John Nettles played Midsomer Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby from 1997, when the series first aired, until 2011, when Tom Barnaby turned in his CID warrant card in favour of his younger cousin, John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon). So how did John Nettles measure up as Midsomer’s leading crime fighter?
Tom Barnaby – unlike many fictional detectives – is happily married. Although his job inevitably intrudes on his plans for family outings with wife Joyce, and often daughter Cully as well, he’s not married to the job. However, sometimes he’s quite glad to be called out to yet another murder, especially if it gets him away from one of Joyce’s infamous attempts at home cooking.
John Nettles plays Barnaby is such a way that the job and family life are kept apart. That’s no mean feat when Joyce and Cully are often involved in the murders, due to their admirable sense of community spirit leading them into some perilous scenarios. And each of his three Detective Sergeants – Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Dan Scott (John Hopkins) and Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) – has found a welcome in the Barnaby home. Nettles as Barnaby gets on well with everyone – even the murderers, whose collars he inevitably feels.
Nettles slips so easily into the role of Barnaby that it’s easy to believe that you’re watching a real detective at work rather than an actor playing a part. In fact, according to John Nettles, in one respect, life imitates art. When filming a scene from an episode where a murder occurs on a golf course, Nettles managed to hit the ball into the camera. Barnaby certainly isn’t a golfer, and neither is John Nettles.
John Nettles describes Barnaby as ‘An island of calm surrounded by death and destruction,’ and that’s exactly how he plays him. Barnaby is not a maverick cop like Inspector Frost, nor is he curmudgeonly like Inspector Morse. He’s a quintessentially English copper, in the quintessentially English countryside, where the body count rivals a war zone. Despite the often unbelievable plots, Nettles plays it for real, and he’s believable. Not many actors could carry it off, but when Nettles is on the screen, belief is suspended for a couple of hours.
In Caroline Graham’s novels – on which the series is based – Tom and Joyce Barnaby have quite a lively sex life, but the television couple are affectionate rather than steamy, and that’s how Nettles thinks it should be. While there’s lots of hanky panky elsewhere in Midsomer – it’s responsible for lots of the 200 murders Nettles has solved as Barnaby – he feels that if Joyce and Tom indulged, the horses might be irrevocably frightened.
Neil Dudgeon is a completely different Barnaby. When his wife Sarah tells him the new bed has been delivered, they head off upstairs to try out the new mattress. There’s a new Barnaby on the block in Midsomer now. John Nettles has made the role of Tom Barnaby his own. Now Neil Dudgeon has a hard act to follow, but on the evidence so far, he can do it.