When it comes to period murder mysteries, you might think that the Brits have pretty much milked that popular genre to death. Leave it to the Aussies, though, to come up with something delightfully different in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an instantly addictive new (to the United States) series centering around a vivacious young woman who is equal parts jazz baby and resourceful sleuth. Acorn Video this week released season one, encompassing 13 spirited episodes (on four DVD or Blu-ray discs) drenched in period detail.
Adapted from a popular series of detective novels by Australian writer Kerry Greenwood, the series is set in 1928 Melbourne, where wealthy Phryne (pronounced “FRY-nee”) Fisher (newcomer Essie Smith), a decidedly free-thinking 28-year-old, investigates dastardly doings, including one that occurred in her childhood and still haunts her. The richly drawn cast of characters also include Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), Phryne’s devoted housekeeper and occasional sidekick, and her bashful cop boyfriend, Hugh Collins (Hugh Johnstone-Burke), as well as handsome police detective John “Jack” Robinson (Nathan Page), who begins to strike some romantic sparks with Phryne as the season progresses. Several episodes also feature the great British comedy actress Miriam Margolyes in a juicy turn as Phryne’s disapproving Aunt Prudence.
Production values are absolutely first-rate (Phryne’s dazzling Jazz Age costumes alone are worth checking out), and the copious behind-the-scenes featurettes in both formats include comments by Greenwood, Phryne’s creator, who is visibly over the moon at the care the creative team has lavished on the world she has created. If you’re a fan of witty, well-written period mysteries, I cannot recommend this set highly enough.
Other new releases from Acorn include:
No Job for a Lady, making its North American DVD debut in a three-disc set that includes all 18 episodes from its original UK run from 1990-92. Penelope Keith, a familiar face to PBS viewers from her work in such popular Britcoms as To the Manor Born and Good Neighbors, stars as Jean Price, who is somewhat dismayed to discover how lunatic the political world is after she is elected a Member of Parliament for the left-wing Labour Party. The solid supporting cast includes the wonderful Paul Young as Jean’s long-suffering Scottish officemate Ken Miller and George Baker as cartoonish conservative Godfrey Eagen, Jean’s relentlessly cheerful Tory nemesis. If you enjoyed Yes, Prime Minister, you’re sure to enjoy this clever comedy. No noteworthy extras, but all episodes are closed-captioned for the hearing impaired, as are all the other titles in today’s column.
Chance in a Million, which ran in Great Britain during the mid-1980s, was created as a vehicle for Simon Callow, who had just scored a stunning London stage success in the title role of Peter Shaffer’s then-new play Amadeus. Here he plays Tom Chance, a man cursed by fate and plagued by circumstance at every turn in his life. The performances strike me as a little too stylized and exaggerated for modern tastes, but it’s fun to watch Callow when he was just starting out. Future Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) also stars as Tom’s chirpy girlfriend in this three-DVD set, which includes all 18 episodes, an alternate pilot episode and four episode commentaries by Callow and the two scriptwriters for the show.
I’ve never before come across A Mind to Kill, which aired in the UK (in both English and Welsh versions, mind you) from 1994 to 2004 and has gone on to become widely syndicated around the world, although frankly I’m hard pressed to understand why. Philip Madoc stars as Welsh detective Noel Bain, but neither he nor his character is particularly galvanizing (the supporting players are far more interesting, especially Ffion Wilkins, who plays Noel’s headstrong daughter, Hannah). Acorn’s 11-DVD set includes all 21 feature-length mysteries that aired during the show’s run, as well as a clip from the Welsh-language version of the series. If you enjoy playing “find that star of tomorrow,” guest stars include a pre-Horatio Hornblower Ioan Gruffudd and Archie Panjabi long before she landed her Emmy-winning role as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.