When it comes to detective fiction it is perhaps a little known fact that the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century appeared in that quondam den of iniquity, boom time Melbourne after the gold rushes. Released in 1886 a full year before the first Conan Doyle, in the words of one modern review the Australian novel ‘The Mystery of a Handsome Cab’ was “a crucial point in the genre’s transformation into detective fiction”, (Rzepka & Horsley). With a story line set in and around “Marvelous Melbourne” the book was a positive, pot boiling, sleuthing success from the moment it appeared giving its writer, Fergus Hume fifteen minutes of fame and selling 100,000 copies in its first two Australian print runs on its way to becoming an international bestseller.
As with any success however came the public demands for a follow up. The resulting loosely drawn sequel, ‘Madame Midas’ was published about two years later with a story line that transferred the drama from late 19th century Melbourne onto the Ballarat gold fields. Although it didn’t achieve anything like the runaway success of the first novel, Midas is notable for introducing the world to a murder mystery set within the scope of an Australian regional country town and featuring a narrative centered round an independently resourced and singularly minded pre-Suffragette female protagonist.
It is said that truth can be stranger than fiction. While the characters of Hume’s subsequent prolific literary output mostly descended into fantastical cloak and dagger melodrama, the fictionalized Madame Midas of his Ballarat based effort was an altogether different story. Hume based the portrait of Midas on his friend, Alice Cornwell whose real life tale reads like the scattered pages of a romanticized fiction. Lady mining magnate and financial wunderkind, part time inventor and full time newspaper baroness, Cornwell’s life was full of contradictions. They were contradictions however that made her a fortune and earned her the epithet “Princess Midas, the Lady of the Nuggets”. Hume found he had plenty of background material for a story, so much so that when the book became a play, Cornwell’s estranged husband sued over the content.
Fast forward a hundred years or so, give or take, and in what seemed like a continuation of the Hume whodunit tradition, Ballarat was again to become the setting for a fictional detective drama complete with its own behind the scenes, later court room problems. Viewers of the former ABC Australian TV period detective television series “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”, might have been forgiven for thinking that by the 1950s, Ballarat had become a pretty perilous place. In that post war country town of television theatrics, murders seemed to happen with an alarming regularity that would have surprised even Fergus Hume, the bloodless bodies of the lifeless victims bobbing out across the small screen with a clockwork consistency.
It was fiction but it proved to be rather fun and made good television, especially for the role of the lead character, the Police Surgeon Doctor Lucien Blake played by Craig McLachlan whose job it was to run to ground a new set of nefarious villains each week while supposedly juggling the duties of a neglected country medical practice and conducting a dilatory romance with his housekeeper. As a formula it was a clever take on the established detective genre and ran for five entertaining seasons before the ABC unexpectedly embarked on its own brazen act of cold blooded murder – inexplicably killing off the show at the end of 2017 at the height of its popularity in a process they claimed was a necessary cutback due to Federal Government imposed budgetary constraints.
The timing was opportune, or maybe not. That was a matter probably dependent on your view point for it came just before unassociated hashtag Me Too allegations of misconduct were being made against the show’s leading actor, allegations themselves which are now the subject of a high risk, 6½ million dollar defamation case brought on by the actor against two media outlets, but it left the show’s creators with very little room to manoeuvre.
So it came as some surprise then when last year the makers of the show, December Media, announced that the production would make a return to the small screen, albeit without its titular character, in a made for telly, movie length drama commissioned by a commercial broadcaster. The Seven Network had earlier shown interest in saving the production and with help from Film Victoria and Screen Australia in an out-of-rounds special funding commitment, they had offered December Media a lifeline. The broken strands of the show would be pasted back together into a story which propelled the remaining cast forward into the 1960s.
Perhaps opportunely, the doctor in the Doctor Blake series had married his former housekeeper in the last of the broadcast ABC stories thereby keeping the name in the title alive in spite of the actor’s absence. The show would be repackaged as simply “The Blake Mysteries” with Jean Blake, who in the earlier series had acted as a sounding board and wise counsel to the doctor, stepping up to the wicket as a sort Australian variant on the Miss Marple theme. If it rated well it was said there was a prospect of more things to come.
From the start the Blake franchise has been a brand of which the regional center of Ballarat has been proud and trips are still run on a regular basis to introduce tourists and the show’s legion of fans to some of the more prominent local landmarks used in the series. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog then that when it came to finding locations for the new telemovie, Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie in Melbourne’s north east.
Prior to filming last year, the producers had been looking around for a “haunted house” to build part of their telemovie around. They wanted a country style home of semi derelict stature which their script described had stood empty and abandoned for 30 years, but for logistical reasons it also had to be within easy reach of their South Melbourne based production team. Casting Yallambie Homestead as the “haunted house” of their dreams ticked the boxes.
Readers of these posts might recall another occasion when a visiting film crew lobbed here at Yallambie. That visit continued a tradition in the district that commenced with the earliest days of film making, but the Blake shoot was certainly on a scale never seen in Yallambie before.
As we watched more and more people troop through the gates carrying equipment and film paraphernalia down to the house on that first morning back in June, it quickly became apparent that this one was going to be bigger than Ben Hur.
An enormous lighting tower quickly went up at the head of the drive like Jack’s bean stalk and two early-model Police cars were parked underneath, one an original 1961 Ford Zephyr Mk 2 Police Divi van, the other a repurposed Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren prop and a temperamental head light that we learned later only operated at night when the driver got out and gave it a bang with the palm of his hand. These cars were driven by stunt drivers who in one of their action sequences were required to whirl the vehicles up to the front of the house in a spray of gravel. In trepidation I said, “See yonder shrubbery, planted there by the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’. It’s taken years to grow back to what you see before you after the first, (and last) time I took to it with the hedge trimmer.”
