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Murdoch Mysteries: Maureen Jennings chats about “Shock Value”

[Spoiler alert: Do not continue reading until you have watched “Shock Value.]

I love getting Maureen Jennings’ take on episodes she has written for Murdoch Mysteries. After all, she created the character of William Murdoch in her novels. Without her, there wouldn’t be Murdoch Mysteries.

In Monday’s latest instalment, “Shock Value,” we were introduced to scientists who performed experiments on their fellow human beings in the interest of education. This isn’t a new trope on TV, film, or real life, but the Kingstons brought it into sharp, and creepy focus. Add to that the re-appearance of Dorothy Ernst and her plan for George, and “Shock Value” was a disturbing story.

We conducted an email interview with Maureen Jennings to get her take on Monday’s episode.

How did the main storyline for “Shock Value” come about? Was it inspired by anything in particular?
Maureen Jennings: Two main things. A few years ago, I came across a wonderful book called Fear, written in 1893 by an Italian doctor named Angelo Mosso, who was keen to understand the interactions between our bodies and emotions. He measured the respiration and heart rate of his subject and how a gun fired behind them affected these. He also developed an early version of the lie detector. We’ve used that in a couple of early episodes with Murdoch as the subject. It is a fascinating topic that we are still exploring. For me, a direct offshoot of the issue is what motivates us to pursue tasks, praise, or punishment? I’m all for praise, myself. Also, I was very interested in the notorious experiments of Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. He concluded that people were very susceptible to those they saw as authorities and surrendered their own judgments even when asked to do something that they believed was causing another person pain.

This is one of the darker episodes of Murdoch Mysteries and pretty darn scary. Do you relish the spookier, scarier storylines?
MJ: Not me. I’m a wimp. Blame the writer’s room.

Did the pandemic affect how you wrote this episode or is writing a Murdoch Mysteries episode more of a solitary affair for you anyway?
MJ: Pre-COVID-19, we had a fun second story about basketball and we were hoping to lure one of our fabulous Raptors to come and do a cameo. It had to be dropped. FOR NOW.

There are always little things in Murdoch episodes that made me smile. Brackenreid explaining why he was eating an apple is one of them. Do you enjoy writing tidbits, knowing the fans will enjoy them as well?
MJ: I especially like historically related bits. For instance, the origin of the term basketball. (Naismith using peach baskets to catch the balls.

And we got yet another peek at William liking things “just so” when he measured the apple and banana slices for uniformity. I loved that detail.
MJ: He’d drive me crazy.

The Kingstons may be some of the most dangerous people we’ve met on Murdoch Mysteries. They use manipulation to test the human condition. Who was the inspiration for them?
MJ: Sort of the Kinseys from the 50s. The Kinsey Reports. All serious scientists who conduct experiments must have obsessive natures and coldness at the centre. But hey, we owe them a lot.

The secondary story worries me. It seems like George is going to be framed as insane and perhaps be the victim of revenge. Can you comment on that?
MJ: Keep watching.

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

Image courtesy of CBC.


Murdoch Mysteries: Paul Aitken discusses “Code M for Murdoch”

[Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched “Code M for Murdoch”]

It’s simply not a season of Murdoch Mysteries until Terrence Meyers appears in at least one episode. Following his debut way back in Season 1, a visit from Meyers (played by Peter Keleghan) means a storyline jam-packed with intrigue and backstabbing (both literal and figurative).

Monday’s latest instalment also featured fan favourite James Pendrick (Peter Stebbings) and that dastardly Allen Clegg (Matthew Bennett). We spoke, via email, to Paul Aitken, the episode’s writer.

Congratulations on Season 14. Can you believe Murdoch Mysteries has gone on this long?
Paul Aitken: When we were starting Season 2, we had a phone conversation with the network (Citytv at that time). They told us they loved the show and joked that they wanted it on for 15 seasons. We laughed. They laughed. And here we are.

Is it a Murdoch Mysteries rule that there be one Terrence Meyers episode per season?
PA: I don’t know if it’s a hard and fast rule but it’s become a very ingrained habit. It’s like every Beatle album had a Ringo song.

How did the main spy-themed storyline come about? Is it inspired by any particular part of history or film?
PA: It all started with a dream I had about Murdoch getting a message saying “Murdoch Find JP.” We then combined that with a Terrence Meyers plague story we had knocking around for a few years.

