Tag Archives: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Being other people

From starring in punk western True History of the Kelly Gang to reprising the beloved role of Phryne Fisher in big-screen adventure Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears, Australian actor Essie Davis tells DQ why she loves stepping into other people’s shoes.

While television has long been touted as the usurper of cinema, few people can have a clearer idea of how the two mediums can work together than Australian actor Essie Davis.

Both of Davis’ most recent projects – True History of the Kelly Gang and Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears – started life as movies destined for the big screen before transferring to streaming services or traditional channels.

Now at home in Tasmania amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down production on films and TV shows around the world, not to mention closing cinemas, the actor is reflecting on the fact that people will still be able to see both films somewhere, somehow.

“It’s a strange time, but luckily I’ve worked a crazy amount over the last couple of years. And even though it’s very sad that nearly everything I’ve done is meant to be in the cinema right now, it is a time when people really need entertainment, and they have the opportunity to access it in their own homes,” Davis tells DQ. “So hopefully everything I have been able to do will contribute to a happier or more fulfilling times.”

Essie Davis

In the meantime, her director husband Justin Kurzel is continuing to work on new scripts while Davis is also looking at potential new projects in preparation for such a time when production can ramp up again. “There’s been a lot to do, but nothing that is imminent, because no one knows what’s going to happen,” she notes. Another film starring Davis, The Justice of Bunny King, was due to be touring the festival circuit this summer.

One thing that’s guaranteed is that when filming does begin again, Davis will likely be starring in projects that continue to push her out of her comfort zone, with ABC television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries proving to be her longest recurring role. Davis played the 1920s detective over three seasons before its feature film spin-off.

“One of my favourite things in the world to do is to step into other people’s shoes and to step into shoes I’ve never worn before,” says the star, whose other credits include Game of Thrones, The Babadook, Lambs of God, The White Princess and The Slap.

“I love challenging myself and not repeating myself. I love stretching myself and being stretched by others. I really endeavour to tell new stories and from perspectives I haven’t seen before. That is something I always have sought in my life. I never fancied being typecast and, somehow, in the roles that I have managed to earn and win and play, I have always managed to shake it up.”

Launched at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival before rolling out on Australian streamer Stan, True History of the Kelly Gang is an epic, stylised, fictionalised retelling of the life of legendary bush ranger Ned Kelly that reveals the influences that shaped the notorious icon’s life. Kurzel directed the movie, which was inspired by Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name.

The film spans Kelly’s younger years to the time leading up to his death, with the fractured and powerful love story between Ned and his mother Ellen, played by Davis, at its centre. The cast also boasts George McKay, the breakout star of Oscar-winning war film 1917, as Ned, plus Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Hoult and Russell Crowe.

Davis says playing Ellen was one of the greatest experiences of her acting career, describing the real-life character as a mercurial, strong and wonderful woman.

“Justin and I have always wanted to work together on a substantial project. As he was reading the novel, he was constantly saying, ‘This is a great role for you.’ And when I read it, I knew it was too,” she says. “It is such a brave film. It’s really not a historical biopic. It’s such an alternate take on Ned’s story. It’s someone seizing back their story and saying, ‘Hey, everyone thinks they know my story. But this is my story. This is the true history.’

“It has this punk element to it as well, even though it’s an incredibly dramatic story of a young man who becomes an outlaw because of the way he’s been treated by his crooked oppressors and raised by his amazing mother, who is training him to survive in a country where survival is all you can do.”

Though the film’s title contains ‘true history,’ that assertion is immediately undermined by a title card that reads, ‘Nothing you’re about to see is true.’ Regardless of whether the film can be considered the real story of Ned Kelly, or a particular perspective of that story, Davis brought plenty of research to the role, which included filming in the real Melbourne jail where Ned was hanged after finally being captured.

