What's for Dinner?

The answer: BBC Murder Mysteries

Not in a million lifetimes would I have guessed correctly. At least it wasn’t Brussel sprouts or pickled beets. I mean, Brussel sprouts taste like soured, sweaty gym socks, and beets taste like straight-up dirt.

Anyway, the actual, unedited, unspoken question began as: What will become my main coping mechanism in the time of corona? A much-needed exercise regimen? New hobby? Was I ever really going to master a second language?

Instead, British Broadcasting’s assorted murder mystery series has become the mandatory requirement for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic at my house. Wash hands thoroughly; scoop up my dinner plate and utensils; plop into a comfortable chair, and ingest one heaping dose daily of the BBC’s best crime dramas (face mask optional).

However, none of these shows came with a warning, one emblazoned at the outset in both size and color that would shame the Surgeon General’s Warning on a pack of unfiltered Camels. It should say: “Warning (of course): Before Beginning The Viewing Of This Series Be Prepared For The Inevitable Interruption/Possible Discontinuation Of This Program Due To The Worldwide Pandemic. If You Are Prone To Becoming Excessively Or Emotionally Attached To Characters, Storylines, Or Settings, We Suggest That You Step Away From Your Remote Control.”

Desperate for diversion, my wife and I have heedlessly ventured forward at the risk of our stay-at-home sanity. We’ve cursed, stomped, and thrown hands in the air at the final episodes of numerous series, grumbling like bears newly awakened from hibernation in search of fresh fodder to fill the void. Then we have inevitably settled back into our drowsy repose after the discovery and brief period of courtship with a newly accepted favorite.*

Each fresh outing (ha!) has its unique quirks, character idiosyncrasies which we’re quick to spot and joke about. The latest has been tallying how many times in an episode of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, that the main character, Dr. Lucien Blake will say the word, “yes,” in his drawn-out, Australian accent.

“Has anyone checked for CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) footage in the crime scene area?” .... Cue the apparently absent-minded detectives, simultaneously face palming in open acknowledgment of their bungling."

Prior to Blake, we took joy in catching what became the inevitable question from various senior police officers to any and all staff: “Has anyone checked for CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) footage in the crime scene area?”

The mere redundancy of the question was enough to fascinate us folks whose standards for humor had obviously been lowered by the total lack of social life.

That formal query regarding CCTV often became employed by the screenwriters as a shock-value element, trotted onset deep into the case when all other leads had been exhausted. Cue the apparently absent-minded detectives, simultaneously face palming in open acknowledgment of their bungling.

One memorable episode took a bit of a sophisticated twist.

A bird sanctuary’s CCTV constant-surveillance footage had been doctored by one of the wildlife rangers to prevent exposure of the murderer taking a boat from the harbor town to the island crime scene. The video’s absence of a crescent moon hanging just above the ocean horizon exposed the culprit. Oh, the cleverness!

Meanwhile, across the USA, binge TV watching has become a dominant response to sequestering. I base that observation in part from my social media meanderings. There I see memes making light of media services providers whose standardized messages appear on screen after extended television viewing. The program vanishes and the intrusive message pops up asking, “Are you still watching?” One jokester suggested the alternative, “Are you still alive?”

The absurdity of such a question under the current circumstances! Of course, we’re still watching! What else do we have to do these days?

We can only take so much fresh air and quality time with family members in a twenty-four-hour day. Escapism beckons, nay, shouts, as we find ourselves more than ready to switch from the computer screen to the television screen, an American favorite long before the insidious coronavirus landed on our shores.

At my house, our coping mechanism of choice began with British period pieces, as I determined to ascertain the hullabaloo behind cult favorites like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.

Having traversed both those fertile fields it seemed fitting to remain in Great Britain for some of their classic mystery series. There were the quant ones: Father Brown, Agatha Christie’s Marple, and Foyle’s War, where we found ourselves enchanted and thrilled by Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, charged with maintaining order on the south coast of England as World War II unfolded around him.

It was that eventful period from which the use of electronic surveillance grew.

Out of dire necessity, the United Kingdom became pioneers in signal intelligence and code-breaking. Following the blitzkrieg overthrow of France, the German forces leapfrogged across the Atlantic, invading and occupying the British dependency Channel Islands. Another leap would have landed them on British soil properly.

More frighteningly close, the English Channel became the last natural barrier between British citizens and the Nazi war machine on coastal France. The channel at its most narrow point, the Strait of Dover, provided a tenuous buffer of less than twenty-one miles. On a clear day, with the naked eye alone, Dover residents were unavoidable witnesses to the shoreline where the enemy crouched.

In response, millions of British civilian volunteers worked in coordination with the military on plans to either thwart or slow German invasion. Amped-up military research led to marked advances in electronic detection for early warning notification. Nothing like the ever-present threat of enemy planes, ships, submarines, troop transports, or paratroopers to spark technological innovation!

