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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

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

TONY WRIGHT

The Doc­tor Blake Mys­ter­ies, Sun­day, ABC, 8.30pm.

Craig McLach­lan as Lu­cien Blake in The Doc­tor Blake Mys­ter­ies

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