English is not my first language, and of all existing English accents, from all English-speaking countries in the world, none reminds me so well of that as Australia.
Growing up in Brazil, I remember how frustrating it felt to go to the movies to watch Paul’s Hogan (whatever happened to him?) fight criminals and crocodiles and having to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. My English was good enough for Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker, and E.T. phoning home, and Michael J. Fox piloting his flying Delorean, but Crocodile Dundee was just impossible. I could not hear the words right; was not prepared to comprehend the way even the most mundane vocabulary was pronounced. Not to mention the local slang. Had high hopes for Crocodile Dundee II, and the disappointment was devastating. I had not learned a single thing from the first movie. In fact, it became even more garbled and frustrating. How could the Men At Work band sound so clear when they ordered a vegemite sandwich and asked everybody to take cover, and I could easily sing along, but Paul Hogan’s brogue was worse than Greek to my ears?
In frustration, I gave up on Australian movies and TV shows. I would never be able to figure their accent. It was beyond me. I loved koalas and kangaroos but was doomed never to understand a word pronounced by humans living on the land Down Under. Until a WW II doctor, a survivor of the Singapore fall, showed me there was hope. I may at last have the courage to enter an Outback restaurant without fearing the waiter’s accent or any exotic words on the menu.
The Letter B
The town of Ballarat looks lovely on a sunny spring afternoon; its most prominent citizens gathered to celebrate the Begonia Festival. Rumor has it that local politicians planned on taking the famous festival into the next town over, Bendigo, as Mrs. Beazley told Dr. Blake, but for now things remain as they are. Except that one of those prominent citizens in the public ceremony appeared to have been shot dead. And you wonder how such a charming town can afford to lose so many people in three seasons, one per episode. Worry not, because every single one of these deaths is going to be investigated and elucidated by Dr. Lucien Blake. I am talking about the Australian TV show The Dr. Blake’s Mysteries. Netflix has it and your local PBS channel may also be airing it. The abundance of B-initialed names may have just be a coincidence but it added a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to the show.
I realized the profusion of Bs before I did it was an Aussie show. The first episode of the first season opened with post WW II hair and fashion styles and automobiles. Where are we, I remember thinking. The U.K.? The building style vaguely reminded me of Southampton in England. However, there was no shore, and to confuse me further, some architectural elements resembled those in India under the British rule. It could not be Australia, I concluded, because I was able to understand every single word they spoke! It was not until the credits were rolling on our TV screen that I confirmed this was a made-in-Australia show, with Australian actors, incredibly well produced and acted, speaking such a clear English that even I could figure what they were saying in the flawlessly-written dialogues. I just had to keep watching. And three seasons went by in a blink of an eye.
Forensics in pre-DNA era
Criminals back then had no idea how lucky they were. It’s the late 1950’s in the first season. Lucien Blake is back home after decades living abroad. He left Australia in his 20’s to study medicine in Scotland. He got a job at a London hospital and then joined the British Army as a medical officer. During WW II Blake’s service included the Far East, where he married a Chinese lady and had a child. When Singapore fell though, he lost them both. Lucien searched for them all the time he was away, and continues the search after he returns to Ballarat. Dr. Blake also spent time in Thailand’s Ban Pong POW camp. After a 33-year absence, Blake returns home in 1959 to take over his late father’s practice as a general practitioner and also becomes the police surgeon; a mix of detective with coroner. The series is set and mostly filmed in the gold rush city of Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne, in Victoria. It features some of the town’s most popular sites, as Lydiard Street, and many of the heritage buildings, including the Colonists Club – a very exclusive, members’ only venue.
As if rebuilding one’s life after such tragic circumstances were not difficult enough, Blake is having an especially hard time as the entire town keeps comparing him to his deceased father. True, as a GP, Lucien Blake is a much better PI, but even a POW, schooled in patience and perseverance, has his limits. The constant comparison to his well-succeeded and well-liked dad is always in favor of Blake senior. To what Lucien utters his habitual, Right…Even Jean Beazley (played by actress Nadine Garner), his receptionist and housekeeper (Blake, as his father, works out of his home, when not at the police headquarters), spares no words praising Blake senior’s professionalism and demeanor against Blake junior’s shortcomings in the first two seasons. Jean actually disapproves of almost everything Lucien does and he takes her criticism without complaint; never losing his temper. If anything, Lucien’s experience of the war, combined with his natural or doctor-trained compassion, made him extra tactful when the human psyche is concerned. He is extra-understanding and tolerant in season I and II, which in turn drives his fellow police officers crazy. Having survived the horrors of the war, Lucien believes in the good in people; much better than he believes in our evil side.
