This week there was a fascinating case in the British media. The programme called Midsomer Murders, known around the world as Barnaby or Inspector Barnaby, portrays a typical English village (with a very untypical murder rate!).
I have written about it before. One of the reasons it succeeds is that it occupies very familiar territory: for detective stories about English villages are a well-known genre around the world, made famous from the novels of Agatha Christie and many others.
Thus Midsomer Murders is different from -- but in the same mould as -- Inspector Morse and Poirot and Miss Marple, all widely shown around the world. (Midsomer Murders is actually based on the books of Caroline Graham – no relation).
There was furore last week when its producer – and CEO of its production company – in explaining how he designed this show, said he had cast no black or Asian performers since black or Asian people would be out of place in a typical English village.
In real life Brian True-May is not completely correct. Like everything else, England’s villages are changing. I live in one and we have a black family and one Asian family in a village of about a hundred homes. They participate fully. One family member sits on the village council – or Parish Council as it is called. Another is a doctor.
True-May has been widely criticised and suspended from his job.
So this is the issue. Midsomer Murder is fiction. It’s a story -- it has a high audience among older, more conservative viewers in the UK and its job is to continue to appeal to that audience. In other countries it may appeal to different groups. But it needs to be recognised for what it is, to have a clear and coherent identity, and to be part of a well-established tradition. People like to know what they are getting before they invest their time in watching something…
When a producer is casting a show, he or she will look for ways to clarify and simplify context and location. He or she is using clues to locate the work in the viewer’s minds and to make recognition and navigation easy. It is legitimate to use every trick – a story is an illusion, a simplified frame for fictional events which the viewer will need to track.
Or to put in another way, the villages in Midsomer Murders are stereotypes. Whatever their consequences for social behaviour, in cultural terms, stereotypes are a tool, a way we navigate our lives and make decisions. I have referred before to the work of Boyd and Richerson who have tried to explain why humans have “culture”. They conclude it is because we cannot research every decision: we need a way of making decisions in a way that is not as crude as pure animal instinct, but is “quick and easy”. Copying available models is one way we do that. Stereotypes are another: this looks like a kind of person or place I have met before, so I will treat them as I did then.
Entertainment uses stereotypes – recognizable frames that provide familiarity and easy understanding for people and events that are new to the viewer. Stereotypes are almost by their nature behind the curve of reality.
So, going back to the main issue, the question is: should casting be colour blind? UK urban drama often features black and Asian actors. There is social truth in this, for minority ethnic groups live mainly in cities in the UK.
Midsomer Murders is not a challenging work but it does its job, staying firmly within an established tradition. But even much more “difficult” works like The Wire from the US use stereotypes.
So should social policy determine the casting of a TV series? Many might say, yes, if it contributes to social or racial prejudice. But there is no evidence that Midsomer Murders has contributed to racial prejudice. Nor is there evidence that the producer himself – though he may have been impolitic – is prejudiced. You could say he was just making a professional judgement.
Others might say it would be better with a more typical social mix. The point is: should a producer have been fired for explaining his casting policy which prior to his interview has raised no complaint – except from critics who found it old-fashioned and dull?