Was the rabies sub-plot inspired by the current pandemic?
PA: No. We had this cooking for a few years in various forms.

I always love it when Peter Stebbings has time to reprise his role as James Pendrick. I’m surprised you were able to schedule him around his directing duties.
PA: It took a couple of years. I guess we can thank COVID for his availability.

The fans love James Pendrick. Did you have any idea, at the time he was first introduced, that he would be a hit?
PA: No. He was introduced in Season 3 as part of a season long storyline that was ultimately resolved. We brought him back in Season 5 as the inventor of an electric car that ended up being crushed by big oil. It was then that we realized the potential for the character.

Do you have a favourite recurring guest character to write for or is that an unfair question?
PA: It’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is. There are many I love of course. Terrence Meyers, Ralph Fellows, James Gillies, Roger/Rupert Newsome, etc. If I have to choose I’ll go with Pendrick. He’s such a ridiculously magnificent man. A saner, nobler Elon Musk. He gets his dreams crushed in every episode, yet rises again with an even BIGGER plan. I wish I was James Pendrick.

The first three episodes in Season 14 have featured many funny or lighthearted moments. Is that a theme this year or will things get darker as we move on?
PA: I think we’ve always had a mix, both between episodes and within episodes. I don’t think this season is any different. It’s a grab bag. You never know what you’re going to get.

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

Image courtesy of Shaftesbury.


Murdoch Mysteries: Showrunner Peter Mitchell recaps “Rough and Tumble”

[Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched “Rough and Tumble.”]

Well that was certainly a change of pace, wasn’t it? Whereas Murdoch Mysteries‘ Season 14 debut was more lighthearted, Monday’s latest was a truly rough and tumble affair. Written by Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake Mysteries showrunner Peter Mitchell, Bobby Brackenreid was reunited with his family in the most stressful of ways: accused of murder. That meant Thomas had to walk a tightrope between being a copper and bringing Bobby in for questioning or keeping Bobby hidden while investigating the case himself.

By the episode’s end, Bobby had been cleared of the murder charge, but his future is uncertain. In our latest post-episode interview, we spoke to Peter Mitchell about the instalment.

Congratulations on Season 14 of Murdoch Mysteries and Season 4 of Frankie Drake Mysteries! How challenging was it to run both shows while addressing COVID-19 safety measures?
Peter Mitchell: Probably not as challenging as working in a grocery store. Shaftesbury, the production company, placed an extremely high value on crew safety. We also worked with people who were all following the same protocols and were very serious about making sure both themselves and the people they were working with, stayed safe. That said, I’m a bit of a water-bug on set, moving from prep in the office with writers, pre-production with staff, shooting with the crew, and post-production with sound, music, and film editors. Multiply that by two shows and that is eight separate pods. My freedom of movement was very restricted and sometimes that was a pain. That said, meetings and the like conducted over Zoom went much quicker as people were much more focused. I also have a wonderful Associate Producer, Elsbeth McCall, who could handle things when I could be two places at once.

How did you adapt both series’ writing rooms so that scripts could continue?
PM: Less is hopefully more. We had fewer scenes per episode, fewer characters in the scenes, and fewer background performers. Physical distancing was often a bit of a problem and we had to carefully plan out stunts and degrees of closeness between performers. Fortunately, the directors and assistant directors on both shows were able to block and choreograph the background actors so, I think, this will not really be all that noticeable to the audience. Both shows did fewer ‘days on the road’ than we have in the past. In the writing rooms, we didn’t spend as much physical time together as we have in the past and we often met in smaller groups than we have in the past. The demands of quarantine and distancing meant we had to show up focused and ready to work when we all got together (either virtually or in-person). It wasn’t as much fun as it usually is.

Was there an added benefit to writing from home, or was it largely a pain?
PM: Once one got used to handling the tech, there was hardly a difference. I’ve spent most of my career writing everywhere, at home, in a crowded writing room, on-set and, very, very occasionally in a bar, so it was no different for me.

