I’ve started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian TV show based loosely on the series of Phryne Fisher murder mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. The basic idea behind these novels and the TV show is simple, effective and fun: Phryne Fisher is a young (28 year old) Australian woman who has returned to Melbourne after serving as a nurse in the Great War (1914-1918), having received an inheritance and a title from a distant aunt in the UK. Suddenly wealthy and flung into the licentious era of the twenties, she starts an investigative agency, and begins meddling in police affairs, as well as having many affairs. She’s “not the marrying kind,” and of course in the twenties this kind of attitude is scandalous but also increasingly accepted. The implication in the TV show (I’m not sure about the books) is that she comes from a poor background and has a sad past (in the books this is her wartime experience as a nurse; in the TV show it’s her younger sister, who was murdered). Since 1918, she tells us, she “hasn’t taken anything seriously,” and this is the atmosphere in which she conducts her investigations. She also collects poor people around her: she has adopted two orphans, and is close friends with a pair of communist activists, one a wharfie and one a cabby.

The TV show definitely has its flaws – sometimes the acting is a bit wooden and it feels like the directors weren’t sure if they were writing a comedy or a drama – but this is the normal experience of watching Australian TV. Typically, the only TV shows that Australian directors can make with any confidence are shit-boring dramas about enormously boring middle-class suburban lives, quirky comedies about rural idylls, or gritty stories of political corruption. Anything else is approached with a kind of self-conscious dread of being caught being pretentious, and this trepidation inevitably spoils the product as the director tries to inject a bit of self-deprecating humour, or gets caught looking over their own shoulder checking that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. It’s an Australian thing. This self-consciousness is why Australia can make excellent quirky rural comedies (e.g. Seachange) but will never, ever produce a decent science fiction show. Something like Firefly is physically inconceivable to the average Australian movie critic – merely glancing sideways at the script for an Aussie Firefly would cause 99% of Australian movie critics’ heads to explode[1].

So, having attempted to break out of the standard mold of Aussie drama, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is already painfully self-conscious. But if you can deal with that (and I’m sure it will relax as future episodes are unveiled) you get an actually pretty excellent TV show. Phryne is a fun character: she’s got guts, she’s going against convention, she’s clever, she’s compassionate and she’s lusty. Her two working class friends, the wharfie and the cabby, are intensely Australian men, laconic and kindly and macho all in one, simultaneously shy and big-hearted. Her maid, Dot, is an amusing combination of sassy girl-next-door and Catholic repression. The setting is unashamedly Australian – the Ballarat express[2], the Melbourne University boat club, flying a Tiger Moth out to the countryside to meet “Vic” – who leans in the doorway and talks out the side of his mouth in just the way you expect of an Aussie shearer – the dodgy Turkish baths and the backyard abortionist behind the pie shop, they’re all classic Australian settings. The characters also convey that strange Australian combination of conservatism and vital, progressive energy that makes our politics and culture simultaneously so small-minded and so visionary. For non-Australian viewers this show manages to present Australia in a suitably exotic light even though it’s set in Australia’s second largest city. It’s a nice introduction to some of Australia’s wilder history, as well as to the very special physical environment of South East Australia, which in its own way is easily as exotic as the Top End. At any moment you expect Phryne to just waltz out of the city and go solve the mystery of hanging rock.

Another thing that this show does very nicely is its depiction of gender issues. The twenties were an era of newfound sexual liberation against a backdrop of essentially very conservative sexual values, and this show does a good job of depicting the sexism of the time without making it menacing or overbearing: it depicts this sexism as contested and malleable, as also is the homophobia and racism, so that we don’t have to endure a stultifying atmosphere of overpowering misogyny such as mars shows like A Game of Thrones. Phryne is clearly liberated not just because she is a woman in the twenties, but because she is rich; the women around her are not so lucky, and we see this, but we also see how they make their own place in the world despite adversity, and how the men of the time adapt and respond to these challenges to traditional gender roles. Even though as a crime show it has license to be grounded in “gritty realism,” we get a much better example of how to depict institutional sexism without creating an atmosphere of woman-hating, which I think directors with much bigger budgets might benefit from watching.

I guess for people living outside Australia this TV show is going to be hard to see – it’s been produced by our public broadcaster but it’s not available over the internet if you live outside of the country. I’m sure there are ways, though … and if you’re interested in seeing a nice depiction of how Australians view our own history, through the vehicle of a fairly well-designed (but occasionally overly self-conscious) murder-mystery show, then I recommend this. Obviously, as well, the twenties are a fun era full of progressive girls wearing splendid clothes and men who spout over-the-top English. However, if you can’t abide shows with slightly stilted acting that don’t quite know what they want to be, or you can’t handle anything that isn’t standard American crime fare, then you should probably steer clear. I like it though, and will be watching more where I get the chance.

fn1: oh, I wish someone would write one!

fn2: which seems to take all night, even though Ballarat is – what – 3 hours from Melbourne?