Published: January 31, 2013 – 3:00AM
Show of the week: The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Friday, ABC1 at 8.30pm
LUCIEN Blake is a complicated character. Born in Ballarat, packed off to boarding school following the death of his mother and trained as a doctor in London, he joined the army during World War II, became a prisoner of war following the fall of Singapore and lost touch with his wife and daughter. A tormented soul, he has a tendency to drown his sorrows in a bottle.
Blake (Craig McLachlan) has returned to his home town in 1959 to assume his recently deceased father’s role as the local GP and police surgeon. While the crime-related investigations stimulate his agile mind, he doesn’t fit comfortably into the community: ”He’s reluctantly found himself back where he started, in a place that he knows but doesn’t know any more,” says Blake’s creator, producer and writer George Adams.
While the cast and crew working on the 10-part The Doctor Blake Mysteries good-naturedly observe that Blake’s idiosyncrasies owe much to Adams’ personality, Scottish-born Adams reckons Blake owes a debt to an array of fictional crime-solving heroes: ”I wanted to mix up a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a bit of Dr Watson, and I’m a Sexton Blake fan, hence Blake. I started to look at the classics – Simenon, Maigret – and we were heavily influenced by them when we were thinking about the style and the tone … But we didn’t want it to be a cop show specifically.
”In the detective genre, the great ones, for me, are always the ones who are deeply flawed, like Morse and ‘Fitz’ in Cracker, even Tennison in Prime Suspect. They’re all coppers, but then there’s also House who’s in the system, but constantly fighting the system. Blake is also right in the guts of the establishment, but he doesn’t enjoy the establishment very much. He likes to be on the inside as a bit of a thorn.”
Adams hatched the idea for the series when he was working on a project at Sovereign Hill and was struck by the idea that Ballarat ”would be a really interesting place to make a period drama because you wouldn’t have to do very much: Lydiard Street just looked like 1959 somewhere. And Ballarat has a vibe like Glasgow and Belfast and Liverpool, big industrial towns that were built out of sweat and other guys’ money.”
He picked 1959 because it was the year he was born and also because the ’50s – at least before The Hour and Call the Midwife – was a period that hadn’t been as extensively explored as, say, the ’20s, ’30s and ’60s.
Beyond crime scenes and activities at the local police station overseen by Chief Superintendent Lawson (Joel Tobeck), much of the action in the series takes place in the family home where Blake lives and works. He shares the residence with its long-time housekeeper, war widow Jean Beazley (Nadine Garner); as well as Jean’s nephew, police constable Danny (Rick Donald); and Mattie (Cate Wolfe), the district nurse.
Although Blake and Jean are clearly intended to develop into a pair of attracting opposites, Garner notes that Jean’s initial response to the virtual stranger recently installed in her domain is that ”she doesn’t like him: he’s a drinker, he’s got empty bottles stashed in his desk, he’s slovenly, he doesn’t keep appointments and he sticks his bib into other people’s business”.
There is, however, no comparable tension between the series’ stars. McLachlan says he’s known ”Deenie” for decades, since ”she was a Henderson Kid and I was living in Ramsay Street” and they’ve worked together since.
While McLachlan describes himself as ”a pain-in-the-arse Virgo, very prepared”, Garner says ”he’s possibly the most dedicated actor I’ve ever worked with. He knows his material so well that he’s free to play, free to find holes in the scripts if they’re there. He’s a perfectionist and he makes me step up; he makes me a better actor. He’s got a very fine mind and a lot of natural joy for life … He brings so much fun and wickedness to the set.”
McLachlan heard about Dr Blake while he was in Hollywood shooting a guest role on NCIS: Los Angeles. He grew ”facial fuzz”, starved himself for weeks so he looked gaunt and sent in an audition on his phone. ”I thought I’d really love to play Lucien,” he says, ”but I felt so strongly about the project that I thought if I sent in a cracker of an audition, even if I didn’t get Blake, I might get something else: Lawson’s a terrific character and there are great roles for guest artists.”
To his delight, McLachlan didn’t end up as an unidentified corpse in Lake Wendouree but was chosen to play the title character, so he’s been busily on the case, annoying but secretly impressing Jean, aiding but confounding Lawson and hoping to become a favourite for ABC viewers devoted to Friday night murder mysteries.