Murder In Provence stars Endeavour's Roger AllamMarch 5, 2022
Meet the French Morse: Set in a university town and inspired by the Oxford detective, Murder In Provence even stars Endeavour’s Roger Allam – but forget the real ale, it’s now bottles of red wine!
- Mary Lou Longworth’s book series has been adapted for Murder In Provence
- Canadian author was inspired by living in Aix and Britain’s Inspector Morse
- Roger Allam stars as investigating judge Antoine Verlaque in three-part series
A whodunnit showcasing the beauty of Provence with a charismatic investigator and lots of delicious food and wine… but no actual French people? Zut alors!
Best not tell our friends across the Channel about Murder In Provence, a new murder mystery series set in stunning Aix-en-Provence, as the French roles are played by British actors – speaking English.
For a few seconds it’s quite discombobulating, but then you forget all about it. As with all the best gentle murder mysteries, the setting and the riddle are what counts – and this three-parter wins on both.
The show, available to stream on BritBox now, is based on a series of books by Canadian author and academic Mary Lou Longworth, who writes under the moniker ML Longworth and has lived in Aix for 25 years. She was inspired not only by her adoptive home, but also by her favourite British detective show.
Roger Allam plays investigating judge Antoine Verlaque alongside Nancy Carroll as on-off girlfriend Marine Bonnet (pictured) in three-part series Murder In Provence
‘Obviously I love Agatha Christie, but I also love the Inspector Morse stories where you have this amazing sense of place,’ she says.
‘Aix is a bit like Oxford because one of France’s most famous law schools is here. I always thought it would be a good setting for a murder series.
‘I’d been thinking about writing one for a while when I went to a friend’s family chateau in the countryside. She took me to the attic and it was full of antiques, old photos and oil paintings.
‘She said, ‘Don’t go too close to the window,’ as there was no glass, just shutters. We were so high, it felt dangerous and I thought, ‘There’s my first scene.’
The hero of the series is investigating judge Antoine Verlaque, played by Roger Allam who, fittingly, also stars in Morse prequel Endeavour. The way the French legal system works means that, for high crimes and in complex cases, the judge is part of the initial investigation, taking almost as active a role as the police.
Antoine is a bon viveur who comes from a wealthy family from northern France but moved to Aix to escape his background. As we come to learn, he’s had heartbreak in his past – his wife was an alcoholic who took her own life. In fact, all the characters have their demons.
His unofficial sidekick is his on-off girlfriend Marine Bonnet, played by Nancy Carroll. She’s a law professor who’s recently started working with the police but is as willing to get stuck into the investigations as Antoine and his trusted detective and confidante Hélène Paulik (Keala Settle).
Antoine and Marine (pictured) are forced to put their plans on hold when a professor is murdered in his study
Just like Antoine, Marine’s had a difficult past in the form of a marriage to a violent man. Coincidentally, the two actors have played a married couple before, albeit on the stage, and their relationship here, together with the beauty of the area, is a contrast to the sometimes hostile world they encounter.
‘Antoine’s relationship with Marine is very important,’ says Roger.
ROMANCE AND HOT FLUSHES!
One theme explored in a more French than British way in the show is the sensuality between Antoine and Marine, despite them being in their autumn years.
‘This is a pair who are totally up for life and it’s clear they’re having lots of sex,’ says Nancy Carroll. ‘But at the same time, we explore how they’re coping with changes in their lives. Antoine has prostate issues while Marine is going through the menopause and keeps having hot flushes.
‘I love that we’re exploring something like this on television because women have been suffering in silence about the menopause for a very long time.’
‘They’ve found this way of being together after both having had tragic things happen to them. They have this balance with each other, they really enjoy each other’s company. They make each other laugh, they make life enjoyable.
‘You certainly get chocolate-box views as Aix is a glorious place. But it’s a city so it has a variety of things going on. We’re dealing with crime and greed and murder and all of that, so there’s this underbelly to the very obvious beauty of the place.’
The stories are mainly set among the intellectual elite of the city, although the suspects are not always upper class.
In the first episode, Antoine and Marine put plans for a weekend break on hold when a professor is murdered in his study, and everyone from his secretary to a local paedophile falls under suspicion.
But the more our sleuths delve, the more crimes they uncover. The second takes place in a crumbling château where warring relatives are fighting over an inheritance after the death of an aristocrat… then another body turns up.
And in the third, a young woman’s death in the nearby village of Éguilles is connected to the discovery of an older woman’s body in a vineyard. Can the men in the women’s lives help crack the case?
How the English actors, including Patricia Hodge as Marine’s mother Florence, should play their French characters was much debated.
Admittedly, they speak English, but they’ve captured the French way of life and certain words are said with flawless French accents – such as ‘santé’ instead of ‘cheers’ when they clink glasses.
‘Although our characters are speaking English, there’s something quite un-English about them,’ says Nancy, best known as Lady Felicia in Father Brown.
Patricia Hodge who plays Marine’s mother Florence (pictured) is among the British actors playing French characters
‘There’s a bluntness to them that’s more French. And the setting is French – Antoine drives a beautiful old Citroën DS and they chew the fat over lots of bottles of wine.
‘We did talk a lot about the best way to create that French essence and you’ll see it in the way everyone gives each other two kisses when they meet. There is this constant nod to it, but at the end of the day we are English actors.’
Mary Lou, who recently finished the tenth book in the series, says she wrote about a world she’d been invited into. ‘When we moved to Aix, I put my daughter in the local school and people were very welcoming to me, even though I barely spoke any French at that point,’ she recalls.
‘Later, friends who moved here from Paris said they didn’t get the welcome I did. I think people were intrigued by this family from North America. The city has a form of nobility which is normally very closed, but we were welcomed.
‘Just as the Morse books are based around the university, I wanted to do something similar as that’s the world I was comfortable in.’
The crew spent four weeks filming the series in Aix, while interior shots were captured at the now defunct boarding school Carmel College in Oxfordshire. Pictured: Roger Allam as Antoine Verlaque
Friends have made their way into her books, but she says Antoine, with his love of food, is based more on her than anyone else.
She doesn’t have to worry about locals getting angry about being portrayed in the books though as, despite the success of the series in the English-speaking world, no French publishing house has taken an interest in translating and publishing them.
‘I’m happy with my anonymity here,’ says Mary Lou, who turned down a cameo role in the series – although her daughter pops up as an extra in one episode.
‘They know me as an academic because I taught Creative Writing classes at the New York University campus in Paris. Only a few close friends know about the books and they were excited when we were filming in Aix.’
The crew spent four weeks filming there last autumn (the interiors were shot in the UK at the now defunct boarding school Carmel College in Oxfordshire), and it’s likely Aix will soon see tourists flocking in to enjoy its beauty.
‘I’ve lived here for so long, but I’m constantly finding beautiful new stonework on the buildings,’ says Mary Lou.
‘It’s so wonderfully designed and because it’s a town without a river, people should look out for the stunning fountains – they are all over the city. The golden hue of the stone makes it feel like a very warm place to live… and the perfect place to think about murder!’
Murder In Provence is available now on BritBox.
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