TV’s most glam­orous sleuth is back in a new se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - TELEVISION -

Agatha Christie once said: “Oh dear, I never re­alised what a ter­ri­ble lot of ex­plain­ing one has to do in a mur­der.’’ Christie might have laboured over the in­tri­cate plot­ting of her mur­der mys­ter­ies, but she knew what she was do­ing — at one point she was the world’s big­gest sell­ing au­thor.

The crime fic­tion queen cap­i­talised on the fact most of us have an ap­palled fas­ci­na­tion with mur­der. But Christie’s oeu­vre also sug­gests that, so long as mur­der vic­tims are rich and their corpses are found in vi­cars’ stud­ies, Nile River cruise boats or English coun­try man­sions, then the busi­ness of one hu­man killing an­other should never be taken too se­ri­ously.

Christie’s air of wry de­tach­ment is repli­cated in the myr­iad screen adap­ta­tions of her nov­els, from the Miss Marple se­ries to the Death on the Nile films, and in other well-known dra­mas from the mur­der mys­tery lite sub­genre. Who knew the English home coun­ties had more mur­der­ers per man­i­cured square kilo­me­tre than al­most any­where else on the planet, un­til Mid­somer Mur­ders came along? Sim­i­larly, homi­cide is as com­mon as cloche hats in the ex­otic 1920s set­tings (a chalet, si­lent movie set, ladies’ road­ster rally) that fea­ture in popular lo­cal drama Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies.

The third se­ries of Miss Fisher, which has been a strong rat­ings per­former for the ABC, pre­mieres this week and un­furls in a magic and bur­lesque show, Mighty Mackenzie’s Cavalcade of Mys­ter­ies.

Our epony­mous hero­ine, Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis, owner of the sleek­est bob in town), sus­pects foul play when a ma­gi­cian’s as­sis­tant, ly­ing prone un­der a guil­lo­tine, is be­headed dur­ing a live per­for­mance.

Soon af­ter­wards, we see the string of pearls the vic­tim was wear­ing, ma­rooned in a pool of her blood. This com­pellingly grisly im­age might have come from a nour­ish, art house film, but the hor­ror is rapidly un­der­cut by the char­ac­ters’ per­pet­u­ally dry tone and blink-and-you’d-mis­s­them close-ups of the vic­tim. When Phryne’s fa­ther, Baron Henry Ge­orge Fisher (Pip Miller), a co­gnac-swill­ing wastrel who has in­vested heav­ily in the magic show, learns of the be­head­ing, he says with a Christie-es­que air of re­frig­er­ated de­tach­ment: “Mur­der, you say? … That is dread­ful for me.’’

As Miss Fisher at­tempts to sort out the magic show’s petty crims from its po­ten­tial killers, she stum­bles across a con­tor­tion­ist in a suit­case, an ap­par­ent con­fes­sion in­volv­ing man­slaugh­ter, and a let­ter writ­ten by a woman who is sup­pos­edly dead. She is, nat­u­rally, al­ways one step ahead of the po­lice, in­clud­ing her de­voted but chron­i­cally uptight beau, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Jack Robin­son (Nathan Page). Robin­son is keen on Miss Fisher, but her seem­ing lack of com­mit­ment un­set­tles him. For our lady de­tec­tive and pro­to­type fem­i­nist, played with a slinky charm by Davis, is a ca­reer flirt who at­tracts a nev­erend­ing pa­rade of tango dancers, Rus­sian clair­voy­ants, French artists and an­ar­chists.

Set in late 1920s Mel­bourne, Miss Fisher con­jures a fan­tasy world of but­lers, in­ner-city man­sions and enough stoles and evening gowns to fur­nish a dou­ble episode of Down­ton Abbey. At the cen­tre of each nar­ra­tive adventure is Miss Fisher, the am­a­teur de­tec­tive and sex­ual provo­ca­teur who out-sleuths the po­lice, uses in­nu­endo likes it’s her mother tongue and who clearly went to the same stunt school as James Bond. (In this episode, she is chained up in a wa­ter tank, and later in the se­ries she will take on the mafia in a gun­fight, per­form stunts in a plane and pose for erotic pho­to­graphs.)

Miss Fisher looks good and is tightly plot­ted, but ul­ti­mately I find it un­en­gag­ing. The main prob­lem is that it traf­fics ex­clu­sively in crudely sketched, pan­tomime-like char­ac­ters and cheesy hu­mour — in this week’s episode, we are meant to ac­cept that De­tec­tive Robin­son is knocked un­con­scious for hours by some­one open­ing a door, giv­ing Phryne the op­por­tu­nity to un­dress him with­out his knowl­edge. Alas, when the key char­ac­ters con­duct their lives as if they’re end­lessly strik­ing a pose or per­form­ing in a Christ­mas va­ri­ety show, it’s hard to be­lieve in them and to feel drawn into their dilem­mas.

