Sunday, September 10, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “A Foreign Field” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite interesting PBS showing of a 2014 episode of the Doctor Blake Mysteries, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and dealing with a small-town coroner, autopsy surgeon and (of course!) amateur detective named Dr. Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan) who went to Europe to serve as an Army medic in World War II but after the war returned to the small Australian outback town of Ballarat where he was born, settled there, taking the job of police surgeon and medical examiner and living with his partner Jean Beazley (Nadine Garner) — series creators George Adams and Tony Wright make a big deal of the fact that they’re not married, though how they got away with that in the Australian outback in the late 1950’s is a mystery. This episode, “A Foreign Field,” written by Marcia Gardner and directed by Lee Rogen, deals with the finding of a corpse in the countryside, and the mystery is as much about who the person is as to who killed him: he’d been using the name “Lundqvist” and claiming to be Swedish, and in that guise he’d married a local woman, Nola (Natasha Herbert). But all identifying marks on his clothes, including the tags that would have indicated where they were made and therefore, likely, where he had acquired them had been carefully cut off — which at first leads one to believe he’s a fleeing criminal and didn’t want anyone to know where he’d been. There’s an intriguing red-herring suspect who claims to be a fellow Swede with no knowledge of English, but he knows enough of it to understand the police’s simpler questions and answer “Si” when he means “yes” — but there’s also another clue: a poem about Persephone by Australian poet A. M. Hope and a volume of Hope’s poems in which that particular page has been torn out.

Naturally, the official police couldn’t care less about poetry, but Dr. Blake deduces that the poem about Persephone contains a clue, a cipher that leads him to the Ballarat Historical Society (Ballarat hardly seems like a big or important enough place to have enough of a history to merit an historical society, though the impression we get was that in the 19th century Ballarat was an important mining town and therefore it was considerably larger than it is in the late-1950’s “present” in which the series is set) and the two women who run the place, Elise Patrick (Edwina Wren) and Martha Harris (Sybilla Budd). The gimmick is that the mystery “Lundqvist” was a master seducer of women; he’d also been around the world posing as various nationalities, including Dutch, and had literally had “a girl in every port.” Dr. Blake suspects Elise of having an affair with him and doing him in when he wouldn’t leave the Australian woman he’d married for her, but he figures out the real killer is Martha: it seems our mystery man was a Soviet spy and Martha, as a member of the Communist Party of Australia, was in charge of making false identities for him and producing any forged documents needed — only she fell in love with him and was willing to leave the service of the international Communist conspiracy for him if he’d agree to stop seeing other women, settle down and lead a normal life. Only he had no interest in doing that; he was committed to continuing his James Bond act (albeit on the other side of the Cold War), traveling around the world and bedding (and, if necessary, marrying) any of the comely (or not-so-comely) beauties he encountered while doing his espionage thing. This wasn’t quite as compelling a program as some of the other recent Doctor Blakes I’ve seen, but it’s still a fun show and McLachlan’s cool, matter-of-fact performance in a role that might have tempted another actor to jump, yelp and send his vocal register up an octave the way Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes really “makes” this series — as does Nadine Gardiner’s Jean, who’s essentially Dr. Watson to Blake’s Holmes but is genuinely helpful and in this show actually gives the key clue that helps her partner solve the mystery: she recognizes a set of numbers in the cipher, which Blake thinks are only a key to further decoding, as the Ballarat Historical Society’s phone number.