Julian Unthank, Queens of Mystery‘s creator and showrunner, talks to TV Drama about his desire to write a starring vehicle for women over a certain age, his daring stylistic choices and the enduring appeal of the whodunit mystery genre.
Queens of Mystery made its off-beat bow on Acorn TV mere weeks ago, but already Unthank is pitching a season two. And if his passion for mystery’s many sub-genres and stated commitment to entertain its countless fans is anything to go by, there’s every reason to believe that Unthank has more than enough ideas for quite a few more seasons of Queens of Mystery, a series that manages to send up the 200-year history of detective fiction while feeling thoroughly modern.
Set in a seemingly sleepy English village called Wildemarsh, Queens of Mystery centers on local rookie police officer Matilda Stone (Olivia Vinall) and her three aunts—Cat (Julie Graham), Jane (Siobhan Redmond) and Beth (Sarah Woodward)—all of whom have a vested writerly interest in and knack for solving murders, though their methods are decidedly at odds. Complementing the vibrant cast of strong female central characters are compelling mysteries awash in red herrings and startling revelations, and whimsical visuals that give the series a unique aesthetic.
Queens of Mystery’s first season (six episodes/three two-part mysteries) arrived on Acorn on Monday, April 8. Acorn Media International is distributing the series in all English-speaking territories, while ZDF Enterprises is distributing it internationally.
TV DRAMA: How did the idea for Queens of Mystery come about?
UNTHANK: I was speaking with an actress, an older actress, and she was talking about the trouble there is, the difficulty of getting interesting roles and good roles if you’re an actress over the age of 40—instead of a bit playing a mum or grandmother. So I thought it would be really interesting to write a show to have three female leads all over the age of 40, and more importantly, not make it a show about women over the age of 40, just make it a normal show. And that’s where we started from.
TV DRAMA: Can you tell us a bit about the stylistic choices you made for the series—from the narrators to the title cards to the moments of surrealism?
UNTHANK: We’ve got this whole kind of “imagi-narrative” thing going on, where we’ve got Juliet Stevenson as the narrator, as the author of the show, the author of the world. And then we have our aunts—who are themselves all crime writers—and their niece. And then, as the show progresses, the characters they write about also appear within the show. So we have this show within a show. It’s a Russian doll thing, really. A lot of these shows, they’re like parlor games, these kinds of murder mysteries, these classic [Agatha] Christie-style shows. The game is, in the first 20 minutes, introducing all of these characters, all the way up to the murderer. There’s always a murder on the [20-minute mark], and it’s just trying to lay the groundwork and establish those characters as quickly as possible and establish the world that they’re going to be in. Obviously, that’s harder in the pilot, but we tried really hard to get that world across. And then, of course, a nice fun murder at the 20—nothing too gruesome. I think the audience gets a lot of fun trying to guess who the murderer is, trying to pull the clues together. It’s part of the fun. I was always watching those sort of Agatha Christie-type shows growing up. And we wanted to instill the show with that same sense of that puzzle, fun element to it.
TV DRAMA: How did you collaborate with the series’ director to make your vision come to life? And how vital was the rest of the creative team in pulling off the overall tone?
UNTHANK: The original pitch for the show was sort of Midsomer Murders directed by Wes Anderson. The idea was to have this very, very strong aesthetic and real attention to detail. Ian Emes, our director, is a Palme d’Or-winning, multi-BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated animator. And he’s got an absolute, real eye for detail. Most of it was in the script; the scripts are quite detailed. But Ian picked up and ran with it. And that was a great part of working with Acorn. They gave us a really, really free range to be as creative as we could be. So we got some incredible people on board, considering the budget we had, which wasn’t massive. Everybody that provided services gave us twice as much bang for the buck. Everyone pulled the stops out. And because they gave us the chance to be as free with the ideas, and free with our work, we got some incredible work out of it. Like our opening credits, they’re like a pop-up book sequence. We got the guy who did the Paddington Bear 2 pop-up sequence—he’s a fantastic artist who really loved the show, loved the idea of the show. A lot of the vision on the screen, though, is down to Ian.
