Monday’s annual Christmas TV-movie Murdoch Mysteries: Home for the Holidays was unique on a couple of fronts. First, it didn’t feature the entire cast of characters all in one place toasting Christmas and smooching under the mistletoe. Second, it delved into an unlikely main storyline for a holiday episode: the plight of First Nations people. The tale followed William and Julia to Victoria to visit Murdoch’s brother, RCMP officer Jasper Linney (Dylan Neal), and the trio was drawn into a murder connected to an archaeologist (Megan Follows) who has uncovered an ancient Indigenous settlement.
With Home for the Holidays safely nestled into its bed, we spoke to Simon McNabb—who co-wrote the episode with showrunner Peter Mitchell—about all that and more.
Simon, this year’s special was different in tone. Sure, we had snow, holly and the traditional stuff with Higgins and Crabtree back in Toronto, but in Vancouver, with William and Julia, there was the green and the serious Indigenous Peoples storyline. What’s the background on how the A-story came about?
Simon McNabb: I think it came out of a desire to do something a little different. We felt like we’d done two Christmas movies set in the city and had explored so many of the Christmas movie tropes. When we did the first one, we never thought we’d do another one so we used as many possible Christmas movie references, ideas, themes and tropes as we possibly could. And then we had to do another one, so we came up with even more. This time we felt that if we did the same thing over again we would be wearing a little thin. We wanted to do something that was unusual, or at least unusual for us. And, at the same time, there was a desire to travel the show somewhere because we hadn’t filmed outside of Toronto or Southern Ontario since we went to Newfoundland.
And, at the same time, there was a desire to travel the show somewhere because we hadn’t filmed outside of Toronto or Southern Ontario since we went to Newfoundland. There were a couple of options on the table and one of them was British Columbia. Pete Mitchell was immediately attracted to that idea as someone who grew up on Vancouver Island. I’m also from British Columbia so I was excited as well. From there it became a matter of, Well, that means we’re going to do a bit of an evergreen Christmas. It’s going to be different, but we’ll still be able to draw on the fun family aspects of visiting relatives for the holidays. Aside from that, it’s going to be different and depart from the usual Santa Claus and gift-giving kind of theme.
I’m interested in what the fans have to say. I’m sure everyone would be happy with those tropes ever year but creatively it would get stagnant for the writing room.
Yeah, that’s what we felt. And once we decided to go to B.C. and do a storyline that wasn’t snow-covered we quickly realized that there were different stories to tell out there. If we were going to tell a story that had to do with the First Nations community on Vancouver Island it would sort of be impossible or inappropriate or just not right to attempt to tell a story about a Christian holiday and really embrace that. We wanted to tell a story that was a little bit more open and different.
I thought you told the First Nations story respectfully and that was clearly important to you because you brought on Haida/Cree artist Kristi Lane Sinclair served as consulting producer.
Kristi was involved and helped us not only in the story department with notes, research and insight into the history of the Haida and other nations on Vancouver Island but she was also a huge source for props and set decoration in terms of not only research but connections with First Nations artists, craftspeople and crew members on the west coast.
Was she a consultant on the language spoken as well?
Language was one of the parts interesting about it, and certainly one of the most eye-opening for me. One of the reasons we heard about Kristi and she got involved in the project is because she’d been working on a documentary for the CBC that was a behind-the-scenes documentary for a film they were filming in the summer in Haida Gwaii called The Edge of the Knife. That film was produced and directed and acted largely by members of the Haida nation. All of it is in the Haida dialect, which was done very intentionally as a way to document the language of the Haida because it’s been dying out and even fewer speak it. She was very aware of that and was able to connect us with people that could translate the Haida lines of which there were very few because we mostly interacted with members of the Songhees nation. The Songhees nation has even fewer people who speak it but Kristi was again instrumental in connecting us with some of the elders from the Songhees nation, a small handful of which are actually fluent in the language.
Home for the Holidays is a close-ended episode that doesn’t tie to story arcs, but you did bring in recurring characters to take part.
We brought in Ruth Newsome and Nina Bloom which places it a little bit in the chronology of the love lives of Higgins and Crabtree. It’s liberating to write something that isn’t linked to anything else. We allow for five to 10 per cent of the holiday episode to allow our characters to go a wild a little bit and let the spirit of the season overtake them for good or for bad. Let Margaret Brackenreid be a little bit nuttier than she usually would with her greed and then allow for a really sweet moment of redemption for anyone who does go off the rails.
Can you talk about the storyline involving the Ponzi scheme and the Brackenreids?
The Brackenreids always seem to be the heart of a holiday episode because they are the perfect nuclear family with kids whereas none of our other leads have that. It seems like there is always plenty of stuff to do with them at Christmastime. In terms of the investment storyline, that just came out of doing a little research and finding out that Charles Ponzi had landed in North America and on his way to Montreal to start his first little fraudulent cheque scheme. We thought it would be great to do something with him, and then we thought it would be great to have them almost lose the house to him and that it would be a perfect story to do at Christmas.
That’s crazy! Ponzi was in Canada during this time period?
I forget the exact time period. He landed in Boston first, I believe, and then he did go to Montreal. His first sort of criminal activity, as far as anyone knows, was working for a slightly shady bank in Montreal.
It continues to fascinate me how real-life historical figures and storylines can be worked into a storyline. I feel like a Murdoch Mysteries history class should be offered at a college.
[Laughs.] That would be fun. It would be a fun jumping-off point and I think that speaks to what we hope the show does for people in a more casual way. A professor who decided to teach history through the lens of Murdoch Mysteries would hopefully use each historical figure or incident as an opportunity to learn a lot more about it and to make sure they got all the details and facts right as opposed to the odd corner that we cut to make it fit into our episodes. And, hopefully, people who are watching the show and go off on their own and do a little more reading about it and actually understand the history.
Murdoch Mysteries returns with new episodes Monday, Jan. 8, at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.