More Mata Hari than Miss Marple ... Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.
Sittng outside her trailer on a cool night in Melbourne while filming the new ABC series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Essie Davis does not appear tired. But she is. ''Of all the roles I've played, this has been the most exhausting because I'm in 90 per cent of the show - Phryne is in everything''.
The opulent 13-part series, produced by Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, is based on Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher crime novels, set in and around Melbourne during the late 1920s. Davis read most of Greenwood's 18 Phryne adventures not long after she was approached to audition. She immediately clicked with a heroine who is more Mata Hari than Miss Marple.
Both producers recognised that finding the right actor to embody such a complicated character was crucial to the success of the series. ''Phryne has had a wealth of experiences,'' Eagger says. ''You need to believe that this is a woman who was a member of the French ambulance corps during World War I. But she's also smart, sexy and beautiful. There was a lot of interest in the role but as soon as Essie auditioned, we all knew.''
Phryne's adventurous spirit is clear by episode two, when she hangs off the back of a moving train, revelling in the wind ruffling her razor-sharp bob. ''I thought Phryne was fabulous,'' Davis says. ''She's like a female Indiana Jones with a better wardrobe.''
Despite the character's fondness for handsome men and cocaine, her chiselled cheekbones, suspenders and pearl-handled Smith & Wesson, Phryne Fisher is a woman with a social conscience, as becomes clear from the first episode, Cocaine Blues. ''It didn't take me long to realise Phryne was this exuberant, witty, intelligent person who stands up for the rights of women, loves fast cars and airplanes,'' Davis says. ''If Phryne has a flaw, I can't see it.''
But Phryne clearly has one flaw - she's nosy and it's her insatiable curiosity that leads to trouble. Almost immediately after alighting from the Orient at Melbourne's Victoria Dock in the opening episode, she steps straight into a mystery involving an old friend (played by the veteran Australian actor Miranda Otto).
''Phryne's returning to Australia after years abroad but she knows what it's like to be poor,'' Davis says. ''Her past informs her completely - it's part of the reason why she's always looking out for the underdog - but she's not ashamed of living the high life.''
Phryne's version of the high life required Davis to master the tango, dodge bullets, climb on top of trains, scale heights and get physical in a more intimate sense.
''The stunts have been great fun but I have had a few scrapes. I tripped over my long pants and sprained my ankle. I broke a rib doing the foxtrot and I dislocated my knee during passionate sex in an alley.''
Helping and occasionally hindering Phryne's quest to solve mysteries is an eclectic cast that includes stage and screen veteran Miriam Margolyes (Dickens' Women), who plays meddling Aunt Prudence. Talking to the Guide on set at the historic Melbourne mansion Ripponlea late last year, Margolyes said she had been offered the ''Maggie Smith part - you know, the old, cantankerous, upper-class bitch.'' She then smiled sweetly. ''I didn't know Essie and I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew she was an award-winning actress but, I must say, the series is simply irradiated by her presence.''
The show's leading man, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, is played with flourish by the Paper Giants star Nathan Page. He's Phryne's sparring partner and potential love interest but he's by no means the only man in her life. The two are constantly at odds, which makes them seem primed for some kind of liaison - but Davis won't be drawn.
''There's definitely a frisson,'' Davis says, shooting a playful sideways glance. ''But she's not the marrying kind and she has to let at least one gentlemen down.''
Or, as Miss Fisher herself puts it: ''I don't allow myself to be lustfully compromised during my murder investigations.''
Physically, Davis is a dead ringer for Greenwood's heroine - except for the hair. Before filming started, the actor possessed long, wavy tresses but Davis made the type of decision her fearless character would endorse. ''We tried a few wigs but they didn't look right, so they started trimming my hair and it just got shorter and shorter and in the end I said, 'Just do it.' It wasn't easy but Phryne just had such a specific look, I wanted to capture that.''
The hairstyle not only captures the fashion of the day; it also represents a time when women's roles were simultaneously challenged and changing. With World War I over and the Depression still to come, Phryne's Melbourne, while not exactly a temple to hedonism, offers plenty of risque tales. Nevertheless, fans of Midsomer Murders will not feel unwelcome here.
Davis is elusive - and a little uncomfortable - when talking about her personal life. ''I have children and they demand my full and complete attention,'' she says. ''They get that when I'm at home, even during the night, but it is really hard and I do wonder how a lot of women do it without bawling their eyes out every day.''
Phryne, on the other hand, is not the mothering kind. She does, however, have a soft spot for troubled and wayward girls, a theme that comes up throughout the series. There is also the small matter of the disappearance of her teenage sister, Janey.
This is the other reason for Phryne's return to the ''Antipodes''. The man responsible for Janey's murder (an added layer developed specifically for the TV series), Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell), is about to be released from Melbourne Gaol. This backstory reminds viewers that no matter how far up the social ladder Miss Fisher has climbed, her past is never far behind.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries starts on ABC1, Friday, February 24, 8.30pm.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a 13-part ABC series based on Kerry Greenwood's novels about a female private detective, Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher. Set in 1920s Melbourne, the 18 novels were written between 1989 and 2010.
It will air on Friday nights, an unusual slot for a big-budget local production. Presumably the ABC is hoping to provide an alternative to the AFL and NRL on Seven and Nine, respectively.
Phryne Fisher is played by Essie Davis. A graduate of NIDA in Sydney, she has a successful stage and screen career. She won the Laurence Olivier Award for best supporting actress in 2003 for her role in the British performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. She earned a Tony nomination for her work in the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. More recently, she starred in the TV adaptations of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet and Christos Tsiolkas'sThe Slap.
Phryne's Aunt Prudence is played by the British actor Miriam Margolyes, whose credits include The Age of Innocence,Babe,Blackadder, the Harry Potter movies, Being Julia,Vanity Fair and Merlin.
The series also stars Nicholas Bell (The Games, Newstopia, Satisfaction), Nathan Page (Paper Giants, Underbelly), Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Underbelly: The Golden Mile, Cloudstreet) and Ashleigh Cummings (Tomorrow, When the War Began).