The TV detectives' guide to Britain

Sunday 22 May 2016

The Brits make some pretty impressive television. They’ve mastered the art of making compelling police shows with worldwide appeal, while earning lead actors like Idris Elba (Luther), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Stellan Skarsgard (River) an international following. 

The locations for these series might have second billing, but they play an important role, according to Linda Jew, Washington, D.C.-based founder of the popular website TheBritishTVPlace. She has been captivated by British programming ever since she was a pre-teen. “It lends a certain something to the filming,” she says. “The locations can be almost like another character. Many British cop dramas make good use of them so we’re seeing many of those spots becoming tourist attractions.” 

Where to start a star-struck exploration of great TV sleuths’ locales? Begin here….

Cliffhanger in Dorset

Many of us have been binge-watching Broadchurch on Netflix as detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) solve  a crime in a fictional town in Dorset in the south-west of England. Two seasons of the show have been shot in the actual town of West Bay. Series creator and writer Chris Chibnail lived in the area and was inspired by dramatic cliffs and sprawling beaches of the Jurassic Coast.  He has said Broadchurch was “a love letter to the scenery.” 

A third season is set to start production this summer. Curious fans can follow the Broadchurch trail, created by the local tourism board. Catch the views from Harbour Cliff Beach where the body of a young boy was found in the first episode of the series, or sit on a bench near Jurassic Pier where the detectives often sat and strategized.

Sherlock’s hangouts

Since 2010, Benedict Cumberbatch has caused the pulse of many fans to quicken with his portray of legendary Sherlock Holmes. Those visiting Britain may want to do some of their own detective work and track down the locations that have served as backdrops for the series. 
London has some pivotal must-visit spots including Speedy’s Café (187 North Gower Street, near Euston station) which doubles as the iconic 221B Baker Street; Russell Square Gardens, the peaceful park where John Watson (Martin Freeman) started his journey to meet Sherlock for the first time; Trafalgar Square (seen often in the first year of the series); and St. Bart’s Hospital. Don’t go looking for the National Antiques Museum featured in The Blind Banker episode. It’s actually the National Museum in Cardiff, a familiar sight to Dr. Who fans. 

The city of Bristol also has had plenty of time in the TV spotlight, filling in for Victorian London as seen in the recent Sherlock adventure, The Abominable Bride. Cathedral Square serves as the exterior of an opium den pivotal to the plot and the historic homes of King Street are often used for Baker Street filming. For more spots, check online for the movie maps created by the Bristol Film Office.

Higher education in Oxford

Inspector Morse, the Inspector Morse, the creation of British author Colin Dexter, has an enduring following this side of the pond. His series of detective books were adapted for television in 1987, starring John Thaw as a sullen but likeable cop. The success of the show spawned a spin-off series called Lewis (focused on his sidekick) and another, a prequel, Endeavour. A good chunk of filming happens in Oxford, the university city whose dreaming spires were popular with tourists long before the TV show. But you can combine the two by going on an Inspector Morse walking tour. Guides with a Wikipedia-like knowledge of the show take guests to popular backdrops in the old part of town such as the Randolph Hotel, Broad Street, White Hart Pub and, of course, the university’s many landmarks.

Luther’s London

f If you’re hoping to spot Luther star Idris Elba during your next visit, chances are he’d be in the East End, in and around the now-trendy Shoreditch and Hackney areas, where the studio used for much of the filming is located. The production does exterior shots on streets such as Kingsland Road, Haberdasher Street, Clifton Street, Wilton Way and Eleanor Road. Perhaps you’ll be just as happy to have walked on the same sidewalks as the actor. His last go-around as Luther took his to Islington’s Stafford Cripps Estate, a residential complex, used to stage an impressive explosion. Stroll through Southwark’s pretty Georgian Trinity Church Square, built in 1777, and relish the fact Elba was once there.

He sees dead people: Detective John River, played by Stellan Skarsgard in the new BBC hit, River, may have crossed paths with Luther. He also works in the East End in the Tower Hamlets area. The location manager for the series said that he was drawn to Canary Wharf for its stark glass and steel outlines. Skarsgard described the location as “Dickensian.”

Country style

e The English countryside is stunningly beautiful, but it has a murderous side, albeit an imagined one, thanks to television screenwriters. In the fictional county of Midsomer, killing seems to be a daily occurrence, which keeps the local sleuth Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) quite busy. Watchers of the long-running Midsomer Murders know much of the action is centred on Causton, represented off screen by the quaint country town Wallingford, Oxfordshire, just a short hop from Oxford. Those who want to delve deeper into their favourite show can sign up for a full-day guided tour to visit the many allegedly crime-soaked villages featured, or do self-guided visits to bucolic towns like Henley, Nettlebed, Dorchester and Thame.

Meanwhile in Happy Valley, police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sally Lancashire) is sorting out personal drama, including the suicide of her daughter in the critically acclaimed series. Filmed in Yorkshire’s pretty Calder Valley, one must-see village that features on-screen is Hebden Bridge. It’s a great place for shoppers, courtesy of its cute-as-button indie boutiques. The area’s other claim to fame is its Sylvia Plath connection. The American novelist and poet is buried in Heptonstall at St.Thomas the Apostle Church.

Bonnie scenes of Scotland

Loyal viewers of British television will be no stranger to Taggart, the cop show that ran from 1983-2010. Glasgow was the scene of many a gruesome murder, keeping the members of the Strathclyde police force busy. More recently, Scotland’s most beautiful and remote islands provided a dramatic backdrop for Shetland, starring Douglas Henshall as detective inspector Jimmy Perez. And though not of the cops and robbers ilk, the mega-popular Outlander has won raves among fans and critics alike. The time-travel drama is filmed entirely in Scotland and makes good use of sites like Doune Castle (Castle Leoch in the series) in Stirling and Cairngorms National Park, seen in the opening credits.


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