Davis as Ellen Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang

“It’s a tiny little jail and it’s [built with] cold stone with tiny holes for your window,” she says. “Ellen did marry George King [her second husband, in 1874], a young man who was the same age as Ned, and she went on to have three more children with this guy and lived until her 90s and outlived most of her children. She was a renowned horse rider and clearly a sexy woman if she’s marrying someone her son’s age, so there’s a lot of fact in this, even though it says nothing you’re about to see is true.

“We thoroughly researched all the history books but we were inspired by Peter Carey’s novel, which asks, ‘What do you really know about someone?’ This is their history from their point of view. What if things had been different? What if the police had not been constantly harassing the Kelly family?

“Ellen didn’t want her child to grow up to be one of them, because they’re bad people. I love her spirit. I know that she’s manipulative but, to me, Ellen is doing everything right by her family. She’s teaching her kids to survive and to not want to follow a path of going into the law, because the law was corrupt. She’s certainly not a quaint, sweet lady in period costume. Ellen is a woman on fire, desperate to survive, and she’s going to make sure her children survive and that they stay with her and are loyal to her. I love that.”

Ellen Kelly is certainly a far cry from Phryne Fisher, the adventurous ‘lady detective’ of 1920s Melbourne who first appeared on television in 2012. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels, ran for three seasons, ending in 2015, before being resurrected this year in a feature-length movie, Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears. Having debuted in theatres earlier this year, it has since aired internationally on Acorn TV in the US and Alibi in the UK, following deals with distributor All3Media International.

The story sees Phryne unravel a decade-old mystery concerning priceless emeralds, ancient curses and the disappearance of a forgotten tribe.

Davis says that while returning to Miss Fisher was a completely different prospect from playing Ellen Kelly, similar levels of work and commitment were needed. In particular, Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears “required so much extra because everyone needed to be reminded we were not making a television episode or a TV movie, but we were making a feature film and we really had to step up a level.”

She continues: “That was a lot of work in terms of making sure the script was at a reasonably high level to be able to take on an Indiana Jones-type story with a much lower budget than Indiana Jones. It still had to be a crafted story that required a lot more of myself in many other roles than just playing the character.”

Part of the film was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where the production was able to film story elements set in Jerusalem and Palestine in locations and on sets previously seen in The English Patient and Kingdom of Heaven, against the backdrop of the Sahara Desert.

“It was hard work in a completely different and exhausting way,” she continues. “What we went through in Kelly Gang was brutal. We had floods and freezing snow and we were windswept. We were doing big fight sequences and breaking ribs and pulling out hair, but loving each other in amongst it all. Miss Fisher was completely different but still exhausting, and satisfying in different ways.”

A film wasn’t always on the cards, despite talk of taking Miss Fisher to the big screen early in the life of the series. Part of that stems from Davis’ own love of the cinema and the exuberance of the character, “an amazing heroine who is so naughty, gorgeous, capable, independent and dexterous and can speak any language, fly a plane, scale a building, dance a tango, flirt with the rich and support the poor,” the actor says.

Parts of Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears were filmed in Ouarzazate, Morocco

“She’s as wonderful and glorious as Indiana Jones or James Bond, so why not have a feature film? That’s what I always thought, and never say never.

“It’s a beautiful world. The costumes are beautiful, all the men are dressed beautifully. There’s always a wonderful chemistry between Phryne and whatever suitors she may have, as well as her darling Inspector Jack Robinson [played by Nathan Page]. There’s nothing quite like watching people fall for each other. It makes you, as an audience, lean in. It’s a little piece of joy that people like watching.”

With a passionate international fan base continuing to follow Miss Fisher’s adventures, there would certainly be a clamour to see more of her exploits, in film or television. But Davis says any follow-up would be based on the reception to Crypt of Tears.

“Hopefully, people will watch it and love it – and who knows? It depends on the scriptwriting and the stories they can produce. It’s quite expensive to make an international adventure set in 1929, which is action, adventure, romance, comedy and murder mystery. Although we did it on the smell of an oily rag, it would require a little more to be as adventurous as I would like.”

