It just makes sense to have Maureen Jennings write the origins episode of Murdoch Mysteries. After all, the author created him. Back in 1997, long before Yannick Bisson straddled a bike and drove into viewers’ lives eight seasons ago, Jennings published her first Murdoch mystery novel, Except the Dying.
In 2000, Shaftesbury Films optioned the novels for television, which led to three TV-movies with Peter Outerbridge in the titular role. On Monday night, the franchise came full circle as Jennings’ script for “Shipwrecked” brought Outerbridge and Bisson together on the small screen. We spoke to Jennings about the episode and her thoughts on the state of the franchise.
I know we’re eight seasons into Murdoch Mysteries with Yannick Bisson in the starring role, but is it still weird to see your creation on television?
Maureen Jennings: Oh, no. He does a fabulous job. It’s his Murdoch now, that’s for sure.
Obviously the show has evolved over the years and has changed from what has been in your seven novels. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the franchise?
I feel very lucky because it hasn’t strayed that far over the last eight years. Early on, someone had a brilliant idea—it wasn’t mine—to move us up in time. You can put out the books in for or five years and move the fictional timeline by a few months. But in terms of television, we’re advancing a year which gives a lot more scope to what was happening at the time. I think it was a really good idea.
Do you watch the show every week?
How did the whole idea for Monday’s episode, William Murdoch’s origin story, come to be?
I love answering this question. We were actually in Halifax a few years ago and they have a fabulous museum there. What I didn’t know was that a lot of people from the Titanic washed up there. It’s gruesome, but they did. They have a lot of the artefacts that they found on the bodies in that museum. I was looking at that and thought, ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting what you can tell from what somebody was carrying in their pockets?’ One of the men had gold coins in his pockets, which is a morality tale because they didn’t do him any good.
I had long before established that Murdoch grew up in Nova Scotia, so this really got me going. It was actually a short story called ‘Wreckwood.’ That is the term they used in Nova Scotia to refer to a piece of the boat that they had found. It was very respectful. It was their way of honouring those ships that had foundered on their shores. I then changed the title to ‘Shipwreck’ and wrote a novella, which was intended for adults. It was a Murdoch story intended for a slightly different audience. I had framed it as Murdoch telling the story to his grandchild and that was really fun to to.
I always enjoy it when people talk about their past, so that’s really how it started.
Was it always the plan to have Peter Outerbridge cast as Father Keegan?
We absolutely wanted Peter in with Yannick. Everybody wanted Peter in, we just had to figure out the scheduling. He was happy to be there too and it was a lovely moment on many levels. Peter, the first Murdoch was there with the current Murdoch and they worked together. It was really nicely done. It was a fabulous experience.
Did you get a chance to watch any scenes filmed?
Yannick wasn’t there the day I was. We were there the day they filmed in Sutton, Ont., filming the shipwreck scenes. We went to a gravel pit to film the shipwreck. It was cold and wet and they were using rain towers to simulate the storm. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced. There was Peter as Father Keegan, getting soaked to the skin and doing brilliantly.
I know scripts go through many edits. Were there any important plot points featured in this episode?
We had to work hard in terms of bringing together the two storylines. That was much more difficult that what I’d thought originally. One of the writers, Carol Hay, came up with the idea of rather than trying to link the two stories in terms of the plot, why don’t we just link them together in terms of theme and have this story of William’s relationship with Father Keegan be paramount. I thought that was very clever and it worked.
I enjoyed seeing young William and seeing his curiosity and Catholic faith established.
I was not raised in any way Catholic, but I went to a Catholic university—which was then called Assumption—and I was so impressed by the fathers there. That has definitely morphed into Father Keegan. And I think that, really, the young Murdoch is the young me.
Murdoch Mysteries returns with new episodes on Monday, March 16, at 8 p.m. on CBC.