Review: The Doctor Blake Mysteries 1×1 (ABC1/ITV)

Discover for yourself that Craig McClachlan can act!

The Doctor Blake Mysteries

In Australia: Fridays, 8.30pm, ABC1
In the UK: Will air on ITV
In the rest of the world: Not yet acquired

If you’re from the UK and of a certain age – your 30s or 40s – you’ll remember Craig McClachlan: he was Henry on Australian soap opera Neighbours, back when anyone who was anyone watched it.

So popular was he in the role, that he was enticed over to the UK to star in BBC1’s Bugs, a fun bit of escapism masterminded by The Avengers‘ Brian Clemens that was thoroughly enjoyable until a bunch of people who’d written some Doctor Who New Adventures novels decided they wanted to make it proper sci-fi and robbed it of any or all enjoyable qualities in its second series.

One thing that McClachlan didn’t really demonstrate in either of those two shows was the ability to act. In fact, he was largely only notable for his haircut and huge pectoral muscles, and that was about it.

Craig McClachlan in Neighbours

So colour me surprised by The Doctor Blake Mysteries, a new Australian crime series set in small Victoria town in 1959 and which stars McClachlan as the eponymous Doctor Blake. Because not only is the show itself really rather decent, but McClachlan – as well as not taking off his top once – seems to have matured into “one of Australia’s favourite and most versatile actors” during the past 20 or so years.

Here’s a trailer.

The Doctor Blake Mysteries is an original 10-part murder mystery series starring one of Australia’s favourite and most versatile actors, Craig McLachlan, as the maverick country town doctor Lucien Blake. A risk-taker, he’s impulsive and not afraid to upset the status quo.

It’s 1959. Dr Blake has returned to a place he once called home, to take over his deceased father’s medical practice. Everything seems peaceful on the surface, but seething underneath are the age-old passions of a regional town clashing head-on with the tensions and fears of the decade to come.

Haunted by the horrors of war, his own personal loss and changed by his experiences as a POW, the wry, dry, yet very human Dr Blake undertakes his other role as police surgeon with precision and gusto – yet many find his unpredictable and unconventional manner unnerving. Ahead of his time, Blake looks to the science of forensics and his own understanding of the human heart to help solve the mysteries that inevitably come his way.

Beside Blake, helping and at times hindering, are his housekeeper Jean (Nadine Garner), her nephew Danny (Rick Donald), a young constable, District Nurse Mattie O’Brien (Cate Wolfe) and Chief Superintendent Matthew Lawson (Joel Tobeck).

Change is seeping through the cracks of post-World War II values, and endless fears abound – fear of communism, nuclear testing, rock ‘n’ roll music, immigration and social breakdown. Dr Blake’s community turns to him for guidance in medical matters and so much more. They tell him everything. Everyone trusts the doctor and he has a damn good nose for things left unsaid.

Is it any good?
It’s actually pretty good: well written, well acted, with decent characters and a proper mystery plot.

The show is a little redolent of Heartbeat and other nostalgic shows, with our hero (and his friends) improbably liberal and ahead of their time in terms of attitudes to women, for example, while various supporting characters are wheeled out to be reactionary and Wrong. The first episode’s plot concerns a girl from the local reform school – a ‘bad girl’ who gets pregnant, thus giving everyone evil in town a chance to call her a slut and be Wrong – being murdered and left dead in a lake. Blake, who while not a police officer, doubles up as pathologist and coroner, realises that all is not well and takes it upon himself to help the police to investigate the victim’s murder.

The show is all about Blake, as you might expect, and he’s painted as an interestingly damaged character: a man left somewhat broken by the Second World War and who’s come back to town to inherit almost everything worthwhile, from a place to live to a career, from his father. He has a drinking habit, he doesn’t mind swallowing mysterious pills to see if they’re amphetamines or not, and he’s perfectly willing to cross all kinds of other boundaries if he thinks he needs to. McClachlan does a great job with him and anyone who stills thinks of him as “that guy on Neighbours” should rethink immediately.

The supporting cast are less exceptional, largely dedicated to supporting McClachlan rather than having characters of their own, but there’s enough to make them interesting, even the head of the local men’s club, whom one would normally expect to be Wrong about everything. The show evokes the period well, is shot well and has a more somber tone than you might have expected, giving it surprising depths. The mystery doesn’t play out exactly the way you think it will and even the murderer is eventually shown to have more dimensions than you would have expected.

If you like crime dramas, period dramas or period crime dramas, give The Doctor Blake Mysteries a go.

PS A hat tip to @thierryattard by the way, for flagging up the existence of the show to me.