Armchair Detectives: brilliant new daytime TV murder mystery

BBC One's play-along murder mystery show Armchair Detectives is brilliant fun. Here's why crime TV and puzzle fans should tune in...

There’s been a murder…

Well, actually, there’ve been several. One every weekday, to be precise. All occurring at approximately 2:15pm in the Scottish coastal town of Mortcliff. But, as fans of BBC1’s new mystery show Armchair Detectives will tell you, “no one gets away with murder in Mortcliff!”

Partially this is down to the town’s police force and its crack team of investigating officers; DI Knight (Stephen Billington), DC Slater (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) and SOCO Simmons (Sarah Baxendale). However, watching them from comfy armchairs in the BBC studio each day are trios of plucky amateur sleuths who pit their wits against the murderers in the hope of winning a very special prize – the Golden Magnifying Glass. Presiding over it all is host Susan Calman, who brings a delightful, hilarious persona to proceedings, as well as her degrees in law and forensic science. I’m not sure anyone else has ever made lines like “suspected crushing causing massive internal injuries” sound so jolly but that’s all part of the fun.

While it’s not the first time a playalong murder mystery show has existed (viewers of a certain age may remember ITV’s Cluedo or Whodunnit?), it’s arguably the one that most successfully nails the format. We’ve been absolutely loving it and here are some reasons why:

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The production team are all serious crime fans

Creator/Producer Carly Brooks says the initial idea grew from her addiction to the Serial podcast. “I got way too deep into it,” she admits. After binging on the original series, as well as the spin-offs Undisclosed and Truth & Justice, inspiration struck. “In this whole web of crime podcasts, I found myself thinking, oh my God, I could totally solve crime… as did everyone else around the world! So I thought there was something in this.”

When she and co-conspirator Andy Brereton settled on the playalong mystery format, they pitched it to commissioning editor Jo Street by having her actually play the pilot game they’d written. “We had a whiteboard and papers on the wall. For suspects, we printed out pictures of models from Google and gave them names, and I would read out the story… Jo absolutely nailed it but that worked in our favour because she really enjoyed it. She’s a massive crime fan, she’s even got a dog called Columbo!”

The puzzles will test your detective skills

Armchair Detectives uses David Bodycombe and Dan Peake from the Only Connect team to turn its murders into puzzles. “Their bread and butter is games,” explains Brooks. “We wanted someone who could take bits of a puzzle and leave them lying around so you could connect them all up into a very clear picture, which is one way of looking at Only Connect too. You have to forge connections in places that you wouldn’t see them straight away.”

It’s all very meticulously assembled. “They have a spreadsheet with all of our characters and the timeline of the story, and they plot out what every character is doing across all those four days. Even if they’re not in the story and we don’t see them, they plot that out. They send the Excel sheet to the writer and the writer can’t go wrong then. If she wants to do something that’s playful or bring someone into a scene, or if we are on set and we realise something doesn’t quite work, we have that sheet and we know that this person can’t be here at this time because it’s plot significant where they are. If they’re just away or asleep or whatever they tend to be doing, then they’re not in the plot and we can play with them. We just have to make sure they’re not doing anything dodgy, so we give them real lives for four days!”

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It’s not (always) as hard to play as this may make it sound though. “That’s what’s good about having twenty episodes. You can make some a bit easier and some a little bit harder and people will never know where on that scale you’re going to be on that day.”

It’s a must for fans of Hidden Object games

If you’ve played any of the old Hidden Object mystery games on the PC, you’ll love the format here and a warm nostalgic glow is guaranteed. The Armchair Detectives in the studio can’t influence the actions of the Mortcliff police officers, but they can choose which pieces of evidence to view and in what order, each revealing new clues to lead them to the perp’s identity, and after every round they get to make their accusations. As they chat (and occasionally squabble) through theories, viewers can play along at home too, with each case neatly resolving itself in a digestible 45 minutes.

