Quiet on the set

CBC's Murdoch Mysteries


Christina Jennings

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date:01 Oct 2019

Photo: CBC's Murdoch Mysteries

Shaftesbury is the company behind the hit television series Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake Mysteries, both of which air on CBC in Canada and are seen in over 120 countries around the world.

Producing two television series that are set in Toronto 100 years ago could have proved a major challenge. Toronto is not blessed with abundant historical buildings and, in many cases, they are surrounded by modern architecture, which is difficult for our cameras to avoid.

Approximately half of each series is shot in studio in Toronto, where we build our interior sets. But these interior sets need to match historical building exteriors. And our characters must have believable period spaces that allow them to be “out and about.”

Years ago, I was fortunate to serve on the Board of Directors for the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now the Ontario Heritage Trust). I knew from my time on the Board, that many communities surrounding Toronto had done a good job preserving many heritage buildings and spaces. Both Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake have filmed in many communities across Ontario – including Cambridge, Guelph, Tottenham, Rockton, Dundas, Ancaster, Shanty Bay, Milton, Hamilton, Burlington, Port Hope, Cobourg, Peterborough and St Marys. In each location, the only reason that we travel the cast and crew out of Toronto is because we need the historical buildings in those communities to make the series believable.

Murdoch Mysteries has filmed extensively over the years at the Westfield Heritage Village in Rockton – a site that includes over 30 historical buildings. According to Rondalyn Brown, manager of the Westfield Heritage Village, Murdoch Mysteries has generated extra interest among domestic and international visitors. “For us, [Murdoch] has increased our public awareness,” says Brown, “people knowing that they film here and getting to know we are here.” In addition to Westfield, both series have filmed at Halton County Radial Railway with its period railway station, trains and streetcars.

Historian Mike Filey brought the SS Keewatin, in dock in Port McNicoll, to Shaftesbury’s attention. We were excited to discover that a ship still existed here in Ontario that dated back to the time of the Titanic. So, we set a story on a period vessel and actually filmed onboard the Keewatin and at its mooring. We used visual effects and models to show the boat sailing (in our story, we also show it sinking). Eric Conroy, the ship’s captain, noticed an increase in visitors after the episode with the Keewatin aired in 2013. He estimates that 50 per cent of his ship’s annual visitors are Murdoch fans and found out about the ship from the television series. And many of these fans are from around the world. Says Conroy, “The Keewatin was virtually unknown, but using her in your season opener has introduced her to millions of viewers.” He added, “I couldn’t afford to buy the kind of advertising that [Murdoch Mysteries] has provided us.”

The Scottish Rite of Hamilton, built in 1895, has also proven to be a popular location for both Murdoch and Frankie. We have used the exterior to masquerade for a variety of places, including a 1920s police station, and the interior as a “stand-in” for the Royal Ontario Museum.

Cambridge has been a regular filming location for Murdoch since Season 1. According to Greg Durocher, President and CEO of its Commerce Department, the city has seen a number of visitors from the United States who have specifically requested information on Murdoch’s filming locations.

Murdoch Mysteries has a “standing” set as part of its studio in Scarborough, where we have built exterior streets and lanes. Frankie Drake does not have a dedicated exterior set, but we have been fortunate to use the wonderful collection of period buildings at the Cotton Factory in Hamilton, built in 1896, to create many different settings.

One of the techniques we use in recreating period spaces is to take a still of a period building and augment it with the help of computer generated images – adding buildings, vehicles, people and even streetcars.

In 2016, Shaftesbury worked with the Canadian Media Producers Association on the preparation of a Case Study on the Economic Impacts of Murdoch Mysteries. The study used Season 8 as the template to estimate the economic benefits that occurred in Ontario during the filming of the 18 episodes. Among other things, the study noted:

  • $24.5 million direct production expenditure in Ontario
  • $38.7 million total GDP
  • 560 full-time employment

The study indicated the positive impact of Murdoch Mysteries on “film-induced tourism,” which occurs when a television program encourages viewers to visit the country or region where the show was filmed, becoming an important component of tourism marketing. In 2014, at a fan event that was held at the Murdoch studio in Scarborough, over 2,500 fans came from England, France, Spain, China and the United States to meet the cast and crew while touring the studio.

Shaftesbury set out to make Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake Mysteries because, as a company, “we love history.” Our hope was that through entertainment, we could inspire people to embrace our heritage and explore some of the amazing historical sites that Ontario has to offer, and in doing so, become advocates for the continued preservation of Ontario’s historical buildings and spaces.

Given the enormous ratings of both shows (Murdoch remains Canada’s #1 drama series), I think we just might have succeeded in doing that. [Photos courtesy of Christina Jennings]

CBC's Murdoch Mysteries

Photo: CBC's Murdoch Mysteries

CBC's Frankie Drake Mysteries

Photo: CBC's Frankie Drake Mysteries