The Age of Raisin

A delightful melding of snark and suspense, the beautifully lensed AGATHA RAISIN, SERIES ONE (now on DVD from Acorn/RLJ Entertainment/sky.VISION), starring the beautifully lensed Ashley Jensen, makes the perfect summer tonic for mystery fans looking for a hot item that’s concurrently cool.

Based on the novels by M.C. Beaton, AGATHA RAISIN (yes, the forename is a clue) was the perfect high-profile project to pitch to the Brit networks while keeping an all-important eye on the Yanks across the pond.  I can hear the “elevator pitch” now, “Murder, She Wrote meets Midsomer Murders.”  And so it is.  Well, with one major change.  The lady sleuth in question isn’t an elderly spinster, but a vibrant cougar out to win over the populace of an upscale country environ by her genius while simultaneously satisfying her never-ceasing throbbing hormones.

Agatha Raisin is a super successful forty-something (admitting to thirty-something) widow, brilliant in her craft (as the queenpin of a London P.R. firm), who decides to chuck it all in for a chance at life (that’s “life,” as in “living modestly to the manor born.”).  Agatha’s 24/7 devotion to her career has made the exec a mint (with the rep to go with it), but, ironically, outside of the board room (ever-increasingly constipated by “gag me” office politics), she’s quasi-socially inept – a condition that to the woman translates as “extremely horny.”

Raisin leaves the firm, and moves to the rustic community where she enjoyed a treasured season of summery girlhood.  What she didn’t realize then is that the provincial burg of Carsley is rife with eccentrics even more fucked-up than she is – often resorting to murder to solve their problems.

This provides a golden op for the alluring retiree turned reluctant amateur detective, as she correctly surmises that her experience at reading people (knowing how to basically sell them products they don’t need or even want) is a prime attribute for a crime fighter

And it’s probably a good way to meet men.

Agatha soon is up to her shaved armpits in homicide, enough to call in her former right arm, Roy (Mathew Horne), who turns up with a succession of smoking male lovers, one of whom (Dilijohn Singh) transcends the sexual orientation barriers with the female locals (his professional name, Khusan, the Naked Yogi, explains it all).

On the home front, Agatha recruits Gemma, an out-of-work cleaning lady (Katy Wix) as a combi-servant/friend/Dr. Watson, who comes complete with an adolescent daughter (Maddie Monti) so precocious that the child reminds Agatha of herself.  Case in point: at a local fete, a boisterous barker, eyeing the urchin with her mom, remarks, “Mama’s little helper?” to which the petite lass deadpan replies, “No, that’s Prozac.”  Yep, a Raisin in the making (or Raisinette, if you prefer).

The townies of Carsley encompass quite a surprisingly diverse group.  The constabulary is presided over by the easy-going Bill Wong (Matt McCooey), while the head of the department is Caribbean person of color DCI Wilkes (Jason Barnett), a corpulent figure in the Nigel Bruce mold, who is amazingly agile on the disco floor and revels in Raisin’s ability to seemingly ratchet up the murder rate (such a refreshing change from blah-blah-blah robberies and vandalism).

Agatha’s panting to de-pant the male contingent need not go farther than her neighbor, hunky apparently never available James (Jamie Glover), whose attachment to his latest acid-tongued significant other Mary Fortune (Daisy Beaumont) is a series highlight.  On to Agatha’s amorous intentions, dame Fortune greets her neighbor with a pungent “I almost didn’t recognize you without your axe to grind.” While this seems unfortunate at the outset, it becomes winningly fortunate and quite convenient, as the rival is soon liquidated by a nefarious villain.

Agatha’s love life is quite intense, and she occasionally beds not only suspects, but actual psycho killers.  In her defense, she admits her personal choices aren’t always the best, but they do fill a void.

This becomes ever so frustrating when Raisin (now sarcastically chided as Miss Marple by the citizenry) ends up investigating a series of deaths in a neighboring Cotswolds duchy.  It seems that everyone is involved with everyone else:  wives with husbands (mostly, not their own), men with women, women with women, men with men (with possible occasional sidebars to barnyard residents).  As Raisin correctly deduces, this hamlet’s “…a seething hotbed of sexuality…I’m living in the wrong village!”

