Traditionally, the murder mystery genre has been dominated by UK programs. Shows like Poirot and Midsomer Murders have been consistently popular with Australian audiences.
Every Cloud Productions’ new series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries will bring a local take on the genre to the ABC’s lineup.
“We do true crime a lot, but that sort of slightly heightened world of murder mystery – the British do that, we don’t touch it,” says producer Fiona Eagger.
The 13-part series, based on the novels by solicitor Kerry Greenwood, follows the adventures of the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher – an amateur detective in 1920s Melbourne played by Essie Davis.
“There’s nothing at all like it on Australian television and there’s nothing like this on international television,” says Davis over the phone. “It’s got the murder mystery element, but it’s also got a kooky sense of humour and a crazy recklessness about it.”
Originally titled The Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery Series, the name was changed on the advice of international distributor All3Media. The company wanted ‘murder’ in the title, and to avoid having to tell broadcasters how to pronounce the eponymous character’s name. (For the record, it’s ‘Fry-knee’.)
Davis is full of praise for the show, and the character of Phryne in particular, citing her as an actress’s dream role.
"It’s been the most fantastic thing, to have such a strong, sexy, clever, brilliant, flawed, beautiful woman to play. They’re few and far between," she says. "Phryne isn't Miss Marple and she isn't Murder, She Wrote. She's a cross between Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie style, James Bond and Wonder Woman."
The Honourable Miss Fisher is certainly an intimidating character. Immaculately dressed and multilingual, she is a gifted dancer, a skilled lover, pilot, knife thrower and cat burglar.
Davis began taking lessons in tangoing and driving (she had an automatic license, but Phryne’s luxury hispano-suiza is a manual) two weeks prior to shooting. Once production began, tutoring in Russian, Mandarin and the foxtrot were squeezed in between filming and costume fittings.
“It was exhausting but the team was such a great team of people and the character is so loving of life and witty, that playing someone like that energises you,” Davis says.
Eagger and fellow producer Deb Cox were first drawn to Greenwood’s novels out of curiosity over their fan base. Their friends were reading the books, their mothers’ friends enjoyed them and even Cox’s teenage daughter was a fan.
“We were a bit curious to know what it was about it that could appeal to a 16-year-old and a 70-year-old,” says Eagger. “Phryne is one of the first feminists. She chooses to live alone, she chooses not to get married. She’s got many lovers. She’s a bit of a James Bond action hero – she’s much better dressed than James Bond though.”
Davis comes alive when asked about the show’s wardrobe. Over the course of the series, Phryne dons around 150 costumes, courtesy of costume designer Marion Boyce.
“Every couple of episodes something new would turn up and I would just go ‘Oh my God’,” she says. “I had the most incredible knee-high lace-up crocodile boots that I wore crossing a field, flying an airplane and to make love with an old lover of mine.”
The series had a budget of $1 million per episode. Eagger admits it was tough.
“I wanted every cent on screen,” she says. “I wanted the steam train, I wanted the plane, I wanted the ocean liner and the Hispano-Suiza. It stretched everyone, it really made people bleed.”
But that’s not to say that Eagger wouldn’t do it all over again.
“The ABC have asked us to start developing a second series,” she says. “We hope people will enjoy it, we want to make some more!”
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries will premiere this Friday, February 24, at 8:30pm on ABC1.
Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in a scene from episode three