'We've murder, mystery and now men in Lycra!'
The poor residents of Midsomer have been plagued by unusually high death rates for years now - much to viewers' delight. Stars Neil Dudgeon and Gwilym Lee ponder the show's enduring success with Gemma Dunn.
Gearing up for its 18th series, Midsomer Murders has traversed generations and charmed millions of viewers over the years, but what's its secret?
Neil Dudgeon, who plays lead character DCI John Barnaby, puts it down to the show's "intoxicating mix".
"The countryside, the rather eccentric English characters," he explains. "I think it's that thing where it all looks lovely and pretty and gentile and chocolate-boxy on the surface, but underneath, everybody is full of their jealousies, rivalries and betrayals."
"There's an innocence about it as well," adds his co-star Gwilym Lee, who plays Barnaby's right-hand man, DS Charlie Nelson.
"It's not like a gritty crime drama that's specific to urban London; it's a murder mystery that's character-driven, and so it's universal in the sense that people can engage with it as a kind of problem-solving adventure."
Sold to more than 220 territories worldwide and attracting a consolidated audience for the last series of 6.5 million, the ITV show - which, as the title suggests, revolves around Barnaby's efforts to solve numerous murders in the fictional county of Midsomer - has racked up an impressive fan base since it first aired back in 1997.
"It's intriguing as to why people from different countries and societies watch and what they think of it," muses Doncaster-born Dudgeon (54). "But people obviously find different things in it that they like."
Recommissioned for a further six feature-length episodes, seasoned spectators will be pleased to learn that Midsomer's crime rate remains at an all-time high.
"There are one or two unlikelier moments; things you wouldn't see in any other show in its right mind!" teases Dudgeon. "We've got an episode set in a sculpture park, which involves a set of grisly, sculpture-related murders - people finding themselves heavily involved with the artwork.
"Then there's the cycling episode, where people are killed in cycling-related ways."
"My dignity was killed, as I had to appear in Lycra at the beginning of that episode," Lee (32) cuts in.
Dudgeon would have preferred for the Lycra to be more of a feature, however: "I was slightly disappointed, as Gwilym is in the Lycra and then gets the call to say, 'there's been a murder'. So I said he can't just go, 'oh, there's been a murder, let me just go and get changed into my civvies', but that's exactly what he did!"
Too-tight costumes aside, unnerving scenes also cropped up in the upcoming UFO episode.
"It was quite an ambitious episode - to read the stage directions of a UFO as it hovers over a caravan and you think, 'oh, ok, yeah'," recalls Lee, who previously starred in 2011's Land Girls.
"Yeah, hovers over, whizzes off, crashes into the woods, explodes, in come Barnaby and Nelson, who go, 'here's the crash site of the UFO', and you know, it's like we're in Close Encounters or something!" adds an animated Dudgeon.
"We can't do this on Midsomer, can we? We can! But won't it all go a bit mad? Well, yes! But it will all make sense in the end."
While all this supernatural talk may seem a little 'out there', Lee notes that working on the show since 2013 means he now sometimes takes the weirdness of the murders for granted.
"I remember in one episode - Saints and Sinners - someone got stabbed with a 17th-century pike, and you're like, 'oh, that's a bit ordinary, isn't it?' It's like, 'is that all you got?'"
Dudgeon agrees that you do get used to the more outlandish plots.
"There was an episode in the last series where there was this ritual burning thing going on," he remembers. "We were just sort of standing around ready to film, and then it was, 'cue the pagans'. It's 4am and we're stood there waiting to burn these pagans!"
The detectives, who up until now have solved the intricate murders as a duo, will have an extra pair of hands this series, when pathologist Kam Karimore (played by Manjinder Virk of Ordinary Lies fame) joins the workforce. But, Lee confirms, it's a move that looks set to ruffle some feathers.
"Nelson, to begin with, feels slightly threatened by Kim because he's only been there a couple of years and has just started to feel at home when all of a sudden there's this newbie coming along who's also keen to impress. It results in a slight competition between the two of them."
More fleeting guest appearances include the likes of Meera Syal, Diana Quick, Helen Baxendale and Michelle Collins; but it's American actress and singer Liza Minnelli that Dudgeon really wants to see traipsing through the landscape.
"She'd fit right in!" he says, straight-faced.
"All I'm saying is if Liza happened to be in the country, and she had a bit of free time and she wanted to come and hang around at Midsomer ..."
Maybe a surprise slot to commemorate the show's 20th anniversary in two years' time?
"We haven't been recommissioned for next year yet, but hopefully we will get series 19, and if that gets through it would be a bit churlish of them not to get us to 20," notes Dudgeon.
"Even if it's just one half-hour episode to just go, 'it's series 20!'"
With a winning formula and legions of international fans, all the clues suggest that Midsomer Murders is set to continue its reign for a while yet - and Dudgeon agrees.
"The murder mystery genre is huge all over the world - add to that the beautiful countryside and men in Lycra. Well, it's impossible to resist!"
- Midsomer Murders, ITV, Wednesday, 8pm