Nonethe­less the show, based on a se­ries of crime nov­els by Kerry Green­wood (but now writ­ten as semi-orig­i­nal episodes), is one of the ABC’s more suc­cess­ful dra­mas and has proven global ap­peal — it has been sold to more than 120 ter­ri­to­ries. It’s also metic­u­lously re­searched, as the pro­ducer-writer team of Deb Cox and Fiona Eag­ger strive to cre­ate in ev­ery episode a self-con­tained world, from a bur­lesque show to an au­then­tic 20s ten­nis tour­na­ment played in high heels.

An­other mid­dle­brow drama re­plete with al­most fetishis­tic pe­riod de­tail is Mr Sel­fridge, a Bri­tish drama that also launches its third sea­son this week. It’s cre­ated by An­drew Davies, a House of Cards writer and the ge­nius adap­tor be­hind 1994’s Mid­dle­march and the 1995 minis­eries of Pride and Prej­u­dice that fea­tured a young Colin Firth in that wet shirt. Screen­ing on Chan­nel 7, Mr Sel­fridge is based on a bi­og­ra­phy of depart­ment store mogul Harry Sel­fridge, an Amer­i­can who lived in Lon­don, was known as “mile-a-minute Harry’’ and ap­par­ently be­lieved shop­ping could be as ex­cit­ing as sex.

Se­ries three opens with a grim scene — Harry (Jeremy Piven) is bury­ing his beloved (if much cheated-on) wife, Rose, who was played by Australia’s Frances O’Con­nor. “How am I go­ing to live with­out her?’’ he asks, with feel­ing. Buy­ing stuff helps, ap­par­ently.

Cut to a scene, nine months later, and a tri­umphant Harry is re­turn­ing, in a bi­plane, from a shop­ping spree in Ire­land, where he has ex­panded his re­tail em­pire. He is still mourn­ing his wife, but the mar­riage of his daugh­ter, Ros­alie (Kara Toin­ton), to a Rus­sian artist and avi­a­tor is a wel­come dis­trac­tion — cue pea­cocks and an avalanche of white roses and wis­te­ria on a vast, rooftop ter­race.

But even be­fore the wed­ding flow­ers have

Miss Fisher’s Mur­der Mys­ter­ies;


Mr wilted, it’s clear that Ros­alie’s new hus­band, Serge De Bolotoff (Leon Ock­enden), is the drama’s res­i­dent bounder — he drinks, flirts with other women on his wed­ding day and is pre­pared to do busi­ness with his fa­ther-in-law’s en­emy. He and his mother, a pen­ni­less Rus­sian princess turned refugee, played with rel­ish (and a thick east Euro­pean ac­cent) by Zoe Wana­maker, are out to siphon off what­ever they can from the wealthy Sel­fridges.

Mean­while, the mogul’s staff worry that his griev­ing heart is rul­ing his head, as he makes char­i­ta­ble in­vest­ments his wife would have ap­proved of but that are bad for his busi­ness’s bot­tom line.

Set in Eng­land at the dawn of the jazz age, Mr Sel­fridge has ev­ery­thing you would ex­pect from a well-made, am­ply-re­sourced Bri­tish drama about the tribu­la­tions of the rich and in­fa­mous.

There is a vil­lain-in-chief and as­sorted mi­nor vil­lains; a debonair but trau­ma­tised war hero who turns to drink; and a priv­i­leged but feisty daugh­ter who rails, ever so el­e­gantly, against the gen­der re­stric­tions of her era.

Like Miss Fisher, Mr Sel­fridge ref­er­ences defin­ing events from the pe­riod in which it plays out — we see the nexus be­tween pro­hi­bi­tion­style al­co­hol re­stric­tions and the rise of or­gan­ised crime; and the ten­sions that spike when women con­tinue to oc­cupy the jobs of sol­diers re­turned from World War I.

But, ul­ti­mately, this drama doesn’t fully ig­nite, mostly be­cause of a lack of depth and flair in the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and dia­logue. The char­ac­ters seem to tele­graph what they’re about to do long be­fore they do it.

Nor does it help that the dia­logue can be trite and jar­ringly con­tem­po­rary. “The whole thing will have a more mod­ern, airy feel,’’ one char­ac­ter says about a sec­tion of Harry’s depart­ment store, as if she has wan­dered in accidentally from an episode of The Block. Down­ton Abbey it is not.

Essie Davis as the in­trepid Phryne Fisher in

and, be­low, Jeremy Piven in

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