TV DRAMA: You’ve mentioned Agatha Christie, and she’s even referenced in the series. How influential was she for you when creating the series?
UNTHANK: The idea for the series, the point of the show was, “through the history of crime fiction.” Originally, in crime fiction, they started out with this theme of private detective shows called the “uber-rational,” which is kind of like Sherlock Holmes. That developed in the ’20s with Christie, into what they call the “intuitive,” which is like your Miss Marple sort of detective. Then during the ’30s and ’40s, during the Depression and World War II, you had the Sam Spade, what they called the “loner” or “lone wolf” type of detective, like the Dashiell Hammett-type stuff. And in the ’50s and ’60s, you got the type of detective called the “normal,” which was like Maigret or Midsomer Murders’ Tom Barnaby.
The point for me was, we have these four lead females, and each one of them represents a different type of detective. Jane is the “uber-rational.” Beth is the Miss Marple as the “intuitive.” Cat is the sort of Sam Spade-type. And Matilda, a police officer, is the “normal.” When the crime happens, they each tackle the crime in a different way, but they all come to the same conclusion. The idea is that it’s a bouquet of those genres and the sort of tropes of those different detective genres. But definitely, Christie is a huge influence on that murder mystery style. I’ve read loads of Christie. Watched loads of Christie. But the idea was to try to take bits of all detective fiction throughout the last 150, 200 years and mine that for content.
TV DRAMA: Why do you think the murder mystery “whodunit” genre remains so popular?
UNTHANK: People love a puzzle. People always love any sort of problem. They love being able to be at home and shout out, They did it! They did it! I think it’s them because of this! That’s all part of the sort of parlor game. Detective shows work because these people are guardians. We’re all worried about the bogeyman, we’re all worried about that shadow in the dark, and these people protect us from that. There’s a reassurance that there are these people out there who, no matter how dark things get, are going to catch the bad guy to keep us safe. And there’s a real reassurance from the concept from those sorts of shows.
TV DRAMA: How did you decide on the format of the series—solving one mystery over the course of two episodes—and then also having the mystery of Matilda’s mother’s disappearance stretching throughout?
UNTHANK: I wanted to have the sort of show that had this broad, four-quadrant appeal—so we could have an audience from 10 to 110 that would watch it. I also wanted the type of show where if you wanted you could just come in and watch episode two or episode ten. You can come in and you get a certain sense of satisfaction by watching a mystery unfold and being resolved. But also, I wanted to add some layers because I’m a sort of TV geek, and I love watching TV shows that I could get obsessed about, theorize about, read all the forums and stuff. So I wanted to add a serial element to the show that could reward the more loyal viewer. There are loads of Easter eggs in the show—hidden things that will get revealed if you’re a fan—that will play out over the next several seasons. The point for me was to give the show layers. Regardless of what sort of viewer you are, you would get something from it.
TV DRAMA: What can you tell us about the different experience of being a show’s creator versus being a writer on another’s series?
UNTHANK: There’s more creative freedom. I write Doc Martin. I’m on the show there, but I’m not the showrunner; I’m just one of the writers that’s hired to write it. [As showrunner] you get a lot more creative freedom, a lot more responsibility, a lot more things to worry about. And the opportunity to help with the cast—because I’m an executive producer as well—the opportunity to help with the casting, the set. There’s just greater overall creative freedom. It’s been a real bonus, a real privilege. And I want to do some more of it if I can.
TV DRAMA: Why do you think Acorn TV was the right home for the series?
UNTHANK: I think it’s the perfect home for the series. The demographic is a female-led demographic over the age of 50; I don’t think they’re as well-served as they should be in mainstream cinema and television. What I’m hoping for is that the Acorn audience absolutely sees themselves reflected back in these four women, in this show. The characters of the show are very different types of women, and I think it’s really important for the audience to feel that they could be watching it with their friends, that they can relate to them. And I think of all the channels, if I could pick a channel that would best represent the show, it would be Acorn. It’s an Acorn show. I think Acorn feels the same, that if they could genetically modify a show from scratch, this would be the show they would make.
TV DRAMA: Do you have an idea for a second season of Queens of Mystery?
UNTHANK: Oh yeah! I’m pitching that already.