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Murder in an English Village

Midsomer Murders is an ITV drama based around English village life: it pulls in millions of viewers and has been running for over a decade.   The co-creator of the series has just been suspended for saying he deliberately kept ethnic minorities out of the series.  “It wouldn’t be an English village with them”.   Cue outrage from all sides.  The executive is either an out –of-touch-bigot, or his suspension is ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Curiously, much of the furor has focused on the empirical claim that English villages are not generally very multicultural.   But if that’s what’s at stake, then the dispute can be quickly resolved by checking the demographic facts.   English villages are far less racially mixed than urban areas, and no doubt there are many English villages that are entirely, or almost entirely, white.   (On the other hand, if the executive’s aim was to reflect typical English village, then Midsomer Murders should be rewritten without the homicide).

It seems to me there are several considerations that should come into play in these sorts of disputes.

  1. Is there a range of programming across the spectrum that reflects a variety of lives and lifestyles?
  2. Is there a reasonable range of opportunities for actors from all backgrounds?
  3. Might the incongruity of the presence of an actor with a certain ethnicity hinder the drama?  Thus, unless it was making a deliberate dramatic statement to have a white actor playing a typical inhabitant of an Indian village would be silly.

If the answers to 1. and 2. are ‘yes’, we should be relaxed about a show containing only one racial group.   How much an audience is conscious of an actor’s ethnicity will depend on many factors, including conditioning.  Thus, the Royal Shakespeare Company now routinely has black actors, playing roles like Henry VI, and, thankfully, nobody seems to find this at all strange.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Question 3 seems the crucial one to me, and the key issue is what is (or should be) meant by hindering the drama. If there just are no members of ethnic minorities in a typical English village then it might be reasonable to reflect this in the show. Even then, though, there could be at least one episode in which this came up, rather than the whole series being presented as if the absence of ethnic minorities went without saying. It's not as if 99% of the English population is white. I used to live in Wilmslow and (if I recall correctly) the head of the police there once said that "we don't have coloured people here" or words to that effect. He meant that everyone in Wilmslow was white, which was not true. But the reason he said it was that one or more black people had been questioned by police simply for being in Wilmslow while black, the assumption being that they were likely to have criminal reasons for being there. So a seemingly simple statement of fact ("there are no black people in English villages") can in fact express racist attitudes (e.g. "black people do not belong in English villages").

    My fear in this case is that Midsomer Murders is designed to present a sort of platonic Englishness and that ethnic minorities might have been excluded because they "don't really belong" in that kind of fantasy. My concern is not so much that this is fuel for those who don't consider members of minorities to be really English. Rather it is that this kind of exclusion shows that the fantasy itself is tainted.

    The inclusion of black actors in productions of Shakespeare's plays, as you point out, is not thought to hinder the drama. In a realistic historical performance it might, because of the incongruity. But the presence of black actors in a drama set in contemporary England would surely not be so incongruous as to cause that kind of problem.

    Just to be clear: I'm not saying that Midsomer Murders actually is racist. I'm saying that there are grounds for uneasiness about it. Anyone who likes their cozy mysteries all-white is not making a stupid mistake if they do a bit of soul searching over this. What they will find during the search, though, I cannot pretend to know.

  2. Clearly, this is racist towards white people by stating that 100% of the 222 murders that have occurred in the show were committed by whites.


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