Gentle landscapes, quaint villages, stately homes and murder? For a country characterized by its genteel manners, England inspires a lot of killing sprees — of the fictional variety, of course.
The so-called “green and pleasant land” has surely spawned more mystery novelists per capita than any other nation. In addition to dedicated readers, TV viewers on this side of the pond also lap up the excellent English mystery series that come our way.
In recent years, these have included everything from the sometimes tongue-in-cheek Midsomer Murders, to Inspector Morse — and spinoffs Inspector Lewis and Endeavour — edgy newcomer Broadchurch, and the enduring exploits of super-sleuth Hercule Poirot.
In many cases, the visually stunning shooting locations become key to the tale.
Viewers of Midsomer Murders and the Morse-productions know a murder will take place, but they are almost lulled into a false sense of pleasantness by scene after scene of quintessentially English eye-candy.
Detective Inspector Barnaby’s world is rife with thatched-roof cottages and quaint fictional villages with idyllic sounding names — Midsomer Worthy, Midsomer Vertue, Midsomer Mallow and the like. But in a single episode as many as four or even five villagers might meet untimely ends.
In all of the Morse series, murder most foul takes place against one of England’s most elegant backdrops — the university town of Oxford, the so called “city of dreaming spires.”
Broadchurch is set in a sleepy seaside town that becomes the site of a brutal child murder. The crime shakes the small community to its core as dark secrets are revealed each week until the murder is solved.
Key scenes in the first season of Broadchurch were shot against the towering cliffs of West Bay in Bridport.
When I toured Dorset and neighbouring Devon a few weeks back, the popular ITV series had just wrapped filming on Season 2. (An American remake — Gracepoint — has since debuted at home. It features the same crime and the same lead actor, David Tennant, but with Victoria, B.C., standing in for the States.)
While all of these productions have their devotees, most would agree that Poirot — based on 33 Hercule Poirot novels plus many short stories penned by Agatha Christie — is in a class of its own.
Like the Queen of Crime herself, detective Hercule Poirot is a sophisticated world traveller. But more than a few of his complicated cases unfold in and around Torquay — Christie’s home turf in South Devon.
Dubbed the “English Riviera,” for its mild climate and seaside resort towns, the area shows up again and again in Poirot novels and also Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries.
The elderly Jane Marple usually stumbles on crimes in various locales around the English countryside, often while visiting friends.
For the past 25 years, English actor David Suchet has starred in ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The last five mysteries in the series — including Curtain, which details the Belgian detective’s death — have all aired in Britain. In North America, two of the last five episodes have aired on PBS while the last three episodes are available only through streaming service Acorn TV.
Suchet has said he will not reprise the role. And with Season 2 of Broadchurch not set to air before 2015, mystery fans may soon be looking for a fix.
Fortunately in Devon and Dorset there are tours, literary trails and other ways to go into a mystery. Here are a few to try:
– With more than 2-billion copies sold, Agatha Christie is not only the world’s top-selling mystery novelist but also one of the world’s top-selling authors of all time.
Throughout her lifetime, she maintained close ties with her hometown of Torquay, where many of the important chapters of her life unfolded. She and second husband Max Mallowan bought a summer home in the area — Greenway — where they spent holidays with family and friends. Christie called the 96-hectare hideaway on the River Dart, “the loveliest place in the world.”
Christie’s only child, daughter Rosalind Hicks, inherited Greenway and later donated it to the National Trust, which opened the house and woodland gardens to the public.
Room guides at the house are happy to dish up Christie tidbits: Three of her 66 mystery novels are set there — Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal By Innocence. Scenes for the TV version of Dead Man’s Folly were shot at the boathouse. The novelist didn’t like alcohol and preferred a glass of double cream. Christie didn’t write at Greenway, but did read works in progress to family and visitors. The typewriter in the upstairs office belonged to Christie’s husband, a prominent archeologist. The author trained to be a concert pianist but was too shy to play in public.
