Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Conventions of British TV Mysteries

We like British mysteries in this house – both in literature and tv, although I should write telly when talking about British … um … telly. As much as Sue and I like British mysteries, and we most certainly do, there seem to be guideless that the writers and producers follow when making them. Sometimes, they get tiresome because they are so predictable and even silly. 

The British mystery guidelines of which I write are the ones that I am sure the writers follow and use relentlessly.

1. Almost without fail, every series must leave the friendly shores of home at least once to solve crimes in other countries or even continents. I think it has happened four times in our current series – Silent Witness. Mind you this is over 13 seasons. It is an excellent series, but we groan when we realize that the episode is taking us abroad because those episodes never seem to be as satisfactory to us.

It is true that American series go AWOL too but America is such a huge country that the heroes usually just go to a different state where the culture and language are not totally different. However, the American series, Bones, that we also watched recently, did go to England for one episode. There they took over from the hapless Brits and solved crimes while the local police stood by and watched the Yankee heroes show them how it is done.

Quite a long time ago, there was an episode of Criminal Minds that crossed the border into Canada, supposedly to a location perhaps 10 miles downriver from where we were living at the time. While we knew that area to be farmland, in the program it became backwoods, bushland. Canada: you know – full of forests, eh. At least they didn’t show any moose.

2. In many series, the protagonist becomes under suspicion and must work like the dickens against all odds to exonerate themselves. I don’t love those episodes, but I sigh and watch regardless.

3. There will be frequent foot chases. Americans love car chases, but Brits love foot chases. For example: Inspector Frost, an older man, hotly pursued many perpetrators who foolishly tried to flee. The chase seemed to be the climax of many a Frost episode.

4. Speaking of foot chases, countless times, police going into a house will result in flight and a chase, and they seldom think to cover the back door.

5. When the cops walk up to a suspect on the street, they always call out his name when they are far enough away for the subject to bolt. They never learn to get within grabbing distance before they announce their presence.

6. Guns are not such a staple in British telly, but when they are drawn, it seems to be most often that the criminals will be aiming their weapon at a vulnerable victim while the police are aiming at the suspect. The officer will always meekly put his or her weapon down when they could have just pulled the trigger.

7. When a captive escapes their abductor, the car that they flag down will always belong to the evil person who captured them in the first place.

8. In other situations, the fleeing victim will always run down the centre of the road so that they can either be run over or captured with ease. They must not be permitted to have the presence of mind to dodge or head off into the trees or fields.

9. In a foot chase involving the pursuit by a criminal of a victim, the doomed victim must always always trip and fall. This must occur whether the chase in in the woods or in a house.  Falling on the stairs is particularly favoured.

10. When there is a noise in the house or possibly in the bushes, the unwitting subject must always go to investigate on their own. She, for it is most often is a woman, must not think to step out of the house to call for help. No no. She  must proceed into the unknown letting her presence be known with loud, "Who's there?" calls so the perpetrator can know exactly where she is. 

11. When victims are told to get into a car with the perp and then told to drive somewhere, they always oblige. Apparently, they have never heard of the advice to never go to a second location. Once they are in the car, it is certain that will never bother to deliberately cause the car to crash although accidents are allowed to happen by accident, as it were.

12. Most series will involve gypsies/travellers at least once, preferably adjacent to an amusement park.

13. One episode must involve smuggled immigrants who must work to pay off their debts, and you know the gender of most of whom I speak and  what kind of work they are mostly required to perform.  

14. Although it is not a rule, protagonists are allowed to meet untimely ends. Offhand, I can think of this happening in George Gently, Silent Witness, Waking the Dead, and Cracker. It is not always the main character although it can be, but it can be an important good guy character. You just never know if and when this might occur.

15. The final point is de rigueur but not in a bad way. It is tea. There must be tea, lots of it, and very very sweet tea when a trauma has occurred.

British mysteries are pretty darn good and, in my opinion. for the most part much better than what  we produce over here. But I have watched enough of them that I have become aware of the standard devices. Some of them bother me, especially the foreign adventures. I don't really mind some of the foot chases although they can be overdone. Others such as tea, gypsies, or enforced immigrant labour are not generally a problem, especially the tea.

Oh ... I have thought of one more.

16. A single evildoer will be able to effectively tie-up whomever he has managed to capture. In record time too. They never show us how this feat is managed. The phenomenal dexterity completed within minutes is almost magical. I wish we could see it unfold.

Darn  . . . another habitually used device came to mind but quickly left the premises (of my brain) while I was finishing the previous point. I hate it when that happens. And it happens a lot. Sigh.

Now I have it . . . many minutes later.

18. When the heroic detectives realize that someone is in danger, they will rush to he scene which may be somewhere across London. They never contact the local police. When I say never, they sometimes do, but always, somewhat miraculously, arrive for the climax before the local police arrive.

19. Oh ... and surely this is the last one ... when someone is waiting for help, whether medical or police, it must very often take an interminable amount of time.

