Ever since I picked up my first Agatha Christie, I’ve been a fan of British mysteries. After finishing the Christie whodunnits, I moved on to P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ann Cleeves, Anne Perry, Ian Rankin, Michael Dibkin, and more. Not only do I continue to read British authors, I also enjoy the many TV adaptations inspired by their novels that can be streamed on BritBox. So when I was challenged to name my five most favorite BritBox series, I had a hard time. I finally selected six that I haven’t written about for Woman Around Town, listing them below in alphabetical order. (At the end of this story, I provide links to some that I have reviewed recently.)
Have your own favorite BritBox series? Log onto Britbox’s Instagram account to cast your vote. And, by all means, spend some time this month watching those you’ve missed.
Author Colin Dexter created one of the most enigmatic characters in all of mystery land in his detective novels that were made into the 33-episode series starring the talented stage, TV, and screen actor, John Thaw. Morse is a senior CID officer with the Thames Valley Police in Oxford, the location creating a bucolic background for the grisly murders. The son of a taxi driver, Morse often comes off as snobbish because he drives a classic red Jaguar, turns up his nose at any brew that is not real English ale, loves opera, and completes complex crossword puzzles with amazing ease. But his knowledge and skills solving crimes are never in question. His assistant, Sergeant Robert “Robbie” Lewis (Kevin Whately), has a family and is frequently frustrated by Morse’s demands to work overtime on a hot case. Whately will subsequently star in the Morse sequel, Inspector Lewis. Morse uses only his surname, so it’s not until Shaun Evans stars as a young Morse in the prequel that we learn his first name is Endeavor. Top photo: Kevin Whately as Sergeant Robert Lewis and John Thaw as Morse.
Based on the Chief Inspector Barnaby series by Caroline Graham, Midsomer Murders is set in the county town of Causton, a beautiful typical English village where everyone knows everyone else, gossip is rampant, and a stream of killings keep the constabulary very busy. The novels were adapted for TV by the screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, also responsible for the World War II detective series, Foyle’s War. (Another must see.) From the launch in 1997 until 2011, John Nettles starred as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. When Nettles left the series, Neil Dudgeon came on board as DCI John Barnaby, Tom’s younger cousin. The transition worked seamlessly and the series never missed a beat. Besides the two leads, a talented supporting cast, as well as a constant lineup of well known actors, make each episode fascinating to watch. Despite the presence of death, the series is known for its humor and the repartee between the various characters. The main theme, composed by Jim Parker, is distinctive, primarily performed on an unusual electronic musical instrument called the theremin. You’ll find yourself humming the tune long after the credits have run.
Before she was appointed a Dame at Buckingham Palace and played the Queen on the big screen, Helen Mirren won over viewers with her riveting performance as Detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. The series first premiered in 1991, a time when women were battling for recognition and promotion in law enforcement. As played by Mirren, Tennison was smart and tenacious, pushing her team hard, and focusing on finding the evidence she would need so that any charges she brought would hold up in court. Her essentially all male team worked against her as often as they worked for her. While her victories never brought the praise she deserved, any mistake was used to denigrate her accomplishments and tarnish her reputation. Because she was so dedicated to her job, her personal life was often a mess. Similar to the men she worked with, the men she slept with resented her work ethic. They also expected her to drop everything for one of their personal or business dinners. In later episodes, the strain gets to Tennison as she battles alcoholism. Prime Suspect inspired detective series in the U.S., specifically The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick, who won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her performance. Oscar winner Mirren won three consecutive BAFTA Awards for playing Tennison. Prime Suspect is required viewing for all Mirren fans.
Two things you will want to do before and after watching this terrific series based on the Anne Cleeves’ novels. Before, turn on the closed captions so you won’t miss any of the dialogue because of the actors’ strong Scottish accents. After, plan your trip to this picturesque area of Scotland. Douglas Henshall stars as Jimmy Pérez, a detective inspector for the Shetland police. He’s backed up by Detective Sergeant Alison “Tosh” Macintosh (a terrific Alison O’Donnell), and Detective Constable Sandy Wilson (Steven Robertson). Five seasons have been broadcast with two more expected soon. In 2016, Henshall won the BAFTA Scotland award for best actor and the series won for Best TV Drama. Erin Armstrong plays Cassie, the biological daughter of Duncan Hunter (Mark Bonnar), but she is closer to and uses the surname of her stepfather, Pérez. Despite the fact that Pérez married Hunter’s wife after they were divorced, the two men became close friends after her death. Hunter remains the needy one and both Pérez and Cassie see it as part of their job to take care of him. While most of the crimes Henshall and his team investigate are based in Shetland, investigations frequently take them into Glasgow. The writing – both plots and character development – are top notch. You’ll be hooked from the first episode.
While most crime series include medical examiners and forensic experts as part of the teams investigating crimes, Silent Witness places these specialists front and center. Since 1996, 23 seasons have been broadcast. For eight seasons, the talented Amanda Burton starred as Dr. Sam Ryan, who often clashed with those in authority when they tried to influence her findings. After Burton left, an ensemble cast took over with Emilia Fox, David Caves, Liz Carr, and Richard Lintern working in the forensic lab known as the Lyell Centre. All of the characters have backstories and screen time in each episode, but Fox, as Nikki Alexander, who worked as a forensic pathologist in Johannesburg, is the focus of the series. (Pride & Prejudice fans will recognize Fox from her role as Georgiana Darcy, the sister of Mr. Darcy played by Colin Firth. She comes from a storied British acting family, the daughter of Edward Fox and Joanna David, and the cousin of Laurence Fox who stars as DS James Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.) While each episode includes scenes where Nikki and the team perform autopsies, much of the action happens outside the lab, the doctors often risking their lives to catch the killer. The other standout in the cast is Liz Carr, who has been in a wheelchair since the age of seven because of a congenital joint disease. That doesn’t stop her character, Clarissa, from chasing criminals.
Michael Dibdin wrote 11 mysteries featuring the Italian detective Aurelio Zen. Unfortunately, only three films were made before the series was canceled. A BBC executive said there were already enough male crime fighters on TV, according to one report on Wikipedia. Except, none were played with such sexiness and charm as Rufus Sewell brought to the role of Zen. Still, we can enjoy the three films that are available. Sewell’s Zen is a police detective known for his intelligence and his honesty, something in scant supply among those who occupy positions of authority in Italy. (The series is set in Rome, but the cast speaks English.) Zen is divorced and lives with his mother. Zen’s superior, Moscati (Stanley Townsend), often has outbursts when his staff screws up. He is, however, very fond and trusting of Zen. Moscati’s recently hired assistant, Tania Moretti (played by former Bond girl Caterina Murino), is lusted after by members of the all-male squad, but particularly by the very married Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard), who comes from a wealthy and influential family. Tania, however, only has eyes for Zen and they soon engage in a secret affair, difficult because Tania is still married to an abusive man. In the first film, Vendetta, an old crime comes back to haunt Zen. The criminal, who is dying of cancer, has been released and is intent on killing those who sent him to prison, including Zen. Cabal finds Zen going up against a secret organization that is more powerful than the Mafia. And Ranking finds Zen working against the clock to rescue a wealthy industrialist who has been kidnapped. Despite the intense plots, there is much humor in this series, including the ongoing joke about Zen’s name. Whenever he’s asked about it, he replies with a straight face, “It’s Venetian.” Case closed.