Being an associate producer on Miss Fisher has certainly fuelled Davis’ ideas of pushing into new roles off-camera, with a desire to direct and produce. But she is unwavering in her commitment to acting.

“I would like to direct and I certainly want to produce. Even though I’ve never seen myself as a producer, I feel like I want to be able to facilitate and make the stakes high and make things better,” she adds. “However, my true love, my greatest love, is acting. I love it so much. I want to do it until I’m a little old lady.”

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Opening the Crypt

Five years after her last appearance as 1920s private detective Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis returns to the role in big-screen outing Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears. DQ follows the adventurer to Morocco.

Located in south-west Morocco, south of the Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate is known as the Door to the Desert. The city is also notable for the volume of movie productions that are attracted to the stunning landscapes that surround it, with Lawrence of Arabia, The Living Daylights, The Mummy, Gladiator and James Bond film Spectre among those to have filmed there.

More recently, Ouarzazate also welcomed the cast and crew of Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears, a big-screen spin-off from the hugely popular Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries that has aired in more than 120 countries and territories around the world.

The period drama first aired on ABC in 2012, centring on the personal and professional life of Phryne Fisher, a private detective in 1920s Melbourne. Essie Davis (The Babadook, Lambs of God) takes the title role as Phryne, a charming and determined “lady investigator” who has a habit of solving murders, much to the frustration of the local police force.

Three seasons were produced by Every Cloud Productions, the last coming in 2015. Five years later, the series has made the leap to the big screen, with feature-length Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears making its debut in cinemas in Australia and the US earlier this year. All3Media International, which distributes the series, secured deals with US streamer Acorn TV, which will release the film to subscribers today, and Alibi in the UK, where it will air in early April.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears

It’s October 2018, just days after the start of production, when DQ is taxied out of Ouarzazate and into the desert towards Oasis de Fint, where green shrubs and trees stand against a backdrop of red rocks and mountains that stretches for miles all around. From a unit base that comprises two large tents and an assortment of lorries, a track leads down into the valley where a number of crew members, scattered on the mountainside, slowly come into view.

Beside them, a Bedouin village set has been constructed. Extras sit in huddles in front of mud huts and tents that circle a well, with palm trees standing beside a small stream. Sand and straw cover the ground.

It’s here where some early scenes from the story take place, featuring a young Bedouin girl called Shirin and her mother, played by Nicole Chamoun (Safe Harbour, On the Ropes). What follows is murder, mystery and mayhem as the story takes Phryne between London and Palestine.

After freeing the now grown-up Shirin from her unjust imprisonment in Jerusalem, Miss Fisher begins to unravel a decade-old mystery concerning priceless emeralds, ancient curses and the truth behind the suspicious disappearance of Shirin’s forgotten tribe.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks), Daniel Lapaine (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner) have joined the band of returning series regulars, which includes Nathan Page (Underbelly) as Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Miriam Margolyes (Call the Midwife) as Aunt Prudence and Ashleigh Cummings (NOS4A2) as loyal assistant and maid Dorothy ‘Dot’ Collins.

The oasis forms just one part of the filming schedule in Morocco, with shooting also taking place in Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert. On set, many of the crew are already taking regular shelter from the blistering morning sun, with director Tony Tilse (Serengoon Road, Wolf Creek) and cinematographer Roger Lanser (The Magic Flute) inside one tent watching the camera feeds on two monitors.

Writer Deborah Cox (left) and producer Fiona Eagger

“Part of being a cinematographer in Australia means we’re used to this sort of harsh light,” Lanser says of working in the desert surroundings. “But the difference you get here is you get these lovely contrasts with the costumes, the flesh tones and nature providing reds and earth colours for all these massive wide shots.

“We’re working with such beautiful actors and Essie’s a real trooper. She’s open to whatever makes it work for the shot. She’s happy-go-lucky and very much aware of how cinematography services her part in the show. She has to wear hats a lot – the hats are deliberately modified so that the face is framed beautifully. The costumes, the flesh tone, the make-up and the production design are all elements that come together to get the show this great look; it’s not just one single thing.”

