Doncaster’s Neil Dudgeon on playing DCI John Barnaby on Midsomer Murders
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
He’s moved from Doncaster to the middle-class murder capital of the world, but actor Neil Dudgeon isn’t complaining
He started out a Second World War pilot, swapped his plane for a car as Dame Diana Rigg’s chauffeur, stayed behind the wheel as a taxi driver taking Bridget Jones to meet Mark Darcy, became a bombastic self-made millionaire and, latterly, the secretary of the Football League at the time of the Munich air disaster.
But it was when he joined the police force in 2010 that Doncaster actor Neil Dudgeon really found his career-making role. He joined the long-running ITV crime drama Midsomer Murders as the cousin of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, played by John Nettles. When he retired from the role in 2011, DCI John Barnaby stepped in, giving fans of the series a feeling of comfortable continuity and the bosses less of a headache in sales territories where the show is called Inspector Barnaby.
Neil, who’s married to radio producer Mary Peate with whom he has two children, Joseph and Greta, can hardly believe he’s just completed his sixth series of Midsomer Murders; proof, you might say, that time flies when you’re having fun solving gruesome deaths, occasionally involving farm equipment, a giant wheel of cheese or a harpoon.
‘As an actor you’re so used to changing jobs every few weeks or months and now I’m just about to start filming my seventh series of Midsomer,’ he said. ‘For me, it’s an almost perfect job; we film in beautiful countryside, often have the best weather, our locations are stunning country houses and estates, we have fantastic catering, the best crew and the most brilliant guest stars who reenergise the show every episode. It’s indecently good fun.’
After several years of sleuthing, he’s developed an acute nose for trouble – even on his days off.
‘More and more frequently, I find myself on the weekend going to a village fayre or visiting a local fete on a common somewhere idyllic. I’m wandering round thinking this is nice, having half a local ale, looking at local crafts then I suddenly think O-M-G this is like the opening of an episode of Midsomer and somebody’s going to get murdered any minute. Everyone be very careful...’
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The most recent series of Midsomer Murders, shown over Christmas and into the New Year, saw DCI John Barnaby with a new sidekick – Sgt Jamie Winter played by Nick Hendrix – and (hankies at the ready) a new dog.
His furry little friend (and consummate scene-stealer) Sykes has retired after five years on the show, replaced by a new co-star called Paddy. So, what’s he like to work with? Doggedly determined or still a bit woof around the edges?
‘Paddy has tremendous spirit and a lovely temperament,’ said Neil, known as Dudge to his oldest friends. ‘He’s a friendly chap and, just like Sykes, very well trained. He’s very young but calm and chatty with everyone. What’s really lovely is that he gets on well with Abbie and Georgia who play Barnaby’s daughter Betty. He naturally seems to seek out the smallest person in the room, roll around and get his belly tickled.’
Neil is the first to admit that the Midsomer storylines always surprise him. This time, for instance, he has had to deal with a spooky deserted village, snakes, corrupt cricketers and murderous pet show competitors.
‘This involved a lot of rabbits,’ he said. ‘There was no biting but quite a lot of kicking; rabbits with big back feet turned out to be scarier than the snakes who were rather charming.’
It’s a long way, in every respect, from his Doncaster days, when the nearest he got to a rural idyll was a muddy tramp through Sandal Beet Woods.
He looks back with great affection on his South Yorkshire upbringing though, particularly Saturday afternoons at Belle Vue, the old Doncaster Rovers ground, where he’d buy a ticket, go through the turnstile and pass it back along his waiting line of friends in a sneaky early version of recycling.
And he believes his Yorkshire roots have had a positive influence on his career as an actor.
‘As the years go by, I see how much it has influenced me and how I’ve been offered parts which reflect the Yorkshireness inside me, and my accent – not as strong as it was, but still there nonetheless,’ he said.
‘There was once perceived to be a great nobility to what is called “received pronunciation”. Nowadays it’s recognised that us lads and lasses with accents can turn in some pretty good work as well. I used to think that my accent precluded me getting some jobs and maybe I was right, but at least it meant that I got to do some interesting stuff.’
Like discovering who squashed a young chap with a tank, or locked a local butcher in his meat freezer, or pummelled a star batsman to pulp with cricket balls. It’s all in a day’s work now for our Dudge.
We took the rest of the cast down to the station for questioning about Neil Dudgeon. After a caution and a cup of weak tea, here’s what they confessed.
Nick Hendrix (Sgt Jamie Winter): ‘There was that apprehension about what is he going to be like; will we have anything in common? It’s like blind-dating for friends! But Neil is brilliant. He has a great mix of not being too serious and stepping up as captain of the team when he needs to. When you play a big, important role like that there is a responsibility to lead and Neil definitely leads.’
Fiona Dolman (Sarah Barnaby): ‘It just goes from strength to strength with Neil; I find it easier and easier and I love the fact that I will read a scene between us and already be laughing because I know exactly how he will say something. When you’ve known someone for a long time they only have to slightly flicker their eyes and you already start laughing because you know what they’re thinking.’
Jason Hughes (DS Jones): ‘I love Neil; I have such a soft spot for him. He’s a wonderful man, so intelligent, bright and funny and one of the easiest people I have had the pleasure of working with. He is very open and willing to try anything and always comes up with some great suggestions. I’m glad he hasn’t changed or become too grand. He’s very humble and it’s so nice to be around someone with such humility.’