The dramatic dialogue is far closer to cut scenes from these games than it is your average TV detective show too. Almost everything the suspects say is a clue and every facial expression a giveaway (or a mask) of their true intentions. There’s nothing wasted.

The characters are a delight

There’s a host of furtive locals with hilariously petty reasons to kill, but the investigating officers are just as entertaining to watch as their weirdo perps. DC Knight, the senior officer, was created with a very specific brief in mind. “Knight had to be someone my mum would have a crush on,” laughs Brooks. “No matter what, absolutely, my mum had to fancy him! Isn’t that terrible?” He’s a silver-haired deadpan alpha male with a penchant for coffee and dad jokes that rarely land with his colleagues. Very mum-friendly.

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Among those rolling their eyes at him is his young protégé DI Slater. “We brought Roger [Nsengiyumva] on board and he’s BRILLIANT. He brings a real sense of youth to the show and there’s a good dynamic between Knight and Slater, a little bit of ‘I’m aspiring to be you but I’m going to take the mickey out of you anyway’!” Rounding the group off is Scene Of Crime Officer Simmons, whose gallows humour around the corpses occasionally tests the strength of Knight’s stomach. “We definitely wanted a strong intelligent female,” says Brooks. “She’s really personable and I love that she’s the Northerner, giving all the Northern kids someone to aspire to!”

Contrary to a lot of modern crime shows, there’s no angst, addictions or skeletons in the closet, which makes for a pleasingly old fashioned approach, with an easy banter between the three. But could there be romance on the cards for future episodes?   “We’d love to develop the detectives’ backstories more with a little ‘will they won’t they’ between Knight and Simmons. I’d quite like it to go there so we’ll see!” says Brooks.

It’s just so cosy

Tonally, it takes its cues from Midsomer Murders and nestles into the Cosy Crime genre. “I mean it just had to,” says Brooks. “Midsomer’s so perfect and there’s so much love for that show. It’s the perfect balance of ‘here’s a crime’ with a bit of ridiculousness and a bit of a wink.”

The studio contestants were cast through crime fan communities and their good natured, unpretentious enthusiasm for solving  cases is contagious. There’s even a couple of real life detectives in the mix. “We wanted crime fans,” confirms Brooks. “We wanted people who would really care and really get into it but would also surrender to the fiction and the humour of it. You have to commit to the tone of the show to really understand the crimes and I think they did brilliantly well. Everyone had a great time. The problem with having prize money and things like that, is you’d lose all that lovely chat because you’d be in competition with each other.”

Indeed the gentleness of Armchair Detectives – lovely Scottish accents and scenery, goofy humour, and breezy, gossipy chat – makes it a perfect way to unwind with an afternoon tea and some biscuits while Mortcliff’s population dwindles for your pleasure. Like us, the show loves a good pun as well. Keep an eye out for some of the local shop names, like the Meat And Greet butchers.

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You can’t argue with murder mystery

As a format, murder mystery never gets old and Carly Brooks has some theories why it endures. “I think it has everything that we search for in entertainment. It’s intriguing, there are characters and there’s drama so you instantly go ‘I love that person’ or ‘that person’s a bit dodgy’ or ‘I’ve really changed the way I feel about that person’ and it takes you on this heightened emotional rollercoaster where you’re constantly having to evaluate how you feel about someone or a situation. We’re clearly obsessed with quizzes and games as a culture. We love problem solving and the genre hands you that on a plate. It’s like ‘here you go, come in and enjoy a piece of passive drama but get as engaged as you want in playing the game’. You can choose to be as active in your brain or as detached as you want when you’re watching a murder mystery.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. So put your deerstalker on, set the kettle boiling and get yourself down to Mortcliff. Those murders aren’t going to solve themselves. Just, uh, don’t stand too near those cliffs…

Armchair Detectives series one is currently airing on BBC One at 2.15pm on weekdays. Previously aired episodes are available on BBC iPlayer.