Why is every British crime show set in a cosy village?

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The British countryside. It’s all rolling hills, quaint little villages, crocheted teapots and friendly locals, right?

Wrong. Here are some stats that will shock and appal you. 80 per cent of all violent murders occur in towns with fewer than 5000 people. Children are six times more likely to be abducted when they live in villages, hamlets and cosy burgs. If you marry a well-liked rural landowner, there is a 1-in-3 chance that they are, in fact, an active sex offender and/or member of a Satanic cult.

Think moving to the country sounds pleasant? You haven’t seen a British crime drama.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

At least this is what I have been able to deduce after a week spent trawling through the crime drama section of subscription service Britbox. From Shetland, a show about murders on the Shetland Islands, to Grantchester, where a handsome vicar solves brutal crimes in a village whose population could fit onto a peak hour train, there’s just something about these tidy towns and cheery sheep farmers that makes you absolutely convinced they’re keeping a bunch of corpses in a deli fridge under the stairs.

Yet we cannot get enough. Ever since Midsomer Murders started supercharging the regional body count a full 23 seasons ago, small-town crime procedural has become one of the UK’s premier exports. These days you could probably walk into the ITV studios with a photo of a clifftop village and a bucket of blood and walk out with millions for a six-episode season.

Although of course, these shows are about more than the seedy underbelly of Country Living magazine. They’re also about the hardworking yet emotionally brutalised cop who has left the city to try and escape the memory of their murdered wife/dead child/drug-addicted sister who committed suicide. “Ah, remotest Yorkshire, what better place to process my unfathomable grie– and here comes a serial killer using my deepest secrets against me in a high stakes game of cat and mouse. And I’m married to him? Goody.”

Look, no one is denying that Olivia Colman was excellent as the small-town detective about to find out her husband was the perv/child killer in Broadchurch. Sarah Lancashire deserves every plaudit she’s received for her role in Happy Valley as a West Yorkshire police sergeant solving murders while coming to terms with the suicide of her daughter. And you simply have to admire Brenda Blethyn’s ability to play a grizzled but lonely Northumbrian chief inspector who has been on the verge of retirement for 12 full seasons of Vera (with another on the way).

Midsomer Murders really supercharged the villages.

But after you sit through yet another show set in a cosy village with a dark secret, a tormented detective and the kind of fatality rate not seen outside an active battlefield, you do begin to wonder if something bigger might be at play.

Obviously, Britain isn’t alone here. Judging by recent output, Nebraska’s murder rate appears to be significantly higher than New York’s and the most deadly creature in the Australian outback is definitely the loner living on that rundown farm over there. Even New Zealand got Top of the Lake to prove that just because you live in the woods of Middle Earth doesn’t mean you can’t serve up an engrossing cocktail of drugs, teen pregnancy, fratricide and gruesome sexual assault.

But the outback is a forbidding place. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could well die. Small-town America has more guns than people; if anything, the real surprise is that the murder rate isn’t even higher. And New Zealand has a certain edge-of-the-known-world mystique to it. You can imagine dark and wild things happening in the forest.

Rural Britain, on the other hand, had been imprinted into our collective subconscious as “cosy”, a place where (as per The Vicar of Dibley) eccentric but well-meaning folk live in a state of harmony with nature, entirely immune to the happenings of the outside world, unless they’re voting to secede from the European Union. So, why are they now so hellbent on killing each other?

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch.

I suspect there’s an element of cultural guilt at work here. Over the past half century we abandoned the countryside for better, more exciting lives in the city. But now we’re looking around at these concrete-rimmed lives of precarity and hustle and wondering if we (or our parents and grandparents) made the right decision.

These shows assuage that guilt by puncturing any prelapsarian fantasies we may have about moving somewhere green, buying a good pair of wellies and growing turnips in our spare time. Sure it starts with toad-in-the-hole and craft fairs and roaring wood fires, but next thing you know you’re embroiled in a county-wide manhunt for the local vicar who’s been killing sex workers in his spare time. Not again!

To be honest, I’m yet to be convinced that this isn’t all a concerted propaganda campaign from the London mayoral office, designed to distract people from the city’s crumbling infrastructure, soaring rents and slow transformation into a wholly owned subsidiary of the House of Saud. “You reckon this is bad? Out in Dulwich-on-Stoke it’s compulsory for every voting adult to join a human sacrifice cult. Also, the coffee is terrible.”

But maybe the truth is simpler than all that. Maybe we’re just scared that it’s a little too nice out there in the countryside and if we let ourselves enjoy it for the sheer pleasure of wildflower blooms and welcoming pubs and star-filled skies, we’ll feel compelled to change our lives in some meaningful fashion and that seems like a lot of work.

Yeah, no, you’re right. They’re probably all murderers.

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