Based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was created by producer Fiona Eagger and writer Deborah Cox, who are also executive producers. They conceived The Crypt of Tears as a standalone story after the series, though one that retains many of the themes and relationships that have made the original series so popular. They also launched a spin-off series, 1960s-set Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, last year.

“We wanted to do sort of an Indiana Jones-type story with a bit of Romancing the Stone,” says Eagger of their ambitions for the movie. “Miss Fisher is a mix of adventure and murder mystery, and this film is probably tipping a little bit more into adventure. We’re still trying to satisfy the murder-mystery audience and the audience that want to come for the romance between Jack and Phryne.”

Both Eagger and Cox have experience in features, with Eagger noting that the size of the Australian television industry means many actors and crew operate in both mediums. Their preparation included looking at other TV-to-film crossovers and seeing where they both failed in order to avoid similar traps. So, after a few drafts of the script, Eagger and Cox sought advice from John Collee (Hotel Mumbai, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World) about what to focus on in the transition from television to film.

The relationship between Phryne and Jack (Nathan Page) is a big part of Miss Fisher’s success

“Writing for television, you write for ongoing characters,” Eagger says. “You have progression in a relationship slightly, but you really want your characters to be the same. Whereas in a film, you’re doing a much bigger arc for your character. It’s the emotional world of finding Jack, and where do you take that? So with the television series, you could make that last for eight hours or 13. But in a film, you have to give a complete experience.”

Davis is certainly impressed by the scale and ambition of Miss Fisher’s move to the big screen. In costume as Phryne, with her trademark haircut, she says returning to the character is “like getting on a bicycle,” though the script will swap pedal bikes for motorbikes, camel rides and a set piece on top of a moving train carriage as it hurtles through the Palestinian countryside.

“She’s full of joy,” the actor says of Phryne. “She’s a fighter for the underdog, she’s a changer of rules. She’s super naughty, and her naughtiness is often on behalf of someone else. She drives a fast car, she can fly a plane, she can speak lots of languages, she can dance any dance that needs to be danced. She’s a great lover of men and a great fighter for women’s rights and human rights but in a very positive way.

“She’s such a joyful life force, and you do get completely influenced by the character you’re playing. To be her is to be in joy and to be curious and to be interested. She’s a fun person to be around so she’s a fun person to be inside.”

Davis is also an integral part of the team behind the scenes, working with Cox on the script and offering opinions during casting. “Even though Deb is the writer, we’re all wrangling, changing ideas, pulling characters out, merging characters and changing how they’re how relationships work,” she says. “It’s a pretty low budget to do a period action film, so there’s been some fantastic, amazing parts of it that have had to go. But then, all of a sudden, there’s just nothing there, and that’s just not good enough – so we go, ‘What can we do?’ and I make lots of suggestions and they say we can’t afford it.”

Parts of the movie were filmed in the Moroccan desert

As Phryne’s professional and personal sparring partner Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Page is equally effusive about returning to the world of Miss Fisher and fanning the flames of the pair’s affectionate but often contemptuous relationship.

“They just can’t click back immediately into the world we left them in [several years ago], so they come together but they’re not expecting to be here under these circumstances,” Page explains. “Things get pretty dire out in the desert. There’s going to be some tension, which inevitably there has to because you can’t just go for the frisson alone. That’s the wonderful thing about these two characters, that there is that tension and one of them has to bend a little. Usually it’s Jack.”

Page says he has been surprised by the international success of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, revealing fans of the show have travelled to Australia to watch him in theatre shows. Notably, the A$9m (US$5.6m) budget has been boosted by A$1m raised through a crowdfunding appeal, which offered fans from all over the world the chance to become an extra or join the cast read-through. But why has it struck a nerve with audiences?

