Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Series 1 Part 1)

Richard Watts

ABC DVD/ROADSHOW: Fans of the unflappable flapper detective Miss Phryne Fisher may be a trifle disappointed by the special features included on this new DVD release.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Series 1 Part 1)
A fabulously dressed, ferociously capable flapper detective prowling the streets and laneways of Melbourne in 1928, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher originally seduced her way into the popular imagination in Cocaine Blues, the first of 18 books to date in a seemingly inexhaustible series penned by Melbourne solicitor turned author Kerry Greenwood. Since her 1989 debut, the redoubtable Miss Fisher has battled kidnappers and murderers, outwitted villains and broken hearts. This year she made the jump from page to screen in the ABC TV drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

This ABC/Roadshow DVD release features the first seven episodes of the 2012 series, starring Essie Davis (The Slap) as Miss Fisher; Nathan Page (Paper Giants, All Saints) as her sparring partner and source of sexual tension, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson; Ashleigh Cummings (Tomorrow When the War Began) as Miss Fisher’s maid and companion, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams; and Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Cloudstreet) as Dot’s fiancée, the fresh-faced Constable Hugh Collins.

Other series regulars include character actor Miriam Margoyles as Phryne’s conservative Aunt Prudence, and Travis McMahon and Anthony Sharpe as Phryne’s staunchly working class allies and investigative assistants, Bert and Cec.

Unlike later, original episodes in the series, these first seven episodes are all based – though not always faithfully – on Greenwood’s novels; nor does the order of the episodes reflect the order the books were published in. Indeed, devoted fans of Greenwood’s novels will find much to quibble over in the series; characters and story elements have been compressed or abandoned, new characters introduced, and two story arcs – one concerning the childhood abduction and murder of Phryne’s older sister Jane; the other a slowly-simmering attraction between Phryne and Jack Robinson – somewhat awkwardly wedged inserted into the action.

That said, it’s important to recognise that television and literature are two very different media; what works on the page will not always work onscreen, and vice versa. There is little point in criticising the series for its failure or otherwise to capture the details of the books when it’s capturing the essence of the stories that matters, and in this reviewer’s mind, that has been done relatively effectively. Where this series grates is in the quality of the scripts themselves.

Like all too many Australian films and television dramas, there’s a sense that the scripts are underdeveloped. Dialogue is often laboured and stiff, as if the need to balance exposition and plot/character development with the period setting has overshadowed the writers’ efforts at crafting sparkling and believable conversations between the characters. Characterisation is thin – particularly the roles of Bert and Cec, and Aunt Prudence – and despite the writers’ attempts to surround Phryne with a regular cast, characters disappear and reappear almost at random. Phryne’s adopted daughter Jane is rarely to be seen, save when absolutely necessary to the plot, and Cec’s girlfriend, introduced in the first episode, is not seen again until episode five – again, only to be used as a plot device in order to cause friction between Bert and Cec.

Such flaws can be overlooked, but more problematic are the central mysteries themselves, which often either beggar belief (as in the case of 'The Green Mill Murder') or are so thinly constructed as to be almost irrelevant. All too often, suspects are quickly written out of proceedings – left behind at the scene of the crime in ‘Murder on the Ballarat Train’ for instance – or so peripheral to the action that their only reason for existing is to arouse suspicion, as in ‘Raisins and Almonds’. As whodunnits go, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries leave much to be desired - a criticism which can also be levelled at the original books, which are more concerned with style and surface detail than plot and substance.

What the program does well, however, is evoke a sense of period and a sense of fun. The production design is excellent – especially considering the usual ABC budget – and firmly and faithfully captures the milieu of 1928 Melbourne, though one occasionally grows tired of the tight shots necessary to crop out the modern world lurking at the edge of the frame whenever the action moves outdoors. The atmosphere of the program too is commendable; the central characters and their cosy relationships are, I suspect, the real reason why viewing figures for the series have remained strong. Put simply, Miss Fisher and friends are engaging enough that viewers are happy to spend an hour in their company every Friday night.

Like any good DVD release, this two-disc set features a number of special features, though all of them will probably already be familiar to devoted fans of the series who have perused the program’s dedicated YouTube channel. Producers Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox discuss the appeal of the program and their reasons for making it in the 2.10 minute mini-doco ‘Meet the Creators’, and production designer Robert Perkins discusses dressing the sets and creating the style of the show in the 3.28 min ‘The Look of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ (which also features a massive spoiler for an episode of the series not included on this disc – be warned!).

There’s also a short, and not particularly edifying interview with Essie Davis about playing Phryne Fisher; an equally short interview with the men responsible for driving the titular train in episode two, ‘Murder on the Ballarat Train’; and a brief guided tour of the set of Phryne’s house, conducted by a rapturous Kerry Greenwood, who waxes lyrical on the many fine period details the set contains.

All the extra features are enjoyable, but like the series themselves are slight and a little shallow. Hopefully the special features included on volume two of the series (currently slated for a June 7 release) will be a little more in-depth and detailed, though I’m not holding my breath.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Series 1 Part 1)
ABC DVD/Roadshow Entertainment
Released May 3
RRP $29.95
Rated M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts