Fact File: The Brokenwood Mysteries
Ahead of the 10th season of The Brokenwood Mysteries, creator and showrunner Tim Balme tells DQ six things we should know about the New Zealand-set detective drama.
First airing on New Zealand’s TVNZ in 2014, The Brokenwood Mysteries is set in a rustic village where murder lurks around every corner.
When a body is discovered, it’s then up to Detective Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) and Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) to solve the case in every feature-length episode.
Produced by South Pacific Pictures and distributed by All3Media International, the series is now heading into its 10th season – and has won a loyal following around the world after being picked up by the likes of Acorn TV in the US, UKTV, DR in Denmark and France 3.
Here, creator, lead writer and executive producer Tim Balme tells DQ more about the series, its fictional setting and the real events that have inspired some of its episodes.
What and where is Brokenwood?
The Brokenwood Mysteries is a South Pacific Pictures detective series that is just delivering its 10th season and has found a home in various countries around the world through All3Media International – including France and Germany.
Brokenwood is bucolic provincial centre somewhere in the North Island of New Zealand that hosts all the industries and cultures the country is famous for: vineyards, tourism, farming and The Lord of the Rings, plus fisheries, local theatre groups and, in fact, any industry, business or niche club that might serve as a great platform for a story. If we need it, Brokenwood happens to have it! Brokenwood is like the Tardis: it looks small from the outside but, once you enter, it’s as big as you need it to be.
As Brokenwood ventures into its 43rd tele-feature, the death count is nearing an even 50. While it is definitely fiction, many of the stories are inspired by actual events. Dog Day Morning in season seven was inspired by an actual bank robbery I witnessed in the late 90s. Likewise, Four Fires & a Funeral in season eight was inspired by a friend who works as both a fireman and an undertaker. Over Her Dead Body was dreamt up while I was driving home from a funeral – I passed through Hobbiton [the movie set from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, now a tourist attraction] and decided that The Lord of the Rings should have made an impact in Brokenwood as it did throughout the rest of New Zealand.
Genre-wise, Brokenwood was devised to honour the murder-mystery genre – universal in appeal but seen through a unique Kiwi lens, full of laconic humour, laid-back at times, understated and grounded in real Kiwi archetypes.
How the casting agent got the job – and other roles.
The casting of Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd was down to the wire. Neill Rea was the casting agent for the show at the time and he was a last-minute consideration, having not initially put himself forward. Thankfully he did, and his screen test made sense of the character. Teaming him up with Fern Sutherland, who I worked with on South Pacific Pictures’ The Almighty Johnsons, created the perfect combo. That dynamic – augmented with both Nic Sampson as Breen and then Jarod Rawiri as DC Chalmers – has proved enduring.
Brokenwood, like New Zealand, is a bi-cultural centre where Te Reo Maori (Maori language – one of three official languages: English, Maori and Sign) is interspersed in everyday speak much as it is across wider New Zealand. And on any given day (or episode) Brokenwood appears as a multicultural township reflecting the country as it is. The casting of Jarod Rawiri as the new detective [from season seven] was an important step in honouring and reflecting that evolution, as well as Cristina Ionda as the indelible Russian pathologist Dr Gina Kadinsky. Her nationality was decided when I was writing episode one and needed a fresh take on the rather tried and true role of the pathologist. In the course of one day while escorting my young son to various appointments, we met three Russian nationals in a variety of occupations. That’s how Gina came to be. Making her Russian gave her an interesting point of difference and inevitably a unique point of view juxtaposed against the three New Zealand-born detectives.
International fan visits
The Brokenwood Mysteries’ appeal is such that fans now regularly make the pilgrimage out to New Zealand and the wider Auckland area where the series is filmed to visit the multitude of locations. They’re posting their selfies on fan sites and creating a warm and supportive online community – one that reflects the cosy, good-natured tone of the show (albeit with murders!).
How we storyline
Brokenwoood is not put together with a story team or writers’ table. Each episode sees essentially a standalone writer tasked with storylining their own episode, supervised by me.
Sometimes episodes are co-written. In those cases, two writers will beat out the plot together. Having come from a background of story tables on other shows, I felt it wasn’t the most efficient method for an intricate 90-minute story arc.
Why you should try it
New audiences should take a chance on Brokenwood because the show can move you and make you chuckle at the same time. It’s a crime drama with a twinkle in its eye. I like to feel that we honour the impact a murder has on the people left behind and the community, but we offset that with a black humour that is quintessentially Kiwi.