“Number one, it’s the era – it’s beautiful,” he says. “It has that nostalgia to it. You’ve got that scenery. I don’t think it takes itself too seriously at all; there’s a certain kitsch to it that works. But it’s still manages to address some issues here and there. The Phryne-Jack frisson is one of the key elements, so you’ve got all this action taking place but then you’ve got this side thing going on.”

A new face alongside the regular Miss Fisher cast is Izabella Yena as the grown-up Shirin, who joins Phryne to help solve the mystery at the centre of the story.

“Shirin is a soldier who has been through unimaginable trauma,” she says. “It just becomes so much for her that, a decade later, she’s risking her life to find out what happened. That takes incredible courage and bravery. That political backbone she has is there throughout the whole film and it really defines her.

Davis describes her character as a ‘joyful life force’

“Like Miss Fisher, she’s a feminist, and that is what the series has always championed. Shirin fits that really well and speaks to a really contemporary audience base and young women. It’s the kind of role I’d want to watch on TV and be like, ‘Yay, there’s a young girl my age who looks like me, who is changing things and making a stand and has a voice and isn’t being silenced because of her environment.’”

The film marks one of Yena’s first screen roles, the actor having graduated from drama school in 2016 before appearing on stage in Melbourne. She first auditioned at the beginning of 2018 and, after a callback, was told she had secured the part. With filming now underway, she describes Davis as her “guardian angel” on set, welcoming her into the show’s family.

“She knows the world better than anybody so as soon as you step on set, she’s there, Miss Fisher’s there, the world of Miss Fisher’s there and you just step into it,” she explains. “On the first day of shooting, I was first up and I was a little bit nervous. This is my first film, so it’s a baptism by fire. We were in the make-up van and she grabbed my hands and was like, ‘You’re going to be great. Just take a deep breath. You know, no matter what happens, just do your thing. Know that you know the character better than anyone, and just relax.’ So that was really calming.”

With The Crypt of Tears forming part of what could become a trilogy, Eagger says the film’s ending is left slightly ajar with a view to what might follow, with her dream to set the next film in India during the British Raj. “If this is successful, then we could do more films as Indiana Jones has,” she adds. “We end with the beginning of another potential journey.”

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Fishing for clues

Executive producer Fiona Eagger lifts the lid on Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from Australian period crime drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries set during the 1960s and starring Geraldine Hakewill.

It’s been four years since the third and final season of Australian period crime drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The series, based on the books by Kerry Greenwood, followed the personal and professional life of the Phryne Fisher, a glamorous private detective solving cases in 1920s Melbourne.

Since then, a standalone movie that picks up at the end of season three, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, has been filmed, with Essie Davis (The Babadook) reprising her role as the lead character.

But the end of the main series has also led to a fresh spin-off, Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in the 1960s. It introduces Phryne’s niece, the “glamorously reckless” Peregrine Fisher, who inherits a fortune when the famous aunt she never knew goes missing over the highlands of New Guinea.

That leads Peregrine, played by Geraldine Hakewill, to become a private detective in her own right, supported by the guidance of a group of exceptional women that make up The Adventuresses’ Club, of which Phryne was also a member.

Miss Fisher writer Deb Cox (left) with producer Fiona Eagger

The series has been created by Every Cloud Productions’ Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, who were behind the ABC original. This time, however, four telemovies have been commissioned by Australia’s Seven Network. The films – written by Cox, Samantha Winston, Chelsea Cassio and Jo Martino – first aired down under in February and, like their predecessor, have gone on to find international audiences, with buyers including UKTV’s Alibi and US streamer Acorn TV picking up the spin-off from distributor All3Media International.

Speaking to DQ from the Moroccan set of Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, Eagger says the production team had considered making a prequel to the original series, featuring a younger Phryne and learning how she fled her British boarding school to come to Australia.

“What we realised is our audience doesn’t necessarily want a younger woman,” she explains. “They’re happy to have a woman who’s a bit older – Geraldine is in her 30s – and then the Adventuresses’ Club. That’s what they don’t get enough of on screen. We’re happy to do that.

