Michelle Ricci discusses “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas”

Merry Christmas, Murdoch Mysteries fans. I don’t know about you, but I think Michelle Ricci, Paul Aitken and Carol Hay delivered one heck of a present in Monday’s two-hour holiday special.

“Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” had everything fans love, including a crime (presents being stolen), a mystery (William’s gifts to Julia), technology (Crabtree’s Jumping Jack superhuman man), sumptuous wardrobe (Julia’s dress was incredible), nods to stories of yesteryear (Robin Hood and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”) and a grand finale setting at Casa Loma that probably put production in the red.

We spoke to Michelle Ricci about what went into Monday’s holiday spectacle, including an interesting tidbit about England.

You guys were firing on all cylinders for this. You really gave something the fans want and love.
Michelle Ricci: It’s so fun.

How did the initial idea for this storyline come about?
It had an interesting evolution. It actually started with the possibility of it partly being shot in England and involving weird haunted houses or creepy English villages, and that’s where The Snow Queen idea came in. Julia was going to walk into this village and be recognized as this mythical being who has some relevance to this weird town that has its own Christmas traditions. We had a lot of fun with that and then learned that we wouldn’t be filming in England. So we brought it back to Toronto and wanted to keep the same spirit because we all really loved the idea of Ogden being The Snow Queen.

We then discovered this storyline with these incredibly adorable children that really embodied the classic movie spirit of Christmas in what we hope is an original way.

Wardrobe knocked it out of the park. Julia’s final dress was simply amazing.
It was so gorgeous and she looks like a fairytale princess.

Did she feel like a princess?
She did. She put it on and came right up to the writers’ room and said, ‘Oh my God!’ This was such a stark contrast to last year’s gown, which was a very traditional Christmas with red and white. This year we were more a blue and silver kind of palette and that made it feel fresh and very different and very fairytale like.

You weren’t aware of any colour palette as you were writing. That’s all wardrobe, set decoration and props.
Exactly. We wrote fairytale and princess like and then [costume designer] Alex [Reda] felt this was the perfect way to go. He did an absolutely fabulous job.

Something I love about these holiday specials is that they’re standalone and have no through lines from the season. All of the major characters are involved with no mention of past storylines. How refreshing is that to start with a clean slate?
There are different constraints. You have to look for a meaningful storyline for each of the characters and we extended that to Higgins and Jackson and Margaret. Although they’re not considered core characters, they’re integral to the show and we wanted to make sure they had their due as well. And then making sure that each of our main characters has something unique and different from last year’s experience and a new way of telling their Christmas perspective.

It was a challenge for sure, but we had no shortage of ideas.

I guess that’s one of the advantages of writing for 90 minutes as opposed to 44 minutes.
Absolutely. And it means we can do different storylines that don’t necessarily have to intersect. The choir story—they all come together in the end—is very much separate and gives Rebecca James her individual piece of the action. And we have Ogden with the children, and that’s not really Murdoch’s story. And then you have Murdoch and Crabtree on the case dealing with their crazy inventions and imagination that is so much a part of the series. And with the 90 minutes, you can just take things up that one extra bit.

I loved the little mystery of the four presents just between Julia and William. Who came up with the Galapagos Islands as being the present?
Paul did. We were all talking about what little romantic storyline there would be for Ogden and Murdoch. We started with the 12 days of Christmas and found that was a little overwhelming. [Laughs.] So we brought it down a little bit. But, of course, how would Julia and Murdoch celebrate Christmas? Of course, he would concoct a little mystery for Ogden to solve and of course she would find that the most delightful thing in the world. And, of course, at the end of it, it would be some great, nerdy, big adventure that the two of them could go off on together. It just seemed to almost write itself in a way.

I enjoyed the return to Crabtree’s wacky ideas and his comic book creation, Jumping Jack. Did the illustrator’s name, Gregory Heckenbush, mean anything?
No, it doesn’t mean anything.

Dammit. You guys work so much real history into the show I have to research everything.
[Laughs.] No, we have a lot of fun with names. We have a few ridiculous names thrown up on the board and we see if we can throw them into the season more for variety and fun and as a tonal thing than anything else. Heckenbush, I don’t even know where that came from … maybe me? It has no meaning.

Robert Carli’s music. I mean…
Paul and I were talking to him at the wrap party and we were complimenting him on his music and he was complimenting us on our scripts. We said to him, ‘Don’t think that we don’t recognize how much you fix our problems.’ Not all scripts are perfect and we can really see when the music comes in, that all of a sudden things work. And you think, ‘Wow, thank you, Rob Carli for saving our bacon.’ And he said, ‘That’s really funny because, to me, your scripts save my music.’ That’s a load of balderdash, but it was very nice of him to say.

Speaking of music, Mouna has a fantastic voice. Did you know that beforehand?
Yeah. We were shooting an episode in Guelph [“Jagged Little Pill”] and apparently there was a karaoke machine and Mouna went up and sang and blew everyone’s mind. We knew that and built it into the script.

It was nice to have that little side story between her and Jackson and the choir. Can Kristian really sing, or is he really a bad singer?
He says he can really sing. I’ve never heard it, so it might not be true. He did say it was really hard to sing badly. It’s nice to give characters who don’t normally interact a chance to do so.

This was filmed in October. I guess it was nice no to have to worry about snow; you just wrote there wasn’t any.
All we could hope for was that the leaves wouldn’t be turning as we shot it. If they’re green, you can hide them. If they’re not there, that’s great too. But if they are turning … this story is a lot more urban than last year and we tried to avoid those scenarios where we’d have to worry about a lot of post work and riffing off the no snow idea because we knew there wouldn’t be any.

Craig Grant … the rotorized aeropack is another example of something that looks like it would totally work.
This is something that Paul and Craig have been talking about for as long as I’ve been on the show, and possibly before, is a helicopter backpack. A long, long time ago I’d wanted to do a story on Spring-heeled Jack, a Victorian quasi-comic hero and Paul really wanted to do Inspector Gadget. The two of us were constantly warring over who was going to write the episode where this happened. And, six years later, it hadn’t happened. Then we get to the Christmas special and we were like, ‘This would be the perfect time to do it. We can have Crabtree write a comic book and it can be Spring-heeled Jack slash Inspector Gadget,’ and it became Jumping Jack. And Paul said, ‘helicopter backpack,’ and it all came together.

It was years of ideas that amalgamated into this one storyline.

How was The Salvation Army incorporated into the story?
The CBC has a whole department where they’re looking for opportunities to partner with people and during the Christmas seasons, it’s nice to partner with a charitable organization. Last year, we did it with Sick Kids and it was really successful. We put a bunch of charities into an early version of the script, ones that we knew were around at the time, and it turned out the CBC had already been talking to The Salvation Army and it all came together.

You also had a little Scrooge moment at the end of the episode. The only thing missing was a goose the size of one of the children.
I know! [Laughs.] There are some things you have to put in a Christmas episode.

Set decoration must have had a field day at Casa Loma.
That set was so spectacular. I hope on-screen does it justice because in-person everyone, after 10 years of working on the show, was blown away. It was absolutely stunning. Casa Loma was the perfect venue and what the art department and the set decoration team did was just outstanding. And then, add to that Alex’s costumes, and you were transported to a fairy land. It was really, really incredible.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and partner at TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
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