When it was decided to set what would become a hit television series about the life and work of an eccentric though effective police surgeon in Ballarat, the choice must have been a mystery to many a Melburnian, who in my experience can tend to be as a cutting as a scalpel in their assessment of the former gold rush city.
But, as a New South Welshman, standing on Lydiard Street outside Craig's Royal – Australia's first hotel to the stars with guests of the mid-19th century hotel having included Dame Nellie Melba, Mark Twain and Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son – the riddle of "The Rat's" starring role is solved.
To my unbiased, interstate eye, I can see why our guide, Andrew Sharpe, of Ballarat Heritage Tours, believes this stately thoroughfare to be the one of the best preserved Victorian streetscapes outside Britain, the mid-19th century product of what, along with California, rates as one of history's two greatest gold rushes.
Many of these buildings huddled together along Lydiard Street have served as locations and backdrops for The Doctor Blake Mysteries, the hit ABC series which premiered in February 2013. A police-cum-medical procedural-style murder-mystery drama, the series highlights the toils and troubles of the complex and charismatic war veteran, Dr Lucien Blake, exceptionally and unexpectedly well portrayed by Craig McLachlan, the former soapie star.
Rarely, if ever, has a real regional city or town played such a vital and visible role in a major Australian television series. Despite the national broadcaster's budget woes, fans will be pleased to learn that funds have been found to commission the Melbourne-based December Media to shoot a fourth series of The Doctor Blake Mysteries for screening next year, with Ballarat again in a lead part.
Many television producers elect to create a fictitious setting for their series but for George Adams, the Scottish-born creator and producer of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, it was important to locate the series a real place. Adams' love affair with Ballarat began six years ago when working on an audiovisual project for Sovereign Hill, the city's lauded folkloric park themed on the gold rush era.
"During my time in Ballarat I became intrigued by the city and its architecture," he says. "So gothic, so UK turn-of-the-century industrial-city looking. A very bold and masculine place, it felt like the right location in which to set a murder mystery series."
Back on Lydiard Street, Sharpe, who conducts his historical walking tours dressed as a late Victorian gentleman businessman dressed in a dark suit, sack coat, vest, Windsor tie and bowler hat, vividly describes how in the 19th century gold transformed Ballarat in "less than a generation" from a rough-and-ready "tent town to a grand Victorian city built of brick and bluestone".
Sharpe says that Lydiard Street encapsulates the "wealthy boomtown" that Ballarat, also notably the setting for the 1854 Eureka Rebellion, had become by the late 1880s. The people of Ballarat were proud of what they had achieved in such a short period; expressing that pride in lavish architecture.
"Buildings such as the Fine Art Gallery typify the civic pride of a city that wanted to afford art and culture to everybody irrespective of class," Sharpe says. "The Old Colonists' Club early on showed a sense of philanthropy towards the less fortunate members of society, a tradition that continues to this day. And the grand 1880s expansion of the Ballarat Railway Station, predating Melbourne's Flinders Street by around 20 years, would have made a huge impression on all visitors to the city."
True, as Sharpe points out, even Mark Twain on his 1895 Australian tour, proclaimed, perhaps a tad ingratiatingly, that "Ballarat for its small size and relative youth", had "every modern convenience of any great city of Europe".
When Adams first walked down Lydiard Street, entirely treeless presumably to allow the architecture to dominate, he felt that, due to its generally well-preserved state, that it'd "easy enough to dress it and take it back to the late 1950s early 1960s, the period during which The Doctor Blake Mysteries is set.
"Ballarat reminded me of those great Scottish country town streetscapes that were the focus for the community and for Saturday afternoon shopping when I was a kid," he says. "The craftsmanship, design work and detail that went into the creation of Ballarat's monuments, such as the churches, the Art Gallery and the Town Hall, will never be repeated in our lifetime. They speak to a time of not only wealth but also a belief in legacy and power."
After three series, with another under way, and with a murder rate in Ballarat nearly as elevated as that of county Midsomer, surely the producers of The Doctor Blake Mysteries are exhausting locations. Even the likes of Ballarat's otherwise innocent Begonia Festival hasn't escaped unscathed, with one episode in the first series involving the murder of the event's head judge who is found burnt to death in his own glasshouse.
"There are still a few locations left," Adams says. "For example, for the next season of the series we will set an episode in and around the observatory – a fascinating place – and we may also go to the racecourse. But we will always go back to the lake, the Colonists Club and Lydiard Street itself."
It seems, then, that there's still plenty life in the old Doc, and "The Rat", too, for that matter.
FIVE MORE DOCTOR BLAKE LOCATIONS
LAKE WENDOUREE The venue for the 1956 Olympics rowing competition and the location for an episode of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Lake Wendouree features historic boathouses and some of the Ballarat's most prestigious homes. Nearby, on the western shore of the lake, are the Botanical Gardens, notable for their row of busts of Australian prime ministers.
ARCH OF VICTORY One of the most grandiose war memorials in Australia, Ballarat's Arch of Victory marks the start of a 22 kilometres-long Avenue of Honour on the outskirts of town consisting of nearly 4000 trees. The trees, commemorating Ballarat fallen, were planted in 1917 with the arch completed in 1920.
BALLARAT TOWN HALL A dominant feature of the six-lane Sturt Street, a former bullock team stock route, is the Ballarat Town Hall, built in the classic Revival style. It's the location of an impressive tracking shot in Doctor Blake which encompasses a statue of Queen Victoria across the road on the lavishly gardened median strip.
ART GALLERY OF BALLARAT Ballarat's Art Gallery was established at the height of the gold rush in 1854 with the handsome existing building on Lydiard Street dating to 1890. Regarded as one of the nation's best regional institutions of its kind, the gallery is hosting the touring exhibition of Sydney's Archibald Prize until November 15.
BALLARAT RAILWAY STATION Ballarat Railway Station, which opened in 1862, is one of Australia's most impressive heritage railway stations. At the far northern end of Lydiard Street, the building features an imposing domed roof over its tracks with the two platforms connected by an internal footbridge.
Ballarat, just under 1½ hours driving time from Melbourne and less from the city's main airport at Tullamarine. All of the major domestic airlines operate regular flights to Melbourne from Sydney and other centres. Ballarat is also connected by regular rail services from Melbourne's main terminals. See vline.com.au
Opened in 1853, the 41-room Craig's Royal Hotel offers a sense of what it must have been like to visit Ballarat during its rollicking heyday. Popular high teas, costing $59.50 per person with reservations essential, are served in an ornate upstairs banquet room every Sunday See craigsroyal.com.au
Andrew Sharpe, a local actor and sometime Sovereign Hill performer, runs Ballarat Heritage Tours. His vivid, informative and entertaining 90-minute walking tours run on weekends and public holidays and by appointment at other times. He can tailor his tours to encompass a focus on the locations for The Doctor Blake Mysteries. See ballaratheritagetours.com.au
The writer was a guest of Ballarat Tourism and Craig's Royal Hotel