“Deb and I are interested in stories that relate probably more to where we are in our own lives. [ABC legal drama] Newton’s Law was a story about a female protagonist balancing work and family. It’s just what we do, but we like to have a bit of fun and we like the murder-mystery genre. There’s a murder at the beginning and it’s going to be solved by the end, so that really helps your story structure. You can also dress up issues in a genre. If you look at Miss Fisher, there’s illegal abortion, there’s the slave trade, there are a lot of social justice issues to do with women that underpin the stories. We just dress them up.

Geraldine Hakewill takes the lead as Peregrine Fisher, Phryne Fisher’s niece

“So with this one, again we take on a world that suits the time, so there’s a fashion parade. We’re doing one about UFOs and space, the Russia-US factor, one set in a cooking school and one in a TV studio. But, of course, somebody’s murdered in every opening act. It’s a murder-of-the-week series and we hope we’re setting up a new franchise to go for many seasons.”

While the original series was based, at least initially, on Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher Mystery books, there is no literary basis for Modern Murder Mysteries. The first series went away from the books in the second season anyway, Eagger points out, noting that not all of the novels could be adapted, either because they perhaps weren’t as glamorous as the style of the series or their settings didn’t lend themselves to television. One story is set in a cave, for example. “So we’ve been off-book for some time,” Eagger says. “This time, it’s a slightly different murder mystery as it’s about Peregrine discovering how to be a detective, whereas Phryne was pretty fully formed.”

Meanwhile, the decision to set the story in the 1960s was due to the producer’s desire to place Peregrine in another important era for women. “It’s another really strong decade for women, coming out of the 50s and suddenly there’s the pill, women working and coming out of the kitchen,” Eagger explains. “Like the 20s, the 60s is also a great decade for women, with a sense of independence and freedom. Whether that’s with the music or the fashion, there’s just a liberation that’s going on.”

In the title role is Hakewill, best known for her part in Seven Network thriller Wanted. Eagger describes the actor as “like Audrey Hepburn. She’s just brilliant and the 60s really suit her.”

Alongside Hakewill is Joel Jackson as James Steed, a detective

On Peregrine, she continues: “She’s a bit different from Phryne. She’s more naive, she hasn’t got Phryne’s street smarts or wealth. She starts learning and we see her becoming a private detective as it progresses.”

Phryne had a flirtatious relationship with police officer Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) in the original series, and this element is replicated in Peregrine’s partnership with detective James Steed, played by Joel Jackson (Safe Harbour). “They’re both fantastic,” Eagger says of the leading duo. “The show has got that fun, cheeky element, even though it’s set in 1964. There’s the interplay between the two with the budding romance, but their dynamic’s quite different to Phryne and Jack. It’s the first time anyone has taken Peregrine quite seriously and she can actually come into her own. He’s quite ambitious too. Their relationship is of equals flirting but both don’t want to compromise where they want to be.”

With Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries going on to win fans around the world, it’s clear the spin-off is sticking to a winning formula. “It has the same flavours of fun and character and solving murders but it’s slightly different from Miss Fisher,” Eagger adds. “It’s a new cast and they take it on and create something that’s a new series in its own right – and Geraldine is absolutely a star.”

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Australian drama: Short and sweet wins the day

Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.

In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.

Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.

Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network
Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network

Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.

The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.

Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.

Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”

Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.

ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.

Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.

Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.

Matchbox Pictures' Glitch aired on ABC
Matchbox Pictures’ Glitch aired on ABC

The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.

And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.

“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.

“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”

The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.

“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.

Shine Australia's Catching Milat
Shine Australia’s Catching Milat

“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”

Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.

At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.

Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.

Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”

However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan

ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.

The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.

“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.

“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.

“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.

“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”

Hiding, a 'bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama'
Hiding, a ‘bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama’

Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”

Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.

“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”

Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.

Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.

One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.

Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”

By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.

Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field
Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field

Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.

Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.

The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.

Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”

On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”

Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”

She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”

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