16 March 2011


so, midsomer murders is not racist (and homophobic) by default or by accident. it's racist (and homophobic) by design. click for article.

Brian True-May, the producer and co-creator of ITV1 drama series Midsomer Murders, has been suspended by production company All3Media following controversial comments made about the show in the latest issue of Radio Times.

True-May told RT, "We don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. Suddenly we might be in Slough… And if you went in to Slough you wouldn't see a white face there. We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way."

this is depressing, but also unsurprising to me as someone who has watched almost every episode of the show. most of the people i know who watch midsomer murders have commented on the overwhelming whiteness of it . i mean, i can remember maybe two people of colour (both women) in the whole thing? a writer in a competition who didn't have a speaking part, and a barrister/QC who did a great job but was "wrong" about the defendant. and as for queers - he compared it to incest and blackmail, but i note is not mentioned in the linked article - i am also unsurprised. i've often been amused by how many gays there are in the villages of midsomer - even though most of them end up dead/charged with murder.

i'm posting this here because i think it's a great demonstration of how "the countryside" in england is actively constructed as a white (straight) space. i've noted this before with regard to walking, and it's something that continues to frustrate/intrigue me (i guess that the intrigue might be more a sign of privilege, though, since i'm not having to contend with racism on a personal level when i go out walking). the construction of the countryside in this fashion is not only material in terms of who has the time, energy, money, transport, family inheritance to get there and/or live there - it is also a product of popular culture and representation. if you don't see PoC/BME people in the english countryside in films, on TV, in books, in travel writing, then that is a space that's being constructed as white, unwelcoming, a space that such people are not meant to occupy, and this is so for white and PoC/BME viewers and readers.

often when such things are pointed out, people (often the privileged ones - white if we're talking about issues of race and ethnicity, straight if we're talking about issues of sexuality, male if we're discussing sexism, cis if we're discussing trans stuff) will claim that this is just "a reflection of reality" - that "those sort of people" simply aren't there, that's why they're not represented. and that's why this story is so interesting and important - it demonstrates absolutely that this is not just a reflection of reality, but rather a deliberate construction.
"I'm trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed," said True-May. "And I don't want to change it."

it's a fantasy that has very real effects. consistently portraying "the countryside" as a white space (or as a straight space) means that non-white (non-straight) viewers/readers have fewer options for relating to that space, are less able to envisage themselves as being welcome in that space, and are maybe less likely to actually go out into that space. in this way, i think true-may's claim that midsomer is "the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way" is not just about a nostalgic (?) attempt to (re)write the countryside as white-on-screen (straight-on-screen), it's about actually trying to keep non-white (non-straight) people out of the countryside.

i also want to note that the producers of midsomer murders have obviously been pursuing this racist/homophobic agenda for the entire length of the series, but true-may wasn't suspended until he made it explicit. it's an interesting situation. him making that agenda public doesn't change the 'actual' content of the series up to now (though it does change people's readings of that content, which probably amounts to the same thing). so why didn't ITV do something about it before? the racism (and homophobia) of midsomer murders is so very, very clear without true-may's comments. that it takes an interview like this for anything to be done about it is indicative of how acceptable racism actually is - so long as it's passive (they're just not there, rather than being evil), unspoken (nobody mentions it onscreen), weasel-out-of-able (it's a reflection of reality). [ETA: i guess what i'm trying to say here is that, before true-may's comments, it was probably pretty easy for a lot of (white) people to think the whiteness of midsomer murders was accidental or incidental. but that kind of "accident" can only happen and/or go unremarked or unrebuked in a racist society.]

i've typed this all up before breakfast, and i'm quite hungry so i'll leave it there.
do you have any thoughts on the matter?

ETA: charlie brooker has something to say.


  1. I had a quick look through some of the comments on that Radio Times article, and they were nearly all "OMG! Political correctness GONE MAD!!!" So I stopped reading them.

    Why are people so fail?

