect me, I’m wearing a mask to protect you.’ It was like that. I’m not going to the football to stop me getting something I could pass on to you. It’s to protect the other fella. That would be a very good lesson for life, if you took that out of this last year: you behave in a way that looks after the other fella, rather than just yourself.”
He is there for his family when they need him. Though, he points out, they don’t always need him. When the first lockdown began, he attempted some home-schooling with the kids but found he lacked several key skills. “I absolutely don’t understand anything they’re doing. So I’d get up and get tea and breakfast, they’d start their schooling and I’d go back to bed for an hour and have a read. Start the day with a bit of intellectual stimulation.”
Was there nothing he could take on with them? “Well, one of them is doing drama and when they mention something and I go, ‘Ah, of course, I know that writer,’ or ‘I was in that,’ and they go, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ So I can’t even help with the drama. I just supply food. I’m just a catering service. I’m not sure how much education I can offer.”
Back in the early days of lockdown last April, Dudgeon told Radio Times he was doing quite a lot of yoga. Was that enough to keep him up to Barnaby levels of fitness? “My daughter wanted to do a bit of running, so I started doing Couch to 5K [the NHS podcast], but I stopped after a week as I started getting huge bruises around my knee. The running had been great, fine, but when I saw this large bruising, I thought, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t meant to happen.’ ”
This did, however, leave him free to perfect his biryani. “It’s quite forgiving, as long as you don’t bugger about with the proportions. If it goes a bit dry, put more water in. If it’s a bit too wet for you, keep reducing it. I recommend it. Give it a go.”
Clearly, he had no crisis of confidence or period of inner turmoil during lockdown. “Not really, but I do wonder about people who were having affairs with people at work – where did they go when suddenly you couldn’t see each other for a year? Maybe it’s saved a lot of marriages. Maybe it’s thrown people back together who’d been having a hard time, then found that, actually, it’s rather lovely being together. Maybe people have found good things we don’t yet know about.”
Actors, he says, were psychologically prepared for the disaster of lockdown. “You can spend weeks, months, years at a time without having anywhere to go and anything to do. You need the sort of personality and psychology that can deal with doing a play for four months and feeling, ‘It’s really intense and completely consumes me. I’m in love with everybody in it and we’re so close and bonded,’ and it ends and then on Monday you sit down and go, ‘Right, what’s on Bargain Hunt today?’ ”
Nonetheless, he was elated last September when filming restarted on the latest series. “It was like getting out of jail. On set, everybody had their mask on and had to keep a distance, it felt really weird, like a post-apocalyptic Midsomer. That feeling must have lasted 10 minutes, then you’re in this scene, ‘So where were you Sunday night? Can anyone confirm that?’ Then you’re off, doing Midsomer again. Though we did have to stop filming.”
Why? “There was a tractor in the next field. Very noisy.”
Midsomer Murders continues tonight on ITV at 8pm. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.