Phryne Fisher is definitely no Miss Marple. She’s no Hetty Wainthrop or Jessica Fletcher.
“No, I’m much more like Indiana Jones or James Bond,” laughs Essie Davis.
“I’m incredibly skilled at everything. I shoot guns, drive fast cars, fly aeroplanes, throw daggers, and speak multiple foreign languages, dance the tango, do a foxtrot, go in disguise, do circus tricks!
“At the end of every block they screen a little trailer for us to look back on what we’ve done and it’s ‘Oh my God, did we really do all of that?’”
Davis plays the lead role in ABC’s new mystery drama series and she loves it. Who can blame her?
Surrounded by gorgeous frocks, period props and given a spirited character from author Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a dazzling vehicle for its star, most recently seen in The Slap and Cloudstreet.
“It’s great fun!” she insists.
“It’s also very witty and frivolous, disrespectful, audacious and reckless. Phryne is very cheeky.
“She grew up very poor in Collingwood and then at age 14 he father inherited a massive title and wealth in London so she’s gone off and done finishing school. She became an ambulance officer during the war and went to France, became an artist’s model and done amazing things in her life. But at age 14 her sister was taken by a man, presumed murdered by a man who’s in jail for kidnapping another girl. Phryne has returned to Australia to make sure he never gets out.
“The man in jail has been created by (writer) Deb Cox and (producer) Fiona Eagger as a throughline for the separate stories. There’s quite a big character arc for the main six characters.”
There are 18 books penned by Greenwood, first published in 1989. 11 feature as episodes in the 13-part series and two others have been devised.
Davis admits she hadn’t read any until she auditioned for the title role. But given the success of the book, is she worried about how audiences might accept the dramatisation, and whether the transition is faithful?
“Characters have been merged together to fit into a one hour television episode but I think Phryne fans will really love it,” she says.
“I was worried that you’re not going to be the vision of that people have of the character when they’ve read the book, but Kerry Greenwood has given me her greatest approval so I’m not worried anymore. She’s so thrilled. She reads and approves of all the scripts and throws in her notes.”
Despite the strength of the female creative team, the series offers plenty for men, according to Davis.
“I think men will love it because there’s a lot of action and it’s quite sexy. The men in it are very strong and intelligent –or very, very dumb– so I think it will be enjoyable for them,” she says.
“Phryne is a great lover of men and has a few! There are lovers who are quite important in the books, who have become less important in the series because of the underlying tension between Phryne and Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page).”
The cast includes Ashleigh Cummings and Hugo Johnstone-Burt and boasts a stellar guest cast. The series also arrives at a time when period dramas are as popular as ever.
“I’m sure that Mad Men has had a huge influence in what’s being made on television now but this series has been in the pipeline probably before Boardwalk Empire! There’s so much Reality television at the moment that it’s nice to step out of ‘everyday’ into the fantasy of what once was. I guess the romance of a different age.
“So much about the 1920s is incredibly modern because women changed the way they dressed, cut all their hair off and it was a real time of Women’s Liberation before they became oppressed again during the 1950s. It’s a reflection of the times as well.”
The most challenging part, says Davis, has been the pace of the shoot.
“We’ve done 11 minutes a day sometimes and I know soaps go for 2.5 hours a week, but this is period drama with quite complex dialogue and wit and banter as well as action and danger. It requires a lot of preparation and we’re just going hell for leather.
“The days when we are at Phryne’s house I just have a lot of lines to learn. So the biggest challenge is keeping on top of it all and (maintaining) the quality. Everybody wants it to be brilliant. So there’s a lot of homework and nobody really gets 8 hours off ever.”
But the series is also set to propel her into leading lady territory with a broad audience.
And with a role as electric as Phryne Fisher, Davis has good reason to have a spring in her step and a twinkle in her eye.
“Phryne’s a fox!” she laughs.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries premieres 8:30pm Friday on ABC1.