20. And . . . one more. When someone is in grave danger and desperately requires help, the phone won't work. Either the battery will die or they will be in a dead spot. How there can be so many dead spots in such a small geographical and populated area as the British Isles is beyond me.

OK. I am done. Even if I have more, unlike John Donne, I am done.


Debby said...

I've often marveled that the protagonists on Midsomer Murders can be knocked unconscious by the baddies but return to full level mental processing with very little down time. That is stunning. (No pun intended).

Patio Postcards said...

Your post made me chuckle. I think you have just about covered most if not all plot lines. The British do murder mysteries so well. We gave up on The Ambassador as it was just so unlikely/believable that an ambassador would be directly involved in solving so many crimes, but yes there was lots of tea. :)

Marcia said...

Our two favorites were Father Brown and Shakespeare and Hathaway. No more episodes seem to be running of those at present. Now we're taping Midsomer Murders to see if we'll like them.

You are right about the standard conventions used. But think of this: the number of murders we watch are way out of proportion to the murder rate.

Vicki Lane said...

Perfect. Having watched many British mysteries, I recognize all of these. And having written mysteries, I understand how some of these happen--take the cell phone that doesn't work. How can you get a protag in trouble and keep them there if they can just call for help? Fortunately, the area where my mysteries are set really does have a lot of no-service areas.

I got tired of devising new problems and situations for my characters after six books--I can't even imagine what it would be like to go on and on and on . . .

Marie Smith said...

Lol.except for the tea, Scandinavian mysteries are about the same. I like them too.

DJan said...

I haven't watched many murder mysteries, but now I'm thinking I should, so I can notice these plot strategies. :-)

Barbara Rogers said...

Oh what a great summation of many of the episodes on TV. I gave up. Am watching some 70s shows because at least I enjoy the fun language (cops were pigs) and dress.

Mara said...

I never got into British crime series for some reason. Although I did catch one or two episodes of Vera and thought they were quite good.
As for tea: tea is important in the UK. Anything can be solved by a good cuppa, so don't bash it too much!

gigi-hawaii said...

I rarely watch TV. David likes to watch Magnum PI. But Hawaii 5-0 is gone. There is a new series coming up called NCIS Hawaii. We don't watch much TV about Britain.

Ed said...

I don't watch crime dramas, probably for many of the 20 reasons listed above.

Anvilcloud said...

@Marcia. You should like Midsommer as it is similar in style -- sort of fun murder -- as the other two you mention. I like Midsommer but prefer the more serious ones like the series we are watching now -- Silent Witness.

Margaret said...

Midsommer Murders is kind of a cozy, although it's amazing that anyone is still alive in that village. I loved Gently and Frost. I enjoyed Foyle's War a lot too. I've watched some of the Morse series, and all of Endeavour, Vera and Shetland. I think I've seen some of Silent Witness too but am not sure. I'm not good with titles. I don't remember some of these plot staples, so I obviously haven't watched enough Brit mysteries. That's surprising because I love them!

Christina said...

Yep, all true and quite possibly based on reality... see further comments :-)

I love British mysteries but not on the telly. On point 19: the emergency services are so overwhelmed (understaffed) that a long wait is normal so unfortunately not just on the telly.... On point 20: mobile phone service coverage astonishingly patchy in our country. Even here in Glasgow, we have blind spots.... On point 6: British police do not carry guns, only very specialised units can so. Knife crime is more common on the streets but I guess that makes less good telly. I guess if faced with gun pointing baddie, this is exactly what I would do, put my own gun down meekly.

I get quite upset when my favourite protagonist meets an unduly early end. I can remember at least two British mystery series where that happened (neither televised).

Have you seen Unforgotten? You might like that. I think it might be on Netflix if you are subscribed to this service.

Can you recommend a good Canadian mystery series? I'd like to expand my reading/viewing

The Furry Gnome said...

We enjoy British mysteries too. My big pet peeve is how they film scenes in the dark!

Joanne Noragon said...

I read all 20, closely. What fun.

William Kendall said...

That sounds quite thorough.

I remember a British spy series, MI 5 or Spooks, which saw most of its main characters die off before it was all said and done.

Rita said...

I absolutely love British mysteries and was chuckling all the way through your list. I must say that your Canadian Murdoch Mysteries is most excellent, though. Love it! :)

MARY G said...

Indeed. Damn you're good. And funny. I suspect you cannot have a foot chase in the Canadian bush because the perp would fall over, wait for it, a moose.

Sorry. couldn't resist.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

Yes, to British mysteries either in print form or series but we also enjoy Murdoch and crew (Canadian) and Brokenwood (New Zealand). Your points were all well taken back in the day, we did watch many of the coos and robbers type shows popular in the U.S. like NYPD, Law and Order and similar ones, all of which were much more violent than most of the English and other ones we now look forward to watching. Thanks for summarizing these points which we can readily see apply to most of these shows.

Jenn Jilks said...

You make excellent points!
What I like about the Brits is the lack of guns. In the US it is the answer to everything.