A candidate to become the 252nd fatality in the fictional county of Midsomer's 15-year life span emerged yesterday, although whether by unwitting suicide or capital punishment is debatable. Brian True-May hasn't been hanged yet, but the co-creator and executive producer of ITV's Midsomer Murders has been suspended by his production company, pending one of those top-level internal inquiries beloved of media outlets, over remarks concerning the ethnic make-up of his series.
Mr True-May is on no account to be confused with Brian False-May, the former Queen guitarist, though a glance at a snap of him leaves little room for error. Devoid of a corkscrew perm, and without the shadow of Anita Dobson on his arm, Mr True-May has one of those borderline comb-overs which, in conjunction with a brass-buttoned blazer, bespeaks a buffer who enjoys philosophising from the snug bar stool with a large G&T, or a pewter tankard of foaming ale, in his hand. It may be pushing the Victorian pseudo-science of physiognomy too far, but I can't look at that face without hearing the rustle of a string-backed driving glove and the drawly timbre of the golfing sage Peter Alliss.
This is not to suggest that Mr True-May, any more than the portly Plato of the putting green, is a racist. That accusation depends not on his looks but the words, as confided to the Radio Times, which have "shocked and appalled" ITV management. Referring to the enduring global popularity of Midsomer Murders, Mr True-May sourced it, in part at least, to an "English genteel eccentricity" that would be compromised by the presence in rural villages of dark-skinned people. "We just don't have ethnic minorities involved," he explained. "Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. Suddenly we might be in Slough."
Now there will be those, on reading this, who dip into Betjeman to mutter "Come friendly bombs and drop on True-May/ He isn't fit for telly today." And there is something undeniably smug and tiresome in the tone when he adds: "We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way." Bubbling tacitly away beneath the words is that perplexing phrase "PC brigade" (why never squadron or battalion?), and a fondness for that imagined Fifties paradise when bucolic life was all Pop Larkin perfick, and urban existence revolved around the Krays helping old ladies cross the road whenever they weren't knifing people for looking at them funny.
Yet also buried beneath the complacent nostalgism lies the inconvenient truth that he is correct. You are more likely to come across a sex club in an English rural village than an Afro-Caribbean or Asian face. I speak on this with unwonted authority. In the tiny Dorset village where we rent a weekend cottage, we have had a swingers' club (the sadly defunct Cleopatra's) but never a non-Caucasian fizzog.
Whenever I make the drive from west London, it strikes me afresh as a journey as much through time as through space. Here in the crack- dealing tourist centre of Shepherds Bush, early 21st-century multiculturalism seems to work beautifully, whatever David Cameron, a huge Midsomer fan, may think to the contrary. If our road tends towards the lively, that is thanks to the generally white occupants of the two bail hostels opposite. Within 20 doors either side of us are Somalis, Poles, Croats, Bengalis, Lebanese, Jamaicans and doubtless another 20 nationalities. You can walk a mile along the Uxbridge road, that corner of a native land that will forever be Damascus, without seeing an indigenous white face (apart from the bail hostel boys and girls, out and about and up to no good), which is one of the area's few charms. In 14 years we've not come across a scintilla of racial tension.
As the M3 gives way to the A303, and you crawl past Stonehenge, the car becomes a Tardis and the decades roll away. In our village, somewhere between Yeovil and Dorchester, in ethnic terms it clearly is the 1950s. In three years, the darkest face I've encountered is my own shtetl-swarthy Ukrainain Jewish one. In the early days I was a little fearful, what with the roof being thatched, and brought perhaps more fire extinguishers than were strictly demanded. There hasn't been a single pogrom yet.
If a black or Asian family moved in, I imagine they would receive nothing but the welcoming warmth shown to us, albeit possibly tinged with rather more curiosity. About ten years ago, in a village shop in west Devon, my wife overheard a chat in the village shop between two elderly ladies who had heard on the grapevine that a black person had been sighted 25 miles away. It wasn't remotely nasty. The old girls were simply fascinated, as they would have been by reports of a cheetah loose in Plymouth, by the exoticism of it all.
The fact is that between town and country, there is a colossal disconnection. As anyone who flits between them cannot fail to appreciate, there are two Englands, unbridged by suburbia and divided by a common language. Painting Mr True-May as a fictional ethnic cleanser because he portrays the villages of Berkshire, or Midsomer, as all white is no more than those who love to hunt out offence where none is meant indulging their hobby.
His choice of words was sloppy, and he might have had the wit to refer to "a version of Englishness" rather than Englishness itself. At worst he seems the Carol Thatcher (dim rather than malevolent) of executive production rather than its pre-repentance Jim Davidson. Yet however absurd the phrase seems in the context of a show about sleepy hamlets with a murder rate 29 times higher than Johannesburg's, gritty realism is what he's on about. Implant an ethnic minority family into one of his villages, and the condescending tokenism would be ridiculous, and far more offensive than his ill-expressed witterings.
The sensitive plants at ITV who are "shocked and appalled" – petrified of a row, in other words, because they don't grasp nuance well enough to distinguish rose tinted naivete from a shire version of apartheid – may not agree. Sentence of death will duly be passed, you suspect, while at this very moment some network genius will be sounding out potential replacements about repairing the imaginary damage to the brand by treating Midsomer to its first madrassa.