Tim Balme's killer concept: The Brokenwood Mysteries

PLANNING MAYHEM: "The motivations are very fundamental and primal. People can become active in the watching. "
PLANNING MAYHEM: "The motivations are very fundamental and primal. People can become active in the watching. "

Apparently, we all like a bloody good murder. Chuck in a dash of mystery, a few oddball characters and some picturesque landscape and we are hooked, sedately sofa-bound in front of the telly ready for the first body to fall.

Tim Balme doesn't look the murderous type. Not at all, but he has been thinking about how to knock someone off and it's quite a tricky business, he says.

As the writer behind Prime's new telefeature series The Brokenwood Mysteries, Balme has been flexing a different creative muscle and enjoying the exercise.

PENCHANT FOR MURDER: Writer Tim Balme aims to keep viewers one step behind in The Brokenwood Mysteries.
PENCHANT FOR MURDER: Writer Tim Balme aims to keep viewers one step behind in The Brokenwood Mysteries.

The four-part, two-hour episodes are a bit more sophisticated than "the butler did it in the dining room with the candelabra" but not quite as serious as a those CSI detectives with all their gadgets and glossy hair. It's Midsomer Murders but without the high body count and a detective with a bit more va-va-voom with the ladies than good old Barnaby.

"In Midsomer, you have a ridiculously high body count and roughly 25 minutes of story before someone dies. Brokenwood gives you murder up front within the first five minutes," says Balme with some measure of pride. Boom, man down, now whodunit?

"This allows, from a storytelling point of view, more time for our detectives to do their job. It's a different way of spending TV time explaining the intricacies of the plot, the who's been up to what and why?"

The series follows Detective Inspector Mike Shepherd, an old-school, big-city cop who moves out to the sticks where rather frequent murders keep him and sidekick Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) busy.

Balme, who is a fan of the bumbling and shambolic Colombo TV detective, says he tried to keep Brokenwood realistic as opposed to the theatrics of Midsomer, which is almost panto at times.

He wanted the murders to be something that could happen in an everyday Kiwi situation. The motivations needed to be believable.

Murder mystery is an age-old genre, says Balme from the comfort of a low, leather sofa in his large Pt Chevalier home in Auckland.

Murder raises the stakes of the whodunit, he says, but mystery is the thing that people like the most.

"The reason we make them murder mysteries is because the stakes are so high and characters within those stories go to extreme lengths to lie and cover their tracks. The motivations are very fundamental and primal. People can become active in the watching. You want to see if you can get there before the hero detective and I think the TV maker's challenge is to make sure you never do."

It's a world away from his last few gigs storylining with a bunch of other people around a table for shows such as The Almighty Johnsons and Outrageous Fortune.

It was hard enough figuring out the jigsaw of plots and characters for Brokenwood in his own head, let alone letting anyone else in on the case.

"With other shows I've worked on, you usually have five people sitting around a table storylining together. Then one goes off and writes the script. With this series of telefeatures I had to do it on my own.

"I knew straight away having three or four people sitting around a table figuring out a murder mystery was going to end up days and days not getting anywhere because you're having to hold together this jigsaw puzzle. It's a lot more efficient to do it on your own.

"I used to come and sit at my desk, and it occurred to me my day job was figuring out how to murder people and how to solve a mystery. It was complicated but I enjoyed it."

Much of the series was written from the family hideaway at Mangawhai, just over an hour north of Auckland.

It's a bit like Brokenwood, he says.

Indeed, not far from Mangawhai is Warkworth, Matakana, Kumeu - a tapestry of New Zealand provincial towns with horses, farms, vineyards and rivers where the mysteries unfold.

Balme didn't write himself into the series. That would have been too predictable, he says. He has had enough hassle about that in the past, he adds with a guilty chuckle.

"In Almighty Johnsons, I was writing, storylining and acting and I felt I wasn't serving any as well as I'd like.

"Those three tasks use different parts of the brain. Acting and writing are complete opposites."

Writing is where most of Balme's creative energy goes these days.

If something really good comes along, he'll put his hand up for it, but he doesn't crave it.

He took a break from acting while he was writing Outrageous Fortune and found he didn't miss it at all.

"Writing is a constant challenge. I am always learning and pushing myself. Going from writing an episode of the Johnsons to writing a telefeature of murder mystery, a genre I'd never written before - that's a challenge and I get a kick out of it.

"I like being able to look at the big picture. When you're acting, you're looking after No 1 wondering how do I fit in to this? What do I want? What is my journey? Writing is completely objective - you're looking after the whole family."

This is not quite where he expected to be at this stage in his career.

Balme's career started on the stage at the age of 13 when he was at Otumoetai College in Tauranga.

He was plonked on stage by his music teacher and mentor.

"He literally collared me in the hall and put me on stage. I had never given it a thought before that."

He played an 80-year-old mute king in musical Once Upon a Mattress in the local town hall.

