My Best of British Mysteries

I have been a fan of British TV mysteries for decades and eagerly look forward to new series (most recent example, “Zen”) as well as fresh episodes of old favorites. Lately, I have mulled over which of these series are my favorites and, at the risk of wading into treacherous waters, here is my “top 10” list:

1. Foyle’s War (starring Michael Kitchen). This tops the list in part because of the intriguing premise: District Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle (Kitchen) toils in a small Channel city (Hastings) during World War II and constantly finds himself at odds with the British military, which frequently feels secrecy trumps the quest for justice. Sometimes Foyle prevails, sometimes not. Superb Kitchen is ably supported by cast members Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell.

2. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). Brett made the role his own in more than 40 episodes, all drawn from Conan Doyle stories, and he became the consummate Holmes. It will be interesting to see how the new, contemporary Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbatch fares with audiences. It’s off to a good start.

3. Poirot (David Suchet) Like Brett, Suchet has co-opted the role of the protagonist, making it difficult to see anyone else playing the part. I favored the earlier episodes co-starring Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) over the more recent and somewhat darker versions.

4. Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) Although a spinoff of the “Inspector Morse” series (see below), I prefer this iteration in large part because of better synergy between Whately and his assistant, Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox of the great acting family).

5. Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) Hickson was wonderful and unflappable as Agatha Christie’s busybody small-town spinster, who always was one step ahead of the police. She nailed the role as no one has before or since (see below).

6. Inspector Morse (John Thaw) Thaw and Kevin Whately (Lewis) made a good team in their Oxford series based on Colin Dexter stories, but Thaw too often put down and derided the intrepid Lewis. Thaw’s constant sneering at his partner wore thin in an otherwise well-done series, which had top-notch guest stars including Sir John Gielgud.

7. Midsomer Murders (John Nettles) The granddaddy of British mystery series in terms of number of episodes (81 to date), this is set in fictitious semi-rural Midsomer County. Nettles is top-drawer as Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, but many of the episodes feel they must pile on multiple murders to keep the plot moving. Nettles is leaving the series to be replaced by Neil Dudgeon, who will play his cousin, John.

8. Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) The current Marple, McKenzie is a solid choice, better than Geraldine McEwan, who played the part after Joan Hickson’s death. McKenzie seems to thrive in the role.

9. Maigret (Michael Gambon) My regret is that too few episodes of this series (14) were made. Gambon brought novelist Georges Simenon’s Chief Inspector Jules Maigret to life in these stories, well produced with exteriors in a Budapest made up to be Paris. Jack Galloway as Janvier and Geoffrey Hutchings as Lucas were well cast as Maigret’s police sidekicks.

10. Adam Dalgleish Roy Marsden ably played P. D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgleish in several haunting mini-series drawn from her books. Marsden’s screen presence as a steady, thoughtful police detective was the glue that nicely held these stories together.

No doubt many of you have your own choices, such as Prime Suspect, Jericho, Inspector Lynley, and the two Lord Peter Wimsey series, among others. I’d be interested in your rankings.


7 thoughts on “My Best of British Mysteries

  1. I love all of these (well, have not seen the older Sherlock Holmes, but am totally looking forward to the new episodes of the newer Sherlock). I’d differ in that, though I did love Joan Hickson, I loved Geraldine McEwan even more, and am not a fan of Julia McKenzie. But what about the BBC’s Inspector Alleyn mysteries, with Patrick Malahide as Roderick Alleyn, based on Ngaio Marsh’s excellent books? The ’40s settings and his quiet but commanding approach were great. Wish they’d done more. I was also intrigued by Dalziel & Pascoe, also well acted, even if the Dalziel character was so abrasive. And Ian McShane as Lovejoy was, well, just awesome. I loved the fun, almost campy plots, but the cast of characters as well.

    • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about the various Miss Marples. Your point about the Alleyn mysteries is well taken. Perhaps I should have included them, as I too liked Malahide. His “quiet but commanding” approach, as you describe it, is similar to that of Foyle. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing the Dalziel & Pascoe episides. My bad! Thanks for your comments. Robert Goldsborough

    • I quite agree about Joan Hickson; it’s hard for me to put my finger on her special quality. I would say that she seemed less conventially pretty than both MacEwan and McKenzie and that seemed to underscore her “outsider” status, part of her “invisibility” that permitted her to sleuth unobserved.

      I have grown to love “Sherlock” and its fantastic inventiveness. But I have always loved Morse the most, so much more than any other. This time it’s personal. One of the things I love about Morse is the music – La Traviata in one of the episodes shown today – including the incidental music which is also inventive. I so admire Barrington Pheloung.

  2. My favorite Sherlock Holmes series is the one starring Jeremy Brett! I absolutely love mysteries.
    Death on Deadline was the book that introduced me to Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. I thought the few episodes of Nero Wolfe were brilliant. I also am a huge fan of Touch of Frost!

    • I totally agree re: Brett as Holmes. Masterful. And thank you for your kind words about Death on Deadline. As an old newspaperman, I have always been fondest of that among all of my “children.” Robert Goldsborough

  3. Enjoyed your comments here vis a vis British mysteries, and noticed that you included Miss Marple from the pen of Agatha Christie, but not Poirot; any comment about that? Though I have found that 99% of the time, I have enjoyed the book more than the video production, I found the Jeremy Brett Holmes to be relatively true to the original, and Brett spot on, though it was sad to see the later episodes when he was struggling with cancer. Timothy Hutton’s Nero Wolfe was brilliant and I regret that the series was discontinued after two seasons. I agree with the above comments about “Death on a Deadline,” and am in the process of purchasing the ebook, though I already own the first seven novels in cloth. Eventually, I will have all eight in digital. I thoroughly enjoyed “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe,” and wish that a decent presentation of your volumes could be made like the Timothy Hutton series, but feel that Maury Chaykin was so masterful as Wolfe that it is difficult to envision another actor in that role. Of course, Tim Hutton is too old now to do justice to the kid from Ohio in your book. Thanks for your efforts, as they have given an old man hours of enjoyment.

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