It’s hard to ignore the output and quality of ABC Drama right now.
Recently we’ve had Rake and Jack Irish while comedies Lowdown and The Strange Calls tickle more eclectic tastes. But while commercial channels cheer a single series premiere we’re only halfway through the current wave of local scripted content from the public broadcaster. Still to come are A Moody Christmas, Redfern Now, Dangerous Remedy, Devil’s Dust and next Sunday’s period whodunnit The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it should do. The novel by English writer Fergus Hume was first published in Australia in 1886 and both pre-dated and outsold Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes book. It’s been made into a film in 1911, 1915 and 1925 as well as theatrical and radio dramatisations. Now the ABC has brought it to life once more in a splendid telemovie from Burberry Productions.
Set in Melbourne, 1886, the mystery begins when a drunken man takes a ‘hansom cab’ ride to St. Kilda but winds up dead on arrival. His killer was unseen but we soon travel back to two weeks to learn more about the victim, Oliver Whyte (Brett Climo), and the array of possible enemies.
Whyte meets wealthy landowner Mark Frettlby (John Waters) who boasts an impressive estate and equally impressive single daughter, Madge (Jessica De Gouw). Whyte blackmails Frettlby into giving him the hand of marriage of Madge, despite the fact she already loves the dashing Brian Fitzgerald (Oliver Ackland). With money, class, romance and spite, it’s hard not to see shades of Downton Abbey in this set-up, and Werribee Mansion even makes a decent local double.
Various red herrings and additional suspects will emerge as the plot thickens, with Detective Samuel Gorby (Shane Jacobson) trying to piece together the night of the murder. Gorby is certainly no Sherlock Holmes, and a unique feature of this early genre piece is that he does not entirely follow the ‘hero’s journey’ across the life of the story.
Also appearing are Marco Chiappi as lawyer Duncan Calton, Helen Morse as the impoverished Mother Guttersnipe and Chelsie Preston Crayford as prostitute Sal Rawlins and Felix Williamson as Detective Kilsip.
Morse is especially good in a character role, and Oliver Ackland impresses as a romantic hero. John Waters makes a feast of his aristocratic role.
But the real stars here are on the other side of the camera.
Hansom Cab is handsomely produced, bringing colonial Melbourne to life with wonderful detail. Use of locations, costumes by Wendy Cork and production design by Otello Stolfo are lavish. Watch for the CGI skyline of old Melbourne town cleverly woven into scenes set on Swanston Street bridge. Use of colours, avoiding gaudy hues, help transport us back in time.
Director Shawn Seet and writer Glen Dolman tick the boxes of the whodunnit genre here, lovingly bringing to life a tale in which secrets betray class lines but love seeks to conquer all.
Producer Margot McDonald has ensured Hume’s classic novel has had a classic ABC treatment, and audiences will be the richer for it.
A sparkling production.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab airs 8:30pm Sunday October 28 on ABC1.