25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries

Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.
English TV Policemen with authentic accents

I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.

Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!

Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.   


  1. I usually am able to understand them unless it's a Cockney accent. Then I only catch about every third word. One thing I wonder about, when my late husband and I traveled all over Scandinavia everyone who spoke English spoke it with a British accent. Granted their teachers were from the UK,how come they had the accent? Enjoyed your article, David.

  2. A totally delightful thought piece, David. I'm quite fond of British books and television myself. I love the accents though, like yourself and Robin, my family doesn't appreciate when I try to duplicate them. Woe is me, I don't think I'll ever have an accent of any kind regardless of what those folks up north say when I'm up there and deny having an accent.

  3. I exaggerated a little, Jan, when I said that I couldn't understand the Brits in general, though its true of both cockneys and their northerners. Maybe the Scandinavians had English teachers from Britain. Darn Brits get around, don't they?

    Fran, no one here in New Jersey has an accent--I've asked them.

  4. The other thing that's fun is seeing actors in different roles, though I admit I did a double take seeing Inspector Lewis's tough superintendent show up as the giddy Mrs. Bennett recently in Death Comes To Pemberly. One of the stars of The Bletchley Circle was in attendance as Elizabeth Bennett, too.

  5. I don't know if you could consider it a real mystery show or not, but we very much enjoyed "Kingdom." And we enjoyed it for many of the same reasons you listed, though I found it funny that apparently in the UK it took some heat for taking pains to make sure local characters spoke with a particular accent (it's one where they say 'human' as 'hoo-man' instead of 'hew-man", for instance), and the REAL locals who use that dialect said they got it wrong. But there's just so much uniquely quaint subculture stuff going on, in a setting that looks so very much like it's the same as here -- but clearly not. Real people, charming village doings, and even some mysteries to solve -- It's delightful.

  6. Ah, British accents - there are almost as many varieties as there are Southern accents. Actually, what we hear most of on British TV is "BBC/Oxford", a speciality that sounds posh, but not too posh. (Real posh really does sound like the Monty Python Idiot of the Day.) It's mellifluous, yet different. It also helps that they use a much larger vocabulary than most American TV. It gives them the illusion of intelligence and class - so let's hear it for the writers! Huzzah!

  7. Ah! A post close to my heart! Yes, I am a HUGE fan of Brit TV for the very reason you mention, David. Real people who don't examine crime scenes in high heel boots and exposed cleavage. US telly drives me MAD with this obsession for the young and beautiful. They would have us believe that all people in law enforcement (at least all women) are in their 20s or 30s. The ageism is appalling. Tell me a good story, dammit. Yay for the Brits (and the Aussies and the Canadians, to a certain extent.)

  8. Whilst lounging in the withdrawing room, I read this with a huge grin. Capital, David!

    It’s not merely accents around the world, but within the British Isles the range of accents is broad and deep. When I consulted in West Yorkshire and I confided to my colleagues in London that I had to read lips, they confessed they did as well.

    Working overseas, I learned how poorly Americans enunciate. (I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “Enunciate! Enunciate!” For example, we pronounced the word ‘winter’ like ‘winner’, which confuses others and embarrasses me.

    David, I have a friend with hearing damage and he turns on closed-captioning. I find it useful myself. By the way, I highly recommend the British program QI featuring Stephen Fry. It’s very smart and very funny. You can find the broadcasts on-line, dozens of them on YouTube.

  9. Melodie, I just know that I've never examined any crime scene in heels, or exposed cleavage.

    Good points about the accent(s), Eve and Anon. One thing that I forgot to mention is how reasonable these Brits manage to sound. Even when they're wrong, or wicked, the accent makes them sound so darn reasonable! That never works for me. Robin says that's because I'm not actually reasonable.

  10. We, too, use closed captioning when watching these shows on NetFlix. Otherwise, my wife can't understand a word. I, of course, garner all. (Right!)

    What really cracks me up is when the closed captioning folks clearly didn't understand what they heard, which can make for some humorous reading. On one show, for instance, we rolled when a character said, "We were playing cribbage." The caption read: "We were plain ribbing."


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