As the show progresses though, and Blake feels more comfortable in his own hometown (and the actor probably more used to the character), we see how he starts granting himself license to be bolder, slightly more aggressive and trickier when interacting with suspects or hostile police officers. Having lived abroad most of his life, the locals sense in Lucien Blake a strangeness they are not willing to accept without due resistance and which they externalize by alluding to how great a physician his father was. Such a great doctor; such a great man… Leaving unspoken the second half of their comment, not like you. Blake sounds as Australian as his hometowners and yet people treat him almost as harshly as they treat migrant workers from Italy and Russia. As a result, Blake is clearly divided between loving the community for its tradition and history and hating it for its prejudices. The show scores high in displaying this ambiguity without being boringly explicit about it.
Blake drinks himself to oblivion but plays the piano beautifully (Gold Logie award-winning actor Craig McLachlan is actually an accomplished musician as well) – after two in the morning, much to the distress of Mrs. Beazley who struggles to understand why can’t it be be like-father-like-son after all. She does not have a lot of patience for Blake’s often irresponsible behavior. Having lost her own husband to the war and living apart from her two grown sons, Jean is herself a survivor. And not a wealthy one. Blake’s mental tortures and eccentric behavior appear superfluous to her. But Jean is intrigued by the multiple letters received from Singapore. One evening, while Lucien is out investigating another murder-like death, Jean enters his room with a just-arrived envelope from Singapore. As she places it on his desk, there is a massive leather-bound book on the table. She can’t resist it. It’s a scrap book. From the drawings inside, Jean is petrified by one in particular, depicting a man being executed. And then Blake arrives. When a scene on TV makes you cringe for the characters, you know it’s good stuff. I felt bad for Jean’s embarrassment and for Blake, for having his privacy invaded. Jean is a very good person; not a gossiper. The indiscretion she just committed only means she cares for Blake so much she had to look into those papers hoping they would shed some light into what’s going on in his mind; why does he drink so much, why is he not like his father; why can’t he be normal and fit right in? The mishap did not put a dent in their relationship though. Blake is basically a forgiving soul exactly because of things like that drawing that he witnessed in the war.
Dr. Blake’s Mysteries widened my eyes to a new perspective related to WW II. For Australians, Europe was a distant battle front. Their hell was fought much closer, across the Pacific, which by no means should be interpreted as an easier front. There is little war zone flashback, which is a relief. And Lucien Blake’s hands are not always shaking – his PTSD is not used and abused in the script. We know he has it, we understand why, but the production spares us from over-exposure to his war traumas, which I found commendable. As commendable as Lucien’s wardrobe – he is always impeccably dressed; hat and overcoat included. I doubt his acclaimed father could have been half as elegant as his troubled son. The show makes a point in dressing actor Craig McLachlan as flawlessly as we rarely see on TV these days. But for all his prominent status in Ballarat, Lucien Blake himself is victim of the small community’s narrow-mindness. If he had family in China, he must be a communist. If he, an unattached man, co-habits with his equally non-attached receptionist and housekeeper, something shameful must be going on between those two…
As an actor known in Australia mainly for memorable roles in popular soap operas, Craig has to stretch himself in Blake’s skin. For example, he has to drive a 1930’s Coventry Standard English car that has been modified with a Holden 202 engine and whose original gearbox broke during a take. Craig recalls: “On our first day of filming we were stuck in second gear and then the gear stick came off in my hand as I tried to change gears.”
Blake seems to be attracted to steady and permanent things he sees no reason to change, like his cute bi-color automobile, the furniture in his father’s old house, and the housekeeper herself. Dr. Lucien Blake is a curious mix of conservative physician with politically-forward citizen – to him the British are first and foremost colonialists (even though he is a member of the Colonialist’s Club where he befriended Cec Drury, the astute bartender) and then war heroes. Australia is home but distant China is never far away from his thoughts because it was where he last saw his wife and daughter. Blake can be so unorthodox and inconvenient, Chief Superintendent Matt Lawson rolls his eyes on a good day and threatens to fire the good doctor when he gets out of control. The mighty local industrialist and newspaper owner, Patrick Tyneman, would gladly ship Lucien back to Asia…
Let me stop here, before I give away too much on the show – it’s supposed to be a mystery after all. If you are looking for a well-produced series to follow this summer, Dr. Blake’s Mysteries may be the answer. The show is a eulogy to an almost forgotten world of good manners and civility, despite all the deep scars left by WW II in countries and individuals. Whenever I see those awful videos and selfies of people behaving like savages on air planes, whether by their own fault or on account of poor customer service and consumer disrespect by the air carrier, I want to go back in time (even if this blog could not exist in the 1950,’s) and live in Ballarat, and wear the pretty dresses girls did back then. Now that I know that I can speak the language…
Enjoy your Memorial Day Holiday