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Murdoch Mysteries: the Movies were much darker than the TV show

Michael TaubeAh, Detective William Murdoch. It’s been a while since we last spoke … err, wrote.

I’ve had a near-annual tradition of writing a column or two about CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. It’s one of Canada’s most successful TV series, with a loyal fanbase that rivals classic shows like The Beachcombers, Seeing Things and The Kids In the Hall – and modern counterparts such as Schitt’s Creek, Corner Gas and Heartland.

Murdoch Mysteries is based on Maureen Jennings’s engaging detective novels – including Except the Dying (1997), Let Loose the Dogs (2003) and Let Darkness Bury the Dead (2017) – about the exploits of her heroic titular character. Murdoch, the great fictional detective, was inspired by a great real detective, John Wilson Murray.

Born in Scotland in 1840, Murray served as a U.S. Navy sailor on the USS Michigan and was appointed Ontario’s first government detective in 1875. Murray’s success in solving hundreds of crimes led to the creation of the Criminal Investigation Branch, which is today’s Ontario Provincial Police. (He also inspired another CBC series, The Great Detective, which ran from 1979-1982.)

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Murdoch, played by successful Canadian film/TV actor Yannick Bisson, works for the Toronto Constabulary at Station House No. 4. The detective is a polymath with a photographic memory who uses his forensic skills and ingenious inventions to solve mysteries in the late 19th and early 20th century. The techniques he used, including fingerprinting, blood testing, surveillance and trace evidence, existed at the time but were rarely employed by other crime detectives.

There are other main and supporting characters in the TV series. These include Murdoch’s equally brilliant wife, Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), Inspector Thomas Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) and his wife Margaret (Arwen Humphreys), morgue assistant Rebecca James (Mouna Traoré), coroner Dr. Emily Grace (Georgina Reilly), Detective Llewellyn Watts (Daniel Maslany), Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris) and Constable Henry Higgins (Lachlan Murdoch).

What am I going to discuss about Murdoch Mysteries this year? Something quite different. We’re going to take a trip down memory lane and look at the Murdoch Mysteries movies.

Murdoch Mysteries debuted on Citytv on Jan. 20, 2008. Prior to this, three made-for-TV movies based on Jennings’ stories (Except the Dying, Poor Tom is Cold and Under the Dragon’s Tail) were filmed in 2004. They ran under the title Murder 19C: The Detective Murdoch Mysteries and appeared on the Canadian version of the U.S. TV channel Bravo (which is now CTV Drama Channel). Two of them were broadcast in 2004, and the third in 2005.

The cast of characters was different, too.

Peter Outerbridge, a well-respected Canadian actor who appeared in TV series like CW’s Nikita, TMN’s ReGenesis, BBC America’s Orphan Black and the CBC television film John A.: Birth of a Country, played Murdoch. Colm Meaney, a popular Irish character actor who starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and movies like The Journey, portrayed Inspector Brackenreid. Three-time British Academy Award nominee Keeley Hawes (from Line of Duty, Bodyguard and Mrs. Wilson) crafted her own unique take on the role of Julia Ogden.

Several supporting cast members and guest stars appear in the Murdoch Mysteries movies. Northern Irish actress Flora Montgomery played Ettie Weston in all three projects. Canadian actor Matthew MacFadzean played Constable Crabtree in Poor Tom is Cold and Under the Dragon’s Tail. Joly also appeared in Under the Dragon’s Tail as Maude Pedlow, making her the only individual to draw a line from the made-for-TV movies to the TV series.

The three movies were occasionally shown on Bravo but haven’t been in circulation for years. RLJ Entertainment and Acorn TV re-released the three movies on DVD in 2015, and I received them this October. (My thanks to Alexandra Quilici of AMCNetworks.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen these movies. I was struck by the combination of subtle and significant differences from the TV series.

The movies are much darker and more serious than the often lighthearted and jovial TV show. Outerbridge’s Murdoch is as complex as Bisson’s Murdoch, but the former is more brooding and ominous during each dramatic murder case. Julia Ogden’s essence was crafted well by both Joly and Hawes, with only the smallest of differences in mannerisms and body language. Craig and Meaney played Inspector Brackenreid in a surprisingly similar fashion, with each capturing the character’s unique combination of crustiness and sympathy.

If the cast of the made-for-TV movies had been maintained for television, would the series have been as popular and long-lasting? It’s difficult to say, although there’s no reason why it couldn’t have worked out. In fact, Outerbridge was cast as Murdoch when the 13-episode TV series was announced by Citytv. He couldn’t make it work due to his commitment to ReGenesis. This led to Bisson being hired, and the rest is history.

It’s worth picking up the DVD set of Murdoch Mysteries: the Movies for either Hanukkah or Christmas. Regular viewers and casual observers of the TV series will likely see the movies in a different light. They’ll also be intrigued by the darker, albeit equally fascinating, presentation of Detective William Murdoch and the show’s memorable cast of characters.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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