Television Graeme Blundell and the mystery of Dr Blake
The final season of the wonderfully atmospheric The Doctor Blake Mysteries is upon us rather too soon
The much-loved period crime show The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as maverick country town doctor Lucien Blake, returns this week. Produced for the ABC by December Media, with production credits shared by creators George Adams and Tony Wright, with the redoubtable Stuart Menzies as executive producer, it was the ABC’s most popular Australian-made program last year, averaging 1.659 million viewers. The only regular ABC program to get a fractionally bigger audience was its rebroadcast of British show Doc Martin, which averaged 1.67 million nationally.
Somewhat inexplicably, this is the last season for Blake and his Ballarat police and medical colleagues, though a feature-length finale is promised later this year. Fans were outraged at the news of its demise, amid rumours earlier this year that the series might be picked up by Seven or Foxtel, which has had such success with the reimagined A Place to Call Home, uprooted from Seven. And the frustrated response of the outraged consumer was more than justified in Doctor Blake’s case, given the show’s success, its charm, its confident sense of self and allround appeal. It’s easy to undervalue the craft and industrial intelligence behind the show’s concept and its cinematic execution.
Blake is an appealing amalgam of the figure of the classical adventurer turned amateur detective, an investigator who knows about war and combat, an enigmatic figure with a healthy dash of charity.
At the beginning of the series, set in the late 1950s, Blake had recently returned, after decades abroad, to his family home in Ballarat, a Victorian town rich in colonial history, to take over his late father’s medical practice and to act as the local forensic examiner on cases investigated by the police, a team of four covering an area the size of an English county. He had left Australia in his 20s to study medicine in Scotland and, after graduating in 1931, joined the British Army as a medical officer.
He served in the Far East during World War II and married a Chinese woman with whom he had a child, but lost touch with both at the fall of Singapore. There’s an interesting moral ambiguity that colours his image; you always have the sense that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men, something constantly reinforced in McLachlan’s performance, the actor fond of the battle-weary soldier’s 1000-yard stare.
Like his Ballarat countrymen, he appreciates that his world is increasingly characterised by disorder and uncertainty at time when almost everything is being transformed as the 50s slides into the next turbulent decade, from comfortable torpor into the cultural unrest of the 60s. But Blake, unlike so many of the town’s more conservative citizens, knows the changes can be faced honourably and confidently.
“There is a feeling of the old moulds cracking, the stale and insular moulds which have kept the nation a backwater of late Victorian culture for so long,” Craig McGregor wrote of this period in his Profile of Australia, just a few years after Blake was pursuing his murderers around Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree, the Colonists Club or the Mechanics Institute. Blake represents the emerging Australia: more tolerant, less blokey, less heroic and more human. And his show is really about contrasts in society and the conflicts that arise as changes occur.
What Wright and Adams give us are shapely, atmospheric stories of psychological suspense mixed with the baroque ingenuity of the drawing-room mystery with some resonant dark underpinning in the way the stories reflect the cultural and political attitudes of a rapidly changing country. But they are not just logic problems, cryptograms to be assiduously worked out like an exercise in calculus, but stories of character and emotion and romance. As The New York Times’ Margaret Lyons puts it, “This is not the most original show I have ever seen, but it is a very good version of what it is.”
At times the series, represented internationally by ITV Studios, is reminiscent of Foyle’s War and Inspector George Gently with its regional settings and the way its writers pit oldfashioned prejudice and bigotry against emerging social change.
The resonance is quite deliberate and calculated, according to its producers, who believed that if they created “something indistinguishable from the best of these kinds of UK shows” they would find an international market. “Our instructions to the writers were to make our show indistinguishable from Inspector George Gently, Foyle’s War and the best shows that the ABC imports from the UK,” Wright told The Screen Blog recently. “We loved the idea of shipping coals to Newcastle.”
There were a couple of pitch meetings with the ABC, according to Wright, and the show developed quickly from there, although there was some resistance, as another period murder mystery was in the pipeline. “I wasn’t aware that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was in development,” Adams says. “I thought the resistance was like saying, ‘ We have Prime Suspect so we don’t want Cracker’. We had a very clear vision of what the show was and stuck to that. If I’ve learnt anything it’s this: once you’ve got a good idea, stick to it — because there is a danger the idea gets diluted and the show becomes a smorgasbord of what different parties want. You’ve got to know what the show is in one sentence.”
The show has been sold to more than 130 broadcasters, including in the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, and France. It was the first show commissioned by the ABC to go out on BBC One (although there have been some co-productions) each season going out on afternoons every weekday over two weeks, and attracting more 1.5 million viewers. Doctor Blake also has a growing reputation in the US where it appears on some of the PBS stations.
As Ballarat surged into a new decade, with post-war change seeping through the cracks in old values amid fears about rock ’n’ roll, nuclear testing, “reds under the bed”, immigration and social breakdown, Blake accepted the additional role of police surgeon. He’s assisted by his friend Jean Beazley (Nadine Garner), with whom he became increasingly close, the unresolved sexual tension between them one of the shows enduring pleasures. Viewers avidly hung on for four seasons to see their first kiss.
Now, as season five gets under way in A Lethal Combination, Blake has finally popped the question to Jean and she has agreed, on the proviso that for now this happy secret stays between them. But, as Jean admits, “We might as well take an ad out in The Courier”, given their romance is now common knowledge. “About bloody time too,” says the dourly Protestant superintendent Matthew Lawson (Joel Tobeck), who has returned to run the local cops. “I thought you’d never get around to asking her.”
Things sour around them, though, when an exhibition boxing match — dubbed “Battle in Ballarat” — between Senior Sergeant Charlie Davis’s (Charlie Cousins) brother, Raging Ray Davis (Ethan Panizza), and “Mad Dog” Mickey Ellis (Troy Coward) results in the latter, the infamous local champion, seemingly beaten savagely to death by Davis. But when Blake becomes involved a medical inspection reveals a cardiac arrest, possibly brought on by poisoning. Lawson puts Charlie in charge of the investigation, complicated by the fact that their mother is in town with her new fiance, who happens to be Ray’s coach, the rather louche Bernie Thompson (John Waters).
It’s a strong episode to start this final season, its cultural subtext this time the continuing discrimination against people of colour (a superb performance in a smallish part by Greg Fryer as the Aboriginal cornerman and former boxing manager Lou Dixon) and the continuing problems of assimilation faced by post-war European migrants to Australia, many of whom dispersed themselves into rural areas.
Astutely directed by veteran Ian Barry ( Police Rescue, A Place to Call Home), the brutal fight scenes, never easy to pull off successfully, are particularly well-realised by cinematographer Craig Barden, and Barry has a nice touch with performance. There’s also a delightfully sleazy performance from Waters as the charismatic but morally dodgy Thompson; one of the merits of this show is the way it has provided such a showcase for the work of our best character actors.
And once again there should be applause for showrunner Adams and his writing team, who shift the cards that bear the names of the scenes and sequences, further annotating them, until, as Clive James wrote about the work of TV writers’ teams, “the episode reveals the nervous system from which it will expand into a living fiction: that is, into a manageable reality”.
Why on earth would the ABC not want more of Dr Blake’s shenanigans?
WE LOVED THE IDEA OF SHIPPING COALS TO NEWCASTLE
The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Sunday, ABC, 8.30pm.
Craig McLachlan as Lucien Blake in The Doctor Blake Mysteries