It’s all very homey with closets full of Christie’s clothes and family photos on every surface. Visitors are welcome to sit outside on the lawn chairs and tinkle the ivories inside on Christie’s grand piano. (Anything but Chopsticks, please.) During my visit, a man wowed the room with an impromptu performance of Claude Debussy’s First Arabesque.
Greenway is open Wednesdays through Sundays from March 8 through Nov. 2, and selected dates at other times.
We took the scenic route from Torquay — a combination of the Dartmouth Steam Railway to Kingswear, riverboat to Dartmouth — where we popped into Rock Fish for take-away fish and chips to eat on the quayside — then the Greenway Ferry to the estate.
– We also hit the Agatha Christie trail with Alex Graeme of Unique Devon Tours.
Graeme tells us “Agatha” was a fun-loving, somewhat mischievous girl who loved the sea and loved to swim. During the tour, we visit several of her favourite coves and beaches, and see vintage photos and postcards.
Graeme also takes us for a stroll along Torquay’s Agatha Christie Mile, where plaques and a statue mark other places she frequented as a young woman, as well as story settings such as The Strand, the Princess Gardens, and the Imperial Hotel.
– For those who prefer meandering on their own, the English Riviera Tourism Co. has a well researched brochure titled The Agatha Christie Literary Trail: Through The English Riviera South Devon. It lists dozens of places significant to the writer and featured in her work.
– Torquay Museum has a permanent Christie gallery. After the final episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was shot, ITV donated the furniture, books, and other set items to the museum. Visitors can now step inside the lounge/study of the fictional and fussy detective’s Art Deco London apartment.
– Mid-September is a busy time in Torquay with the annual International Agatha Christie festival taking place around the author’s birthday. Next year’s lineup has not been announced but organizers say the week-long festival will be bigger than ever as 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth on Sept. 15, 1890.
This year’s events included the Garden Party To Die For, murder mystery teas and dinners, a crime writers’ workshop, and talks by authors, including Geoffrey Wansall, author of Being Poirot — the acclaimed biography of David Suchet — and crime writer Sophie Hannah, who was chosen to write the new Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders.
Many activities take place at 800-year-old Torre Abbey, where the Potent Plants garden features some of the “horticultural nasties” employed by Christie’s villains. (More than half the victims in Christie’s novels are poisoned.)
Natalie Manifold, of Literary Lyme Walking Tours, leads a location tour for Broadchurch fans.
Creator Chris Chibnall is a local who has been quoted as saying the Dorset coastal landscape was always intended to be a character in the whodunnit, Manifold says.
Chibnall wrote some of the series while sitting in the Watch House Cafe, where we enjoy large tasty bowls of mussels, mackerel salad and a view of the beach and cliff where the victim’s body is found.
Manifold says she originally planned to take tour groups on a hike up the steep cliff, but changed her mind after trying it herself on a windy day.
This area is part of England’s Jurassic Coast, a 153-km stretch from East Devon to Dorset valued for its age (185 million years) and wealth of fossils. Described as a “geological walk through time,” it’s England’s first natural World Heritage site.
We walk from the cafe across rocky Chesil Beach (boots recommended) and hike part of the coastal path to the neighbouring town of Eype. The coastal views are amazing as Manifold points out Broadchurch filming sites along the way.
NEED TO KNOW
VisitBritain has a wealth of travel information at its website, visitbritain.com.
– In Torquay, we stayed at the waterfront Grand Hotel. While perhaps not as chic as it might have been in 1914 when Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon night there, rooms are modern, clean and reasonably priced from about $80 for a single to $650 for a two-bedroom suite. See grandtorquay.co.uk.
– In Bridport, we stayed at The Bull, a historic 16th-century coaching inn turned boutique hotel. Some of the Broadchurch cast stayed there while filming, and the hotel is mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s short story Fellow Townsmen. While floors in the ancient building are a bit tilted, rooms are generous, clean and creatively decorated. The restaurant is excellent. Single rates start around $165. See thebullhotel.co.uk.
Article source: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/10/20/civilized-england-a-hotbed-of-dark-deeds