Essie Davis’s Phryne Fisher wins over Graeme Blundell
There’s cracking crime fiction ahead with a sexy, slinky, super-smart heroine
PHRYNE Fisher, a fashionably beautiful investigator with shiny black hair and wicked ways, offers private services in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes in 1920s Melbourne. As lovers of crime fiction will know, Phryne — that’s ph as in physician and Phryne to rhyme with briny — started life as the heroine of a wonderful series of novels from that city’s Kerry Greenwood, and given the demand for the adventures of the raunchy, independent Miss Fisher, Greenwood is still producing them.
Now, inhabited by the gorgeous Essie Davis ( Cloudstreet, The Slap), Phryne is also the star of an ambitious and much awaited 13-part series for the ABC. And what a star Davis is too, a beautiful actress who seems not so much to play Phryne Fisher but to collaborate with her. A dab hand at conducting an elegant dalliance, Davis’s Miss Fisher is equally at home in Melbourne’s Parisian-style bistros or mixing with the city’s hard men in darkened lanes, her stylish heels clicking in jazz time as her gold-plated revolver urgently returns fire.
She is gorgeous, thrilling and dangerous: the country will fall in love with her style, panache and determination.
I am a fan of Greenwood’s novels, and Davis is just how I imagined Phryne Fisher, even though at various times I have fantasised about Cate Blanchett or Toni Collette in the role. Thankfully the show, produced by Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, is as witty and elegant as the novels, with just the right dark edge: a kind of attractive Bleak City noirishness. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is produced with genuine big-screen cinematic style: the establishing first episode has the experienced hand of Tony Tilse to give it elegant direction, and there’s a lovely sound track from Greg Walker that echoes the musicality of Greenwood’s prose.
I’ve admired her books for years, after reading Cocaine Blues — the first in the series — in 1989. Greenwood is the class act of local crime writing, producing gorgeous prose in an agreeably strict form. She makes you purr aloud in admiration for the slicing wit with which she liberates the classic golden-age Dorothy L. Sayers kind of novel. The overriding impression is of a satirist at work, exquisitely sending up what may be seen as frivolous entertainments with their ‘‘ puppets and cardboard lovers and papiermache villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility’’, as Raymond Chandler described such books.
Like Greenwood’s novels, the TV series subverts the conventional idea of the crime thriller. Instead of being structured around the testing of a hero’s prowess, the stories offer us a woman who not merely tests her ability as a detective. We also see how she measures up to the extensive standards of male competence.
Miss Fisher, of course, leaves men floundering in her wake. ‘‘ Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers,’’ Greenwood once wrote. ‘‘ I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do.’’
Eagger and Cox (who is also the head writer on the series) first collaborated on Crashburn, and then created two series of
East of Everything together in NSW’S Byron Bay. Oddly enough in light of their latest project, East of Everything was about the mysteries of the male psyche, the way blokes flee emotional confrontation and the attempts women make to infiltrate our bleak silences. Starring Richard Roxburgh as a peripatetic writer in search of a true paradise, trying to leave behind the baggage of failed relationships, the series was set in a town with many similarities to Byron, the baby-boomer utopia where Cox still lives. It was touching, wry and highly intelligent.
But the producers were looking for something different. When establishing their new company Every Cloud Productions after East
of Everything finished, Cox and Eagger were actively seeking to develop a period crime series for prime-time television based on a successful book. They were attracted by the late 1920s period in which the Phryne Fisher books were set.
‘‘ Through the enormous devastation of the war and the loss of so many men, women held the fort and new opportunities emerged for them,’’ Cox says. ‘‘ Many women missed out on partners and marriage and the conventional choices because there just weren’t the men around, but then there were women like our Phryne Fisher who embraced the opportunity.’’
Eagger and Cox have taken Greenwood’s books and developed a throughline or an overarching narrative, partly invented, that allows them to accommodate the storylines of each novel and bring them to a close as the overall narrative unravels.
In her former life, you see, Phryne lived on the streets in Collingwood, scrounging for food with her sister Janey and avoiding the heavy hand of her drunken father. When Janey was abducted on a trip to the circus, Phryne was devastated. After World War I erased much of her family’s lineage, the dirtpoor Fishers of Collingwood suddenly found themselves in a lofty estate in the English countryside, with Phryne’s parents elevated to the titles of lord and lady. After a few years at boarding school, Phryne decided there was more to life than finishing-school manners and fled to join an all-women ambulance brigade attached to the French army.