But Agatha takes all of this in her stride, even sighing at her own matchmaking skills to hook up smitten Gemma with DC Wong.  Bemoaning why she’s helping other people get laid, she altruistically reasons that it’s because she’s such a good person.

AGATHA RAISIN is fueled by the powerhouse presence of the wonderful Jensen (last reported on in Supervistaramacolorscope as Patrick Stewart’s no-nonsense gal Friday from 2006’s The Eleventh Hour.  Most Americans probably remember her as Christina from the series Ugly Betty).  The actress is the perfect personification of the character:  sexy, brainy, funny and, yeah, horny – enchantingly topped off by her fetching Scottish accent.

The aforementioned supporting cast, too, is aces; and all of this is made cravenly addictive via the excellent writing (by Chris Murray, Chris Niel and co-executive producer Stewart Harcourt) cinematography (sumptuously filmed in Bristol by Dale McCready), music Rupert Gregson-Williams and Christopher Willis), art and set design (Daryn McLaughlan and Ian Fisher), and, natch, the wry direction (Geoffrey Sax, Paul Harrison, Roberto Bangura).

The three-disc set includes not only the first season’s nine episodes, but the original full-length TV-movie that launched the series in the UK.  The feature, aptly entitled Quiche of Death sets the tone from the fade-in.  Newbie Agatha’s desire to fit in has her commit to the town’s celebrated bake sale, even though she can barely find the kitchen.  So, she disappears to London, visits a trendy bistro, and returns with her re-christened Raisin Surprise – the big surprise being that its poisoned contents kills one of the judges.

I have to admit that, at the onset, while intrigued and entertained by Raisin & Co., I wasn’t initially knocked out like I was with Miss Fisher, Jack Taylor or the best of Midsomer.  But Agatha, the woman and the show, grew on me as I progressed through the establishing episodes; by the third one, I realized I was now hooked, so much so, that by the season’s finale, I was genuinely saddened that I there were no more adventures to relish (I’d have to go back and start anew, which I did).  Suffice to say, I’m hoping that this is a mere temporary setback, and that there will be a Series Two; if so, it’s a no-brainer that Acorn will release the subsequent shows, as, they were so understandably high on the project that they actually functioned a co-executive producers.

Until  then, I miss her verbal smack-downs, her Scottish brogue, her occasion morning walks of shame,  to say nothing of Agatha’s Raisin d’etre for cross-country murder probes (i.e., to never miss an opportunity to accessorize).

The nine episode titles themselves reveal what audiences are in for, some quite wittily; the plot synopsis even more so:  The Walkers of Dembley (a test of Raisin’s reserve, as she and James must pose as husband and wife), Hell’s Belles (a villager has a religious experience via a lethal church bell-rope around the neck), The Wellspring of Death (Roy tempts Agatha back to the P.R. world in order to utilize her skills promoting a new mineral water, with unexpected deadly results), The Potted Gardener (wherein Carsley green thumbs are planting more than flowers), The Vicious Vet (aptly demonstrating that death by horse tranquilizer isn’t quite the ride the vicinity’s equestrienne set had in mind), The Day the Floods Came (nothing puts a crimp in one’s honeymoon than when the bride is murdered the day after the wedding), Witch of Wyckhadeen (a scream that delves into paranormal activity and reveals Raisin’s true departure at an exclusive retreat – she’s the victim of a lousy coiffure, and needs the time for it to grow out) and Murderous Marriage (the finale, that, with double-take horror, introduces us to Agatha’s skeevy long-thought deceased ex, Jimmy).  In any event, I’m sure that these’ll only further wet the tastes of viewers unfamiliar with this charming mystery treat).  Methinks you’ll be willing converts.

AGATHA RAISIN is lavishly produced, with every cent and shilling on display in the spectacularly rendered DVD masters provided by Acorn.  The audio complements the visuals via an excellent 5.1 surround track, bustling with the jaunty aforementioned score, countrified background effects and brilliantly executed snaps by Jensen, Horne, Wix and Glover.

AGATHA RAISIN: SERIES ONE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/sky.VISION.  CAT # AMP-2388.  SRP:  $59.99.

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