Beneath an oak-beamed ceiling on a medieval Oxfordshire high street, one of Wallingford’s popular residents is preparing for a busy evening ahead. For fans of ITV’s Midsomer Murders, these 400-year-old shopfronts are downtown Causton, the former beat of John Nettles' DCI Tom Barnaby, and from next week, his cousin John.
Several of the small market town’s residents have played extras in the long-running series. But Mohammed Shah Zillur Rahman, manager of the local Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant, hasn’t. Neither has any of his staff.
Nor those at the nearby Wallingford Tandoori, nor the Turkish kebab shop, the two Chinese restaurants and the Portuguese family who run the chippy.
"We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved," said the drama’s producer and co-creator Brian True-May, in an outburst that has seen him suspended from his role, pending an investigation."It wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work. Suddenly we might be in Slough."Should he find himself looking |for a new job, an Operation Trident officer in his own fictional Midsomer would be a particularly cushy number. There have been 222 murders in the supposedly sleepy county since it came to ITV in 1997, every one of them white-on-white. "We’re the last bastion of Englishness," he said. "I want to keep it that way."
But the facts on the ground belie his vision. For one thing, is the last bastion of Englishness seriously not going to have a curry house?
"More than 100 people are from ethnic groups in Wallingford," said Mr Rahman, a Bangladeshi who came to here in 2006. "It is a nice place to live," he added.
"No-one from around here would say what he said. There should be ethnic groups involved with the show. It’s a popular programme and it should be more representative of society." Complementing its all-white cast would seem to be, in Wallingford at least, an all-white audience.
None of the town’s restauranteurs have seen the show.
"When it is on, we are working," pointed out Abdul Choudhury from the Wallingford Tandoori, a sentiment echoed elsewhere.
The town’s residents and the surrounding villages are proud of their association with the show. All have a tale of when the crews have arrived with their big lights and seem to enjoy accommodating them.
Most respond with disbelief at what Mr True-May said, but they tend to chuckle at the stupidity, rather than recoil at the malice. "He's done a bit of a Ratner, hasn’t he," said the local jewellers.
Some traders have used the Midsomer connection to boost business. The George Hotel offers Midsomer Murders Tours, with packed lunch, for £6.50. The town’s Corn Exchange is home to the Sinodun Players, an amateur dramatic society of which Dame Agatha Christie, who lived here for 40 years, is a former president. It is well-known to Midsomer fans as the Causton Playhouse, at which the Sinodun Players have regularly served as extras. It was here that, in "Death of a Hollow Man", the lead character commits involuntary suicide on stage, now a fitting analogy, perhaps, for the show’s producer.
The Players’ president, 84-year-old Dennis Wood – who has appeared in the show – concedes Mr True-May might, almost, have a point. "There are no ethnic members in the group," he said. "But this isn’t due to segregation. It is a simple matter that less than 5 per cent of people in Wallingford are from an ethnic minority. I can’t recall having any ethnic players, apart from the odd Frenchman."
In the market square, opposite the Corn Exchange, one man says: "You’d have to search pretty hard to find a dark face." Oblivious, sat on the bench behind him is Suzette Williamson, a 34-year-old Trinidadian nurse at the nearby care home (not the same home, mercifully, as featured in the 2000 Midsomer Murders episode "Blue Herrings": the unfortunate residents were dying out faster than the staff could make off with their expensive jewellery).
"Why can’t he deal with change?" she says. "Maybe he’s just a bit old fashioned."
Doctor Who, she points out, once had an all-white cast. Not any more.
"I don’t really know if we get many ethnic minority customers," said Caroline Tyler, from The Old Farm Shop, in the market square.
"Hang on," points out fellow stall holder Jane Bowler. "What about Sam from Heavenly Cakes? Her mum’s from Grenada, isn’t she? You don’t really think – Sam’s just Sam."
Both watch the show and would appear adequately prepared for the seismic shock of a non-Caucasian popping in to shot.
Possibly Jason Hughes, who plays DS Ben Jones, didn’t help matters yesterday with his response to |True-May’s comments, which themselves seemed to stereotype the role a minority actor would play. "I don’t think we would all suddenly go: ‘A black gardener in Midsomer? You can’t have that!’ I think we’d all go: ‘Great, fantastic!’" he said.
The show returns on 23 March, without John Nettles, although viewers shouldn’t expect too many unfamiliar faces.
The rules of Midsomer
The producers operate a strict moral code. Hidden vices provide the opportunity for blackmail and a motive for bumping people off. Simple adultery is too suburban so it must be spiced up with incest and illicit lesbianism. S&M is also practised behind those generous drives. Drug addiction is acceptable, usually practiced by spoilt little rich girls. Midsomer has also fought off an outbreak of witchcraft, sorcery and pagan rituals.
... and what's not
Swearing is clearly not acceptable along with non-S&M sex scenes – that would be weird. Despite the no-ethnic-minorities rule, Midsomer did once show its contempt for a group of New Age travellers.