6 Ways the British Do It Better

Their TV mysteries are about more than appealing accents.

Posted Jun 16, 2011

Single Handed DVD
Ah, sweet mystery!

Sweet, and not so sweet, mysteries often land in top place on bestseller lists. My reading preferences lie elsewhere, but I watch a lot of them on television. Not so much the home-grown variety, rather British mystery dramas.

We like nothing more than settling into our favorite couch-potato positions with dinner and one of these programs. Far from mindless yet not too intellectually challenging, they're a cool way to get the frisson of foreign travel without having to pack.

Here are 6 reasons why I like British TV mysteries:

  • Guns are a big deal. If someone who shouldn't have a gun is found to have one, people are suprised and take serious actions. Many exciting confrontations between the good and bad guys don't involve shooting at all.
  • Death matters. When someone dies, especially a child, it means something. The police and detectives mourn, sometimes through a whole show. They aren't desensitized to death.
  • Diversity is handled differently. Pakistani and Indian and black actors play roles that have nothing to do with their color or family of origin. Couples form bonds across ethnic and racial lines and it's not a particularly highlighted part of the plot.
  • The scenery is so pretty. You get to enjoy the lush greenery, the variegated stone fences, the grazing sheep around English, Welsh, Irish, or Scottish villages, without having to get lost on a poorly marked country road in a car in which you have to remember to pass oncoming cars to the left.
  • The plots move fast, and the characters don't talk down to the audience. Less clumsy exposition shows a level of intelligence is assumed in the audience.
  • Endings are often speedy. In fact, the bad guy often shoots himself in the head to provide audience closure and tie up loose ends quickly. (Saves court costs too.)

What to Look For and Where to Look

BBC America used to carry a lot of British mysteries, but now you tend to have to catch them on TV where you can, or, even better, watch several episodes in a row on DVDs. Netflix stocks many of them, or you can also order them from Acorn Media, a Washington, D.C.-based company with a focus on, as they say, "the best of British television."

A new DVD set just out this spring from Acorn is Identity, with Keeley Hawes and Aidan Gillen, which may ignite a few paranoid fears about having your identity stolen. Two disks, six episodes, with layers of plot and detailed and realistic scenarios. I'm glad I got to see these before the American remake ABC is developing, because I find such remakes disappointing more often than not.

If you've never caught George Gently, Series 3 is just coming out now on DVD. Set in the mid-60s, it stars Martin Shaw teamed with a quirky young sergeant, with plots and murders that relate to this unsettling period of social change.

You may also enjoy Single-Handed. This unusual series takes place in the west of Ireland, and the darkness of the plots mesh nicely with the brooding setting and the seriousness of Sergeant Jack Driscoll, the local garda who faces down longstanding corruption (including that of his own father who preceded him in that position).

Check out Acorn Media's blog.

Copyright (2011) by Susan K. Perry.