Though she is living a life of luxury when the series opens in 1928, Phryne will not rest until she solves the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and ensure that Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell), the man thought to be responsible, never gets out of jail. (Foyle is a kind of Moriarty to Phryne’s Holmes.)
The first episode — which features a stunning performance from Miranda Otto as a grieving widow at the centre of the first investigation — starts as Phryne disembarks the Orient at Victoria Dock on her return to Melbourne. Soon she’s ensconced in the fashionable Windsor Hotel, swapping edgy jokes about the unnaturalness of celibacy and the medical problems of the ‘‘ wandering womb’’ with delightful Dr Macmillan, with her sexy men’s clothes and no-nonsense approach to the rife male hypocrisy of the time.
Then, before her very proper Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes) can drag Phryne off to attend her first soiree, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery: poisoned husbands, illegal abortionists, cocaine smuggling rings and the search for the dangerous and elusive drug lord ‘‘ the King of Snow’’. Not to mention her erotic encounters with handsome Russian dancer Sasha de Lisse (Kristof Piechocki).
Mind you, de Lisse is purely a lust object for the predatory Phryne, giving her a chance to flick off her silk stockings and try out the latest birth-control device, promulgated by one of her heroines, the ‘‘ thoroughly modern’’ Miss Marie Stopes.
Her adventure reaches its steamy end in the mysterious Turkish Bath Palace, situated behind a green door in a cobbled lane off Little Lonsdale Street.
The series is characterised by a charming facetiousness of style similar to that of Greenwood’s writing. It constantly surprises with its cleverness, and Eagger and Cox’s mastery of the crime thriller’s tropes ensures continual surprises of plot. When it pauses for breath the show takes us into a decorous world — a world of beauty, wit and charm — elegantly realised by director of photography Roger Lanser and production designer Robert Perkins.
Like Miss Fisher herself, the series should leave a long trail of admirers in its wake. ALSO bound to collect admirers is our favourite physical comedian Frank Woodley in his new eponymous eight-part comedy series, directed by Trent O’donnell, who gave us the acidic satire Review With Myles
Woodley uses mainly mime and the odd sound — words rarely escape though the clownish mask of a face strangled and frustrated by frantically working muscles — in playing the devoted father of seven-yearold Ollie. She’s played by very photogenic Alexandra Cashmere, who looks a little like the young Shirley Temple, and seemingly has no trouble working with a clown, something which might frighten some children.
Recently divorced Woodley is determined to win back his ex-wife Em (Justine Clarke, also a dab hand with physical comedy) and through some very funny flashbacks he tells us just what went wrong with their chaotic life together. The first episode finds him fantasising about the past in his latest job, which has him handing out flyers for an egg factory. Its denouement comes when, stuck in the vaudeville-style eggy outfit, he attends his daughter’s school concert.
There are echoes of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean in some of Woodley’s routines and also of the classic Michael Crawford series Some
Mothers Do ’ Ave ’ Em, which some will recall from the 1970s. That series followed the accident-prone Frank Spencer and his tolerant, long-suffering wife Betty through Frank’s various attempts to hold down a job. They frequently ended in comic disaster. Woodley, too, is well-meaning and optimistic, but equally naive, clueless and accidentprone.
He’s a supreme inventor of gags and a master of physical timing, and in this clever show he does a Chaplin, blending raw slapstick with sentiment. As with Chaplin and most of the other great silent comics, there’s a kind of nervous fastidiousness about his comedy, much of it performed to a wonderful soundtrack from composer Mal Webb. Buster Keaton said that when he and Chaplin first used the new sound cameras, what they most missed in them was the noise. The old silent-movie cameras made a rhythmic racket that both comedians had unconsciously taken for a beat when they were acting.
Some silent comics making the transition used a metronome for timing; Chaplin wrote his own music, directing his scenes with a tempo going on in his head. Woodley also seems to work to a beat, so exact is his control over every gesture and movement.
And underlying the slapstick silliness are some rather acerbic observations about the way men who have stuffed up their marriages rarely cope with being left by women they love.
Woodley, Wednesday, 8pm, ABC1
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,
Friday, 8.30pm, ABC1
Essie Davis in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Essie Davis will charm viewers as Phryne Fisher in the ABC’S new crime drama
Frank Woodley gets into a fine eggy mess in an episode of his new series