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Midsomer Murders: The vicar you may have seen many times before

Watched by millions of fans around the world, ITV’s Midsomer Murders is this year celebrating its 25th year on the small screen. But while its main characters have only played one role in the show, there is a real-life vicar who has played about 30 different parts in the programme.The Reverend Canon Tim Harper was performing a baptism at St Mary’s Church in Amersham in 2006. One of those present was a make-up artist who worked on Midsomer Murders. He took Mr Harper to one side and told him he looked “just like the sort of man you might see in a Buckinghamshire pub”. Mr Harper was asked whether he would be available the following Tuesday. That was the start of an unexpected career as a supporting artist for the vicar, who is now retired and lives in the central Buckinghamshire village of Little Kimble.”So my first appearance was as “man in bar” in The Axeman Cometh episode, shown in 2007,” Mr Harper said.

Neil Dudgeon, who plays John, the second detective chief inspector Barnaby, took over in 2011 from John Nettles who had played Tom Barnaby since 1997Currently filming its 23rd series, about 75% of the fictional crime drama is filmed in Buckinghamshire and South Oxfordshire and has often used local people in scenes.From his first foray as a “man in bar” Mr Harper has appeared in various guises across about 30 episodes in 12 series between 2006 and 2019.”I lost count long ago,” he said.”I was a senior teacher in the episode where the new Mrs Barnaby became head of the local school, a dog show assistant and “angry fisherman in a tackle shop” in “With Baited Breath”, where the “stench of the maggots in the shop was so bad, some crew members [ran] outside retching”.In The Dagger Club, he was a celebrity crime author at a convention where he was “mobbed at a book signing by adoring fans”.

“The scene was shot so many times that I began to believe their interest,” he said, “and was duly disappointed when nobody particularly wanted to talk to me at lunchtime.”Of all of the episodes in which he has appeared, one was particularly memorable.In They Seek Him Here, Mr Harper played a French revolutionary at the foot of the guillotine. “The plot was a film within a film,” he said, “and when an actor was ‘mistakenly’ beheaded we had to be suitably appalled,” he said.”The scene was so graphic I believe the very gory bits – which included dogs licking up the victims’ blood, encouraged by cunningly concealed small bits of sausage – were cut.”Shoulder of Tim Harper presiding over Cully’s weddingImage source, Mark Bourdillon/Bentley Productions
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Mr Harper (whose shoulder and partial head can be seen on the right) presided over the wedding of Cully Barnaby (Laura Howard) the daughter of Tom Barnaby (John Nettles)Eventually art and life conjoined and the production team spotted Mr Harper’s clear potential as a “pop up vicar”.”They used me where they needed someone to be in vision and do stuff that was right,” he said.”For example, in Blood Wedding, I married Cully, the first Inspector Barnaby’s daughter, at Denham church.”They needed a vicar and realised that no one knew what to do.”They knew I was rector of Amersham and said, ‘Can you go and marry Cully?’.””We spent a lot of time getting the details right, how the bride walks in etc and I got a round of applause from the crew at the end.”Mr Harper’s pastoral skills were again required in the 100th episode – The Killings of Copenhagen – in which an unpopular factory owner is murdered and his coffin is led through the village.

“I was the vicar who led the horse-drawn hearse down the street, greeted the guests at the church door and presided over the burial in the churchyard,” he said.The walk in front of the horses had to be at such a pace – I was exhausted after many takesThe area has capitalised on the programme’s popularity – examples include The Barnaby Bun, created by Rumsey’s Chocolatier in Thame, a beer called Night of the Stag brewed by The Loddon Brewery which featured as a location in an episode of the same name, and the Peacock Inn at Henton offers a special Midsomer Bed and Breakfast package Mr Harper said his friend Lisa Wilkinson has played his screen wife three times in the show

In its first quarter of a century, Midsomer Murders has featured many of the country’s leading actors including Orlando Bloom (who was murdered with a pitchfork in Judgement Day) and Olivia Colman who featured in Small Mercies, which was filmed at Bekonscot Model Village.”In Let Us Prey, a village was flooded and I played one of the drenched villagers taking refuge in church, which included being taken out regularly and doused with a hosepipe,” he said.”Roy Hudd was the local hero churchwarden who kept trying to raise our spirits by leading the singing of Abide With Me.”We shot it a dozen times and each time he started in a different key so I don’t know how the sound editors dealt with that.”

In The Curse of the Ninth, the Mr Harper was picked out to stay with actor James Fleet and help him “stay in character” between takes.He was playing a conductor and because the shoot was stopping and starting, they picked me out to stay with him and continue the conversation,” he said.Andrea Moignard from Andrea Casting, who has been supplying supporting artists to Midsomer Murders for twdecades, said Mr Harper had been so successful in the series because he is “local, loves doing it and has got that look about him”.Using local people “takes out an element of risk of them not getting there” she said, and they are also great for last minute jobs.”Tim also loves the production, and is just a great member of the team,” she said.

When Mr Harper was Rector and Area Dean of Amersham he would do photo calls with tourists before the service startedIn terms of advice for aspiring supporting artists, Mr Harper said: “Turn up on time and co-operate, be polite and don’t chatter. “Another rule is you don’t approach the stars unless they approach you, not because they are ‘stand-offish’ but because they are desperately trying to learn their lines.”But we were approached all the time, I’ve never known anyone not want to be friendly, there was no pomposity at all, it was always just a great day out for me.”

While he is not generally recognised out in the street, he did enjoy an era of fame when he was in post at Old Amersham.”The town is at the heart of filming and sometimes tourists used to come to the church on a Sunday morning,” he said.”I’d be doing photo calls before the service started.”But he has never complained and thinks it is “a very good thing for Buckinghamshire”. Bekonscot Model VillageImage source, Bekonscot Model Village He has welcomed the latest tour based on the show, Midsomer on the Misbourne, which spans five areas featuring various locations in which the detective programme has been filmed and agrees with one of the original scriptwriters who said the show is “as much about the places as the people”.

It includes Great Missenden, the home of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre where its café appeared as Shires Bank in Painted in Blood and Little Missenden which has featured in more than 13 episodes of the show including the very first one. Mr Harper said: “Overseas visitors have a preconception about the English – that the local inhabitants are determined to murder each other and they do it in bizarre ways – with a round of cheese or something – and that they live in chocolate box locations.People love the absolutely wonderful Bucks locations, they love the English landscape and the buildings.”But tourists are also expecting nothing less than dark, sinister figures to leap out of the woodwork.”

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