  2. It's an interesting topic, and one that's not limited to Midsomer Murders. The Archers have also been there. Our broadcasters have no idea how to portray non-white people in rural areas.

    You're right, the truth is that there are few non-white people in the British contryside. I don't think that's by design because I don't think the countryside is a hotbed of racism, and despite appearances nor is it the exclusive preserve of a rich white elite. Give it time.

    The Archers got it wrong when they had an Indian character who experienced a racist attack when she moved into a quiet English village. It was such a ham-fisted plot-line to anyone who grew up in a quiet English village that it attracted huge criticism at the time for simply not being realistic. An inner-city story just didn't work when set in the 'shires.

    In my view MM hasn't got it as wrong as it is being portrayed because it is very plainly a barely-watchable fantasy of a 1950s village set in the present day and bears no relationship to real life. What was wrong was the idiot producer for not making that abundantly clear.

    I suppose we have something to be thankful for, they didn't do a Coronation Street and make their first black character in thirty years a criminal.

  3. dB, DON'T READ THE COMMENTS! FIRST RULE OF INTERNETTING! (I haven't read the comment thread, so can't comment on the comments!)

    Jenny, I have to disagree with some of your statements. Midsomer Murders is obviously racist in its continual exclusion of any characters of colour - and that is true whether or not the producer says anything about it, whether or not somebody thinks it's a reflection of reality (and I say this as someone who has watched almost every single episode of the show!).

    Also, there is a huge population of non-white people in England, so why are there so few (and so few portrayals) in rural areas? It is kind of obvious to me that there is some serious structural racism (as well as other issues) at play - whether or not towns are 'hotbeds of racism'. Racism is still racism if it's someone saying "And where are you from? No, really?!" - it doesn't have to be racially motivated bashings or people yelling obscenities out the car window!

    I do think you're right in that MM is a fantasy. I mean, I watch it because I know what to expect - even though the queer characters are almost inevitably evil/dead/both. However, it being a fantasy doesn't make it any less problematic. Who are they selling the fantasy to? Who's buying into it? Why is such a whitewashed, racist fantasy so popular?

  4. Ooh, you won't coax a defence of MM out of me! If I was BBC DG I'd have canned it years ago. But I stand by what I said about it. I never said it wasn't racist but just as it's not an accurate portrayal of the English countryside neither would it be if it has given a rainbow cast.

    I'd like to draw your attention to the phrase in my previous comment: "give it time". These things do not happen overnight. We have a very long history of non-white people in the UK, I should know, it took the descendants of my black Jamaican ancestor 200 years ago four generations to get out of the city they settled in. We've only had large scale immigration in the last few decades, so like I said, give it time.

    I'm not sure I completely recognise 2011 in your assesment of the UK countryside. 1971 maybe, or 1981, but it would be nice to think we're moving on. I'd like to say you were dead wrong on that, but thinking on it since this morning I could write pages on the treatment of the traveller (gypsy) community. Being racist to them it seems is acceptable because they are white. See Daily Mail and Daily Express covers passim. But that's another battle.

  5. yeah, it would be nice to think that... and i hope things are changing, too. but the fact that MM can exist with such an obvious undercurrent of racism and not have anything done about it until someone involved makes a comment like this makes it really seem like things are mostly moving sideways (like you mention). most people in 'polite society' don't go mouthing off about this stuff, but it's still there, it's still easy for (many white) people to ignore how racist a show like this is. it's pretty symptomatic of widespread, unacknowledged (white) privilege, yeah? it's just ... a very interesting example of it, i think!

    obviously i'm no expert on rural english areas! it's just that my experience of them has often (not always) been overwhelmingly white - and straight, to bring that back into the mix - in a way that makes me ... uneasy. i really do think that pop/cultural texts play a part in constructing certain places and spaces as being "for [X] people" and "not for [Y] people", which is probably why i find this example with MM so compelling.

    i'm a bit tired, so probably not making much sense. sorry.

  6. Let me introduce you to Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones. A bloke who seized the bull by the horns, so to speak.

  7. yes, i've read about him before! :)