Most crime dramas feature scenes in the morgue, when quirky doctors pore over, and sometimes talk to the dead. We expect these coroners to be weird. After all, who in their right mind – mainstream culture asks – would choose to spend their time with corpses? This weirdness tends to be coded into the character themself. It is not enough for audiences to assume difference because someone works in a morgue instead of a doctor’s office – most portrayals of coroners in popular culture, and particularly television and film, assign them other “othering” characteristics. In U.S. television, sassy women of color or creepy cadaverous men dominate, but in British crime dramas, coroners are almost always a denizen of the Celtic fringe. A few examples: in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries the coroner, Stuart Lafferty is a punk-rock-listening Irishman. In Being Human, the coroner Quinn is Scottish, and also helping the vampires of Bristol cover their tracks. Even in NCIS, an American drama, the coroner is a Scot by the name of Dr. “Ducky” Mallard.
As someone who spends a fair amount of time engaging with differences – real, imagined or constructed – between “The Celts” and “the rest,” the persistent use of Scottish or Irish actors to play those who work was perhaps more noticeable to me than it is to either the people who watch these shows or the people who write them. I’m not sure whether this casting is due to a lingering association between the Scottish anatomists of the nineteenth century and the the modern coroner, or between the morbid and decidedly weird Burke and Hare; or is just another way of signaling that those who work with death are not part of the mainstream. Either way, now that I’ve started to look for “Celticness” in popular culture as a marker of difference, I’m starting to think that it’s a ubiquitous trope in English programs especially. Want to subtly (or not so subtly) signal that someone is a little odd, or wild, or unknowable? Find an actor with a Scottish, Welsh or Irish accent.