“... millions of British civilian volunteers worked in coordination with the military on plans to either thwart or slow German invasion. Amped-up military research led to marked advances in electronic detection for early warning notification.... Closed-circuit television was born from such an imperative necessity... "

Closed-circuit television was born from such an imperative necessity. The private business sector later found means of profiting from that wartime advancement.

In 1948, when World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis fought Joe Walcott, the boxing match was broadcast on closed-circuit television. That event led to an early form of pay-per-view television, primarily for professional boxing and wrestling. In a select number of venues, patrons purchased tickets to watch the live event, typically at theaters. Notable in the 1960s and 1970s were some of Muhammad Ali’s fights, as well as the Indianapolis 500 auto race until home cable television later took over the market.

It wasn’t until 1968 that CCTV cameras were used on a large scale by a municipality in this country. Olean, New York became the first city in the United States to mount cameras on its main business street. This was done in an effort to fight crime. Five years later, cameras were installed in New York City’s famous Times Square.

British television scripting kept pace with CCTV trends. As the decorous mystery series gave way to a post-war world, the on-screen detectives relied more on electronic aids than hunches and paid informants. Fingerprints had to make room for digital footprints, and police sketch artists became less in demand when perpetrator’s faces appeared on surveillance camera film, and soon to follow, digital media.

Enter Detective Chief Inspector, Vera Stanhope, from the award-winning series, Vera, somewhere in limbo in its tenth season of maybe filming, but likely not filming. Who can say? Impatience mounts. Will millions of fans have to resort to watching reruns to satiate their Vera addictions?

Wearing her singular overcoat and peering out from beneath the crumpled brim of her dumpy hat she trudges over the Northumberland terrain, with Newcastle being about the only passable example of civilization around.

When Vera is not in the office skewering Kenny, the station’s mossy detective, she’s driving her faded Land Rover across miles of untouched landscape, all but devoid of houses and offering even fewer witnesses. No wonder she often turns to Kenny and the doe-eyed staff inquiring about crucial CCTV footage.

The same scenario holds true in Broadchurch, a series named for a fictional town in Dorset---an actual county on England’s southwestern coastline. Real-life Dorset has remained primarily rural, dotted with small villages and a few large towns. There are no official cities, as the television show reflects.

Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant of Doctor Who, and Harry Potter fame), has been reposted there to handle the murder of a young, local boy. The community, naturally distrustful of an outsider, is also aware of a nationally-sensationalized murder case in which Hardy was implicated of serious mishandling.

Reluctant potential witnesses and his offended, passed over, Detective Sergeant, Ellie Miller, have DI Hardy scrambling for the slightest whiff of evidence, including CCTV footage from shoreline highway rest areas, remote intersections, business surveillance systems, and ATM cameras. The question, “Was there any CCTV in the area?” popped up so often it became a running joke in our household.

"The question, “Was there any CCTV in the area?” popped up so often it became a running joke in our household."

But CCTV is no joking matter in its many applications for government, industrial, and private use. Those who get paid to keep tabs have pointed out that six London crimes are solved per day through the city’s wealth of video footage. Who knows? Maybe Scotland Yard could have captured Jack the Ripper if CCTV had been available back then.

Eleven women were slain in brutal fashion over a three-year period beginning in 1888, and Londoners loathed to walk the streets at night.

Like the Coronavirus, CCTV cameras are multiplying around the world, with numbers increasing at a rate of rapidity as to make exact counting somewhat untenable. An article from December of 2019 entitled, “Top Ten Countries And Cities By Number Of CCTV Cameras,” appeared in AiThority, illuminating the proliferation of government-run cameras and their ratio to population demographics.

“You’re worried about the wrong thing,” my wife often told offspring who would stand still long enough to listen. Should I, should we, be worried about an epidemic of CCTV? My honest answer to myself is that the number of cameras trained on me in public has absolutely no bearing on my behavior. All that anyone will view is my boring, law-abiding conduct, oblivious to the lenses, nerdy as that may sound.

Truly, I should worry way more about my susceptibility to the Coronavirus given my risk factors. But if I’m sheltering at home and taking precautionary measures, how does worrying provide any benefit?

Sufficient compelling television series availability during the time of corona? That is a genuine cause for concern.

Furthermore, 8 out of the top 10 cities in the world with the largest number of Closed Circuit TV cameras are located in China. Only London and New Delhi were the only cities among the top ten that were located outside the Chinese territory.

* To be quite candid, in no way do we at SCW view the outbreak of Covid-19 as a laughing matter, either here, in the United States, or anywhere else in the world. As for the UK, a major subject of this blog, a recent warning issued by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, the UK could be facing 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day by mid-October, if the current rate of infection is not halted.