If there’s two things Deb Cox loves, it’s female stories and period dramas. Over her 30-year career, it’s a niche she’s firmly carved for herself in the film and TV industry as one of the masterminds behind Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Yet it all stemmed from one of her very first – and accidental – jobs in the business when she began working with landmark Australian company Crawford Productions.
"I was rescued by The Sullivans," says Cox. "I loved The Sullivans: it was this iconic, Australian, serialised drama set in the time of the Second World War. I adored it because I used to watch it when I was in school then I got to work on it when it was concluding – I got to help kill the main character!" Cox fell into the film industry thanks to a love of writing, having no connections in the business outside of "a friend of a friend" who suggested she give script editing a go when she finished degrees in English literature and linguistics at Melbourne University.
That's how she ended up at Crawford Productions in the 80s, first as a production secretary – "I was hopeless" – then as a writer moving from show to show – "film schools weren't teaching screenwriting then, it was an apprenticeship system, so this was the best training". Cox, who grew up in a household where television was like an additional family member, spent time on the short-lived series Skyways (1979) and The Flying Doctors (1986–92) before The Sullivans (1976–83).
"I think I've always just loved a historical setting," she says. "It was before the time of Google and Crawford was fantastic: they put a lot of time into historical accuracy and we had a full time researcher who would give us daily diaries about what was happening in the war on that day. We based the history and some of the plots for The Sullivans on that. So, I think I developed this passion for period set drama way back then."
It was also the first instance of Cox getting to work with women, both in front of the camera and behind it: an experience that was pivotal for her professionally and personally going forward. "What I also loved about that place – and I didn't realise it until I was looking back – was that it was set up by a woman, it was set up by Dorothy Crawford who was Howard Crawford's sister," says Cox "I mean, I was mentored by Alison Nisselle who has been in the industry forever and women like that were not unusual at Crawford's because they began without that gender bias." So too did Cox's company Every Cloud Productions, which she co-founded in 2009 with producer Fiona Eagger. Both women had spent decades working in the business by that point, with Cox's speciality "female led stories".
"When I started telling stories about women which was, oh, decades ago, it was quite funny because men were trying to be supportive," she says. "Often male producers would get me because 'we need a woman to tell this story' but then they'd get nervous when you had a woman who wasn't perfect. You couldn't do shades of grey, you couldn't have fallible women, which I had a lot of fun with in SeaChange (1998–2019) with Laura Gibson ... The first thing I did on my own was called Simone De Beauvoir's Babies (1997) and it was a very blatant strategy to be like 'this is about four women'. I remember at some point the comment was made 'what about the male characters? They don't get much of a go' and I went 'it's not about them'."
Eagger and Cox were of one mind about what they wanted to do with their own production company and their own outlet to tell the stories they deemed important. Australian author Kerry Greenwood's lady detective novel series set in 1920s Melbourne with swashbuckling heroine Miss Fisher was high on that list. Starting on the ABC, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012–present) spawned three seasons, a Channel Seven spin-off Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019), a Chinese version, feverish international fanbase and a feature film funded in part by the very people who had made the show such a success – the fans.
“I remember at some point the comment was made ‘what about the male characters? They don’t get much of a go’ and I went 'it’s not about them’.”
"We were genuinely overwhelmed," says Cox, who watched with interest as international viewers connected with the "subversive feminist" nature of Phryne Fisher. "It was a cult following ... I think we had always hoped because we loved the character ourselves that other people would love it. Once you get that sense of community – men as well, but largely women connecting with each other and starting that conversation – that's when it gets a life of its own. We were discussing amongst ourselves why it is that you get this kind of enthusiasm for a franchise and we were talking about how much social media plays a role. Then you look back at shows that predate social media, like Star Trek, and even though it's so different (to Miss Fisher) what they've got in common is an ethos: Miss Fisher has an ethos like Star Trek has an ethos." Cox says they have Greenwood to thank for, with her personal politics and background working in legal aid creating not just a smart, savvy, and sexually liberated character but a "firebrand who cared about injustice and people from a working-class background".
Who better to bring that to life than Essie Davis, whose career has blossomed simultaneously with that of the global Miss Fisher fanbase. And as Hollywood has sought to right the many injustices within the industry, the character has become more timely than ever. "It's the beauty of luck and timing," says Cox. "It has been interesting, because as we've been creating her and promoting her and exploring her, the Me Too movement has garnered weight. So, we get a lot of questions about 'what motivated us to tell female led stories?' and it's like 'we've always told female led stories'. It's just the importance of that luckily has more of a spotlight on it now."
That spotlight has seen Miss Fisher conventions pop up in North America, attended by thousands, as well as a legion of fan art and other creativity inspired by their own work – something Cox is particularly chuffed about. There's The Adventuresses' Club of the Americas founded in honour of Phryne, a never-ending trove of fan fiction, and of course the film Miss Fisher and The Crypt of Tears (2020). After a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, where it smashed its $250,000 goal in hours, the movie had its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January with three sold out screenings at the event. It went on to pull in $1.5million domestically at the box office in Australia during its opening week (doubling that by week two). Preview and Q&A screenings in Australia were attended by Miss Fisher loyalists from all over the world, which at this point in the game wasn't entirely a surprise to Cox.
"There's quite a few 20-something women who are an emerging cult audience I think," she says. "And there was a 20-something woman from Helsinki who said to Nathan (Page) and Essie (Davis) at a screening 'Miss Fisher made me brave'. She was so emotional, it was so moving, we were blown away by the depth of her connection to the character." As they complete the Miss Fisher victory lap, in terms of what's next for Cox, Eagger and Every Cloud Productions, her sentiment could come from Phryne's very own lips: "I need to push some more boundaries, I think."
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is available to stream on ABC iView.
Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her fifth book The Wailing Woman is out now.