[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.