“Rough and Tumble” marked the return of Bobby Brackenreid, who was accused of murder. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Bobby. How did this storyline come together so that he would be the accused?
PM: We’d always joked about turning Bobby into a serial killer. And while he isn’t that in the episode in question, we wanted to have a bit of a bang when he was reintroduced into the Brackenreid orbit. I think on some level seeing all the videos this summer of how demonstrations and the like could turn into random violence also tweaked the idea. And the release of Bob Dylan’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways kind of lit the flame.

It’s always interesting to see the Brackenreid family interact, especially now that Nomi is in the picture. Will the results of the case, Bobby guilty of a lesser charge, affect the Brackenreid’s again this season?
PM: Well, that would be giving away a bit too much now, wouldn’t it? Safe to say, both the fates of Bobby and Nomi impact the Brackenreid’s this year.

It was wonderful to see Goldie Huckabee return and impact on William and Julia the way she did. Has the decision to have William and Julia appear in more light-hearted scenes been a conscious decision, or has it happened organically?
PM: Jonelle Gunderson, who plays Goldie, has a delightful comic touch. It would have been a real shame not to utilize it. I have also been a fan of the “annoying neighbour trope.” The decision to have more light-hearted scenes with William and Julia came about because, well have you looked at the world out there, we felt we could use a little of it right now. Also, because it was difficult to film physical intimacy, we wanted to show that the two do love each other and if one way to do that was to see them laugh together more.

Who did you have in the Murdoch Mysteries writing room this season? Any new faces?
PM: Murdoch has most of the same group it has had for the last couple of years, Paul Aitken, Simon McNabb, and Noelle Girard but this year we added Christina Ray and Caleigh Bacchus both of whom were wonderful additions who wrote very strong scripts for us.

Who did you have in the Frankie Drake Mysteries writing room this season?
PM: The writing room at Frankie Drake was composed of Mary Pedersen (who I stole from Murdoch), Jennifer Kassabian (who was on the show last year) Keri Ferenz, and Robina Lord Stafford.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.


Murdoch Mysteries: Simon McNabb breaks down “Murdoch and the Tramp”

[Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched “Murdoch and The Tramp.”]

Like a Christmas present arriving late out of the blue, this season of Murdoch Mysteries launched several months later than usual. It has definitely been worth the wait. Monday’s storyline melded several of my favourite pieces of the Murdoch Mysteries puzzle—Murdoch’s technology, historical figures and classic Crabtree humour—to provide a rollicking hour of entertainment. In my inaugural Season 14 chat, I spoke to Simon McNabb, the episode’s writer and Murdoch co-executive producer, about it.

How did COVID-19 affect your life and being able to work on a TV show?
Simon McNabb: It affected the writers in a couple of ways. The most immediate one was just, of course, on March 13th or whatever it was, we disbanded the writer’s room and didn’t see each other face to face for many months after that. It was kind of right in the middle of us breaking the arc for the season and coming up with the first batch of episodes, so we were able to sort of go off and write at that point, but then normally we would come back together and continue to talk about what the next episodes would be and give notes on those first episodes.

Like everybody else in the world, we just started doing everything over Zoom, which was nice in terms of being able to roll out of bed, straight into the writer’s room. But it was also challenging in that it’s a very different dynamic to be talking over video conference as opposed to being in person, in part because we’re not there in person, but also because it’s hard to sit on a video conference for, like, eight hours a day. We would generally do a short meeting where we got everything out—which takes away that opportunity to sit around and put your feet up over lunch and just say something that’s totally out of left field that might add a little creativity to the proceedings—but I think, ultimately, we found a good way of working bringing some of that creativity into the process anyway. It was pretty unusual, but it turned out pretty well.

Maybe the positive is that you are such a veteran writers’ room that, that may be unlike maybe a newer show, you can kind of roll with the punches a little bit better than others can.
SM: Absolutely. I think we were pretty uniquely suited to roll with whatever was thrown at us. And I also think there is an upside to only having a short meeting a day and then having some time as a writer to just sort of think on your own and reflect. It slows the pace down a little bit. But it means that when you do meet again, say the next day for a couple of hours, everybody has more ideas and is a little more refreshed and had something they really are burning to say.

Do you remember if it was you that came up with the idea of having Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel involved in this episode, or was it a collaborative effort?
SM: Well, it’s always collaborative. I think in terms of somebody saying the words Charlie Chaplin, I believe it was me back in March when we were still sitting around a communal table. But at the same time, I also know that some years ago—probably multiple times over the years when we’ve been sitting around brainstorming ideas and what historical figures we might want to see—Charlie Chaplin has come up before. And then we check the historical record and find out that he was only 11 years old at that time or something and we decided to move on. So it had been a couple of years, I think, since anyone had mentioned it.

I just Googled him and found out that in 1908 I believe was the year that he first got on a boat and left the UK to tour with Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe. As soon as we sort of got that historical green light—that it was vaguely possible within our fictional world, that he could’ve come to North America—then we ran with it and discovered the truth that Stan Laurel had been his understudy and discovered that Buster Keaton was already touring with his family around North America. And we decided, if we were going to do one of them, we might as well do all of them there to do vaudeville in a new way with some of the biggest historical figures we’ve ever had on the show in terms of fame and profile.

I had no idea about Stan Laurel being Charlie’s understudy.
SM: Yeah, I had never come across that either, but it was true that he was Chaplain’s understudy while they were with Fred Karnos’ company. And I think he was quoted many times in his career as saying that Charlie was just this unbelievable talent who taught him an enormous amount.

You must love it when you’re able to hint that Crabtree invented The Tramp character and provide a wink to the audience.
SM: For sure, and the winking to the audience, and the winking to the historical record and what we now know to be true today, is a huge amount of fun of the premise of this show. It was something that was set up long before I started working on that and it’s such a stroke of genius. I don’t know who exactly came up with sort of that attitude to look back at history in that way through these characters on Murdoch Mysteries, but it’s something that the audience delights in. We see great comments on Facebook and Twitter every time we get a chance to really properly profile a great historical figure. Hopefully people will be pleased with the fun we’d had in this episode.

What is Yannick Bisson like as a director?
SM: Yannick is a fantastic director. I’ve worked with him before. He directed an episode last year about George Crabtree’s father that I wrote, and we collaborated on that episode last year and I got to watch him up close and personal. He comes at it from his enormous experience as an actor and, as a result, is really perceptive in terms of character and in terms of working with not only the main cast but guest actors. He has a real instinct for visual gags, for telling the stories through the set, the location and the great sets that our art department has been making the last couple of years. I remember one of the Christmas movies, him just making a great deal of incredible humour out of something that on the page, there’s only a couple of direction lines. And I think, as a director and an actor, he managed to sort of embrace the spirit of this episode in a big way.

Let’s use the chase scene in this episode as an example: how much of that would have been in the script?
SM: The chase scene was definitely the biggest set-piece in that episode. One of the biggest ones we’ve ever done maybe in terms of just the number of moving parts, the number of characters and the number of what do you want to call them stunts or gags that we wanted to incorporate, and it really paid off. There is Crabtree’s influence on The Tramp, but there’s also a Buster Keaton gag in there. I would say it was very specifically scripted, however, the realities on the day are always different than what’s in the minds of the writers who we’re sitting in the writer’s room.

That was the sequence went through a lot of labour and prep from all the departments that were changed repeatedly due to both constraints in terms of the time and budget. I remember, specifically, new ideas coming up in prep about how to make it funnier and more specific to the characters. I know that Yannick had a couple of ideas during prep of how to pay off gags better and make things a little more lively in that sequence. I know on the day there were things on set that were just like, well, it’s not going to quite work the way we wanted it to in this very specific way. So let’s change it and do it this way instead and, luckily, the result was pretty great.

With this shorter season, how many episodes are you credited with writing?
SM: This year I wrote two episodes. I wrote the Charlie Chaplin episode and another forthcoming episode that features some members of the Newsome family and the writer’s room as a whole collaborated on the last two episodes of the season. So I had a small hand in working on those scripts as well.

How many seasons have you been with Murdoch Mysteries?
SM: Eight seasons.

Wow. Do you ever look back and think about that, or no?
SM: It’s shocking every time I stop to think about it. I feel like it’s a very unusual career trajectory to happen onto a show that’s already well-established and then rise from being script assistant and story coordinator to a relatively senior writer and co-executive producer over the course of eight seasons. It’s crazy and it’s not something I ever, ever expected when I started working on Murdoch Mysteries. I thought, ‘Well, yeah, this show will probably go another season maybe,’ and here we are eight years later. And hopefully, there’ll be more.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.