Inside CBC's hit series Murdoch Mysteries with showrunner Peter Mitchell

Millions of Canadians love the historical Toronto-based detective series and we seek out secrets behind the show's success

Supplied publicity photo, Writers Guild of Canada, 2014
Murdoch Mysteries' Peter Mitchell wins the Showrunner Award at the 2014 WGC Screenwriting Awards Supplied publicity photo, Writers Guild of Canada, 2014

CBC’s police detective drama Murdoch Mysteries is perpetually one of Canada’s most-watched homegrown programs. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 20th century, the show regularly draws one million viewers a week and is a strong competitor against the flood of American programming on Canada’s top 30 TV ratings chart.

Recently, Popjournalism caught up with Murdoch‘s showrunner Peter Mitchell in Toronto to talk about the secrets behind the show’s continuing success and what it’s like behind the scenes.

What do you do as Murdoch‘s showrunner?
I’m responsible for the large, creative parts of the show. I work with the writers to come up with ideas for stories, casting, and the post-production and editing work. From beginning to end, I have a hand in all those aspects. This show has been running for ten years now, so everybody knows their job. On a good day, I don’t have to do anything, except to say “yes,” “no,” or “sure, try that,” and just let everybody do their jobs.

Where do you shoot the show?
We have a studio in Toronto. The on-location shooting takes place in smaller-town Ontario: Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener, Hamilton, Brantford, et cetera. We have a big backlot that’s built up over the years for exteriors. We don’t shoot in Toronto often. It’s a tax thing and we only get about five shoots a year here, so we’re very judicious about how we use those. The quad at the University of Toronto, some of the grand homes and public buildings, locations like that.

What comes first, the plot device or the story?
The story. The story always comes first.

Detectives Watts (Daniel Maslany) and Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) pause in the middle of their bike ride
   Detectives Watts (Daniel Maslany) and Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) pause in the middle of their bike ride Supplied publicity photo, CBC, 2017

The show tries to accurately reflect the era’s history, no?
Yes, particularly with political and historical events. Sometimes we cheat technology by a couple of years, but not who’s the Prime Minister or who visited Canada and things like that. For example, Mark Twain did come to Canada and Winston Churchill did come to Toronto. We’d like to tell stories featuring Einstein and Freud, but they didn’t visit Canada — our rule is we can’t do it, because it didn’t happen.

We have a lot of fun with the show being set in Toronto. Last year, we introduced a character named William Peyton Hubbard, who was Toronto’s first black alderman. There’s a character this year who was one of the heads of the Masons and a doctor, and another character who was the first female lawyer in the British Commonwealth. These true-life Toronto characters have all appeared on Murdoch Mysteries, but the trick is to introduce that stuff and not make it feel like a “history of Canada” lesson. When you can bring this into a TV show, in a little way, it’s kind of cool and fun.

Your show stays at the top of the ratings and is hugely popular. What’s the secret of Murdoch‘s longevity?
I think its three things. The history-science geek factor, including the steam punk setting and the acknowledgement of the show being Canadian. The second component is the various love stories. Finally, the third component is that even after ten years, the mysteries don’t take a back seat to the soap opera — that’s the hardest thing to do, to not let the soap opera take over. It would be easy to write, but it wouldn’t be the same show. The tricky thing now is that we’re running out of historical characters. We’ve had several characters who’ve returned several times who the fans really dig and it gives a sense that this world really existed.

Watch the making of an episode from season 10