WE met yet again in a typical Midsomer country pub.
One last annual press gathering before John Nettles said goodbye to Midsomer Murders.
His final episode – Fit For Murder – is on ITV1 at 8pm tonight.
But the series lives on with Neil Dudgeon as a new leading man.
I’ve already interviewed Neil and his incoming screen wife Fiona Dolman and seen their first scenes in the next series.
And while sad to see John go, it looks to me like he’s left Midsomer Murders in safe hands.
My Manchester Evening News feature is below.
But first here are a few short audio extracts from John’s final Midsomer press conference:
1. “It is the end.”
2. Leaving friends behind.
3. “It was a fairly easy decision to make.”
4. Did he expect Midsomer to be such an enduring success?
5. New leading man Neil Dudgeon.
6. The moment he decided to become an actor.
IT’S the end of an era as John Nettles bids an emotional farewell to one of the world’s best loved detectives.
After 14 years on screen, viewers will see Det Chief Insp Tom Barnaby announce his retirement at the end of Midsomer Murders: Fit For Murder (ITV1, Wednesday, 8pm).
But Nettles lives on for fans in 220 countries around the globe who will never see the TV detective handing in his police badge at his birthday party.
So as not to confuse overseas viewers watching future repeat runs of the series, they will see a separate version of the celebration – without Barnaby’s retirement.
“He will go on forever,” laughs Nettles, 67, who has appeared in 81 episodes investigating over 250 murders in the killing fields of Midsomer.
“It was very sad filming the final scene and leaving all my friends behind and there were quite a few tears. But it was time to go,” adds the Cornwall-born actor, who collected his OBE last year.
“Although Barnaby and I are quite different, I am very fond of him and have enjoyed playing the role very much. But I didn’t want to be the oldest policeman on the telly.”
Producer Brian True-May reveals: “It was John’s decision to retire from the role, not mine. But I persuaded him to carry on for two more series than he wanted to. He’s been wonderful but he felt he’d gone past retirement age and needed to move on.”
His departure also spells the end of the Midsomer road for Jane Wymark as Barnaby’s wife Joyce and Laura Howard, who plays daughter Cully.
All three are together on screen in the final moments of Barnaby’s goodbye. “John and I have been talking about him leaving for a long time. It hasn’t come out of nowhere,” explains Jane, 58.
“I’ll miss the wonderful atmosphere on set and all the team, especially John and Laura. She’s become like a real daughter to me. But I’m relieved that I don’t have to be the nicest person in the world anymore.”
Among the guests at the birthday party is his cousin Det Chief Insp John Barnaby, newly transferred to Midsomer. He is played by Life of Riley star Neil Dudgeon, who takes over as leading man when a new series begins in the spring.
Neil, 50, has already filmed four episodes of series 14, with Jason Hughes, 39, staying in the cast as sidekick Det Sgt Ben Jones.
“I’ve always been a fan of the show and John has led it with great skill, grace and charm. A lovelier man you couldn’t meet. But I hope Midsomer will go on for many years to come,” says Yorkshire-born Dudgeon.
His screen wife Sarah – the new Mrs Barnaby – takes over as headmistress of Causton Comprehensive and is played by former Heartbeat actress Fiona Dolman, 41.
As it happens, Fiona’s previous TV husband guest stars in Nettles’ final film. Jason Durr, known to millions as Det Con Mike Bradley in ITV1’s former Sunday night favourite, plays Luke Archbold.
“I’ve always wanted to be in Midsomer Murders and being a part of John’s last episode was great. He had come up to do an episode of Heartbeat, so it was good to repay the gesture,” says Jason.
Luke runs the upmarket spa hotel where Barnaby and his wife go for a weekend de-stressing break. Although Tom is troubled by memories of his father’s death and also keen to escape for a pint in the local pub.
John recalls: “On the very last day of the shoot, at the final wrap, Brian bought champagne to the set and gave Jane a bouquet of flowers and presented us with a specially-made clapperboard showing Midsomer Murders’ last slate.”
There were also a series of farewell parties and presentations. John continued to work for the show even after filming had finished, with promotional trips to Italy and Sweden. “I haven’t totally left the series as it has such a high international profile and we get invited to festivals all round the world. They can’t get rid of me that easily.”
The former Bergerac favourite certainly has no plans to retire. He recently appeared on stage with Life On Mars star John Simm in Hamlet at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and is involved in talks to return to the screen in another role, if ITV bosses give the go ahead.
The yet to be titled new drama series would feature Nettles as a university lecturer and part-time magistrate living in a country mansion which has seen better days.
Repeats will also ensure the original Barnaby is never far from view. “He doesn’t end with a bang,” smiles Nettles.
“He just fades away, as coppers do. That’s as it should be.”
Update: John’s final moments as Tom Barnaby: