Murdoch’s biggest mystery: me getting cast on the show

By Bill Brioux

“Pretty?”

Over and over I said that word in my mind. “Pretty” question mark or “pretty” exclamation mark?

That one word was one of four lines I’d been given to utter on CBC’s No. 1 series, “Murdoch Mysteries”. The historical drama is in its 12th season on Monday nights on CBC.

Now, I’m no actor. The only acting I do is when I sometimes tell an editor, “Oh, was that story due today?”

Nevertheless, the good folks at Shaftesbury, the company that produces Murdoch, invited a few journalists to appear in cameos this season. Colleagues have been measured and fitted in gowns and waistcoats. It’s a generous but also clever way to generate a little good will and publicity.

Still, it’s one thing to type up a bunch of our own words; it’s quite another to deliver somebody else’s.

So I was nervous heading out to Westfield Heritage Village, a site near Hamilton, Ont., featuring recreations of historical buildings. The series has shot there before, as did the mid-‘80s production of “Anne of Green Gables.” The facility has an old locomotive steam engine and a train station, two set pieces essential for that week’s episode of Murdoch titled, “Annabella Cinderella.”

I’ve been cast as the “Ticketman,” putting me in a scene opposite Jonny Harris (who plays Constable George Crabtree) and Charles Vandervaart (recent recruit John Brackenreid).

On my way to wardrobe I ran into executive producer and showrunner Peter Mitchell. I apologize in advance for wrecking his show. An inventive storyteller, Mitchell re-energized Murdoch when he took over seven years earlier. He assured me he was fully prepared to edit around me.

Wavers signed and a temporary ACTRA union permit obtained, I’m pointed towards a wardrobe trailer where a high collar shirt, pants and a ticketman’s jacket are waiting. The jacket, however, brought in from a Vancouver costume house, doesn’t fit. Costume designer Joanna Symokomia rips and sews and it’s ready in minutes. Glasses and a hat are added.

I take everything to a large white trailer serving as temporary dressing rooms. “Ticketman” is written on a sign on my door. From there it is one trailer over to where Key Hair specialist Shirley Bond makes sense of my ever-dwindling locks.

Next I’m in Key Makeup expert Deb Drennan’s chair. Drennan is an Emmy-award winning makeup artist who has been with the series for all 12 seasons. Her very first series was working on “The Littlest Hobo”; “Due South” and “Bomb Girls” are also on her resume.

She brings me into the turn of the 20th century by gluing on longer sideburns and a Lanny MacDonald-size moustache. It is made out of real human hair and all hand-hooked, she explains, adding, “This one’s exceptional because it’s nice and bushy.”

These facial hair props are all re-used and re-cycled. Was it made from hair shaved off Bruno Gerussi’s back, I wondered, or scuff shed by The Littlest Hobo? Either way, there was a good chance this moustache was a better actor than I was.

It came time to be thrust into the scene. I was told to sit on a stool behind the ticket window inside the station house. Director Sherren Lee gave last-minute instructions to camera and lighting personnel.

Harris and Vandervaart step in and flawlessly darted through their lines, drawing me into the mix. Extras are cued to approach the ticket window. We shoot a few takes and then Lee calls an audible. She gathers the three of us into an impromptu huddle and says the scene needs a tweak. She juggles and re-orders the lines.

What? When am I supposed to say “Pretty”? I feel like I’ve just jumped out of a plane without a parachute. I can see the headlines now: “Lackluster scribe wrecks beloved TV series.”

The cameras roll, and four or five takes later, we get it done. Things are then re-shot from various angles. It’s all over in about the time it would take for a dental visit – an apt analogy since getting lines out of me is like pulling teeth.

The crew does the customary smattering of applause since this is “my last day on the set.” They are a remarkably generous and welcoming lot.

Director Lee and her crew were already shooting the next scene by the time I was back in my car headed for home. Would the performance be “pretty”? That’s one mystery only viewers can answer.