Ben Hur and his chariot never had it so tough.
Residents of houses in the local area had received timely letters inside their post boxes the week before advising them of the planned activity in the back streets of Yallambie and a traffic controller had been strategically positioned in Tarcoola Drive with apparent instructions to lean on his paddle pop in a sleepy sort of way to bamboozle the passing motorists.
I once wrote a Halloween themed post for this blog but on the first evening of filming as a special effects fog was pumped into the night air, I overheard one of the child actors who had been cast in a role in the new movie comment as he looked up at the darkened house, “This place is really spooky. Does anyone even live here?”
That brought a smile to the old dial. “Just us ghosts I’m ’fraid young man.”
In spite of appearances to the contrary, the ghosts had vainly spent the weekend prior to this sprucing the wreckage, but the first thing the Blake crew did on arriving was to hang fake cobwebs around, empty bags of old leaves where they had previously been swept away, and generally turn our lives upside down in a topsy-turvy sort of way. If the house hadn’t looked derelict before they started, it did completely by the time the cameras were ready to roll, but this was entirely the effect they had been trying to achieve. Yallambie Homestead for film makers was they said “the gift that keeps on giving”.
One of the key scenes shot at the house called for an actor to smash his way out of a ceiling and somersault down the 23 flight staircase inside. Originally the plan had been for the actor to be positioned on the balcony outside throwing fictional broken slates off the roof, but perhaps after looking at the non-fictional very real crumbling state of the balcony, veteran director Ian Barry wisely chose to move the action inside. A stunt double was used for the tumble and a whole lot of special effects falling plaster, but the plan also called for the removal of some large furniture that was deemed to be blocking the way of the big landing.
“But that furniture hasn’t moved for years.”
“No worries, we have somebody to handle things like this.”
We soon learned there was a plethora of somebodies ready to handle all manner of things as the need arose. There was even a bloke whose sole job apparently was to look after the “blood”. Blake prides itself on the restraint of its drama but the “blood man” arrived armed with a special effects, fiberglass pool of blood lovingly prepared on a tray and ready to be placed near the foot of the stairs when required. Meanwhile the intended murder victim himself stalked around in the sun outside, talking on his mobile phone while waiting for his cue to lie down dead in what I guess was probably one of the less demanding of the on screen roles.
Catering tents and caravans were set up in the soccer ground car park in Yallambie near the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and at meal times a shuttle bus ran between the locations and the sports field in order to get the empty stomachs of the cast and crew to the place where they could be filled. One thing I learned from observation is that the film production process requires many, many people all pulling together apparently in different directions before suddenly coming together at the moment the cameras start to roll. Hours of work might translate into only a few minutes or even seconds of screen time but for the interested bystander, it is a fascinating process to watch.
We watched as large blackout screens were erected in front of the house in an attempt to achieve continuity in some of the night scenes that for practical reasons had been scheduled to be filmed in daylight hours but later on, when filming had moved on to an outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park, the question then became how much camera time could be fitted in between the sun popping in and out from behind the clouds. Apparently too much sun can cause havoc with exposures so another of the aforementioned Blake “somebodies” had the job of peering at the sky through a glass then calling out his estimates of sun time between the patches in the overhead rolling clouds.
The child actors themselves had minders to oversee their welfare but it was the costume department’s dedication to the detail in their dress that I found extraordinary. The script required the children to be dressed in scout uniforms and these I learned had been borrowed from the Scout Heritage Center. The uniforms were not only authentic for the period but were decorated with the correct, matching insignia badges for a Ballarat based troop.
The script required not only Boy Scout uniforms but also a Boy Scout camp and this was cleverly constructed using bush skills on the banks of the River Plenty in Yallambie Park. Filming took place in the Park on two consecutive nights in front of a roaring campfire, which for OHS reasons, wasn’t a real camp fire at all but a very convincing gas log fire that could be pumped up into flame or extinguished as required.
The final result of all this Yallambie based film making aired on the Seven Network at the end of November. Personally, I found the format didn’t translate well onto commercial television with the need for ad breaks interrupting the flow of an already needlessly convoluted story line. All the same the telemovie still averaged 450,000 viewers across the five capital cities with another 247,000 tuning in from regional areas with the Seven Network’s Angus Ross reported as saying, “We never rush decisions around quality shows such as The Blake Mysteries but the first round of numbers are very encouraging.” Whether this is enough to save the Blake franchise in the long run remains to be seen. The Seven Network announced last week that it would not commission any further Blake stories in 2019 but maybe like Fergus Hume’s Handsome Cab, Madame Midas themed follow up, they are waiting on just the right character formula coming along for a sequel. The very large elephant in the Blake room has always been the absence from the production of the good Doctor himself. Towards the end of the November telemovie, actress Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake turns to the camera and says, “You can spend your whole life focusing on the past. Or you can look forward. Be grateful for the people you have and the time you have with them.”
She was speaking in character of course but the cast and crew were obviously offering up their feelings on events external to the show and those matters that have been outside of their control. As a writer of a blog that has busied itself in the past more often than not with history and the lives of people now long departed, those words struck with me a chord. Hosting the Blake crew at Yallambie was one hell of a ride and meeting the cast and crew while being a spectator to the organized chaos that is the process of film making was an absolute privilege. Whether Blake will be, like “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, resurrected for a third time after these events remains unclear. Like the stage version of Madame Midas, it may depend upon the result of an apparently unrelated court case. With the recent turmoil surrounding the decision makers at the ABC, perhaps our national broadcaster could start listening to their audiences and themselves consider reinstating free to air, one of their more recent successful ventures. Whatever the outcome, the Blake visit to the suburbs in down town Yallambie last year was an experience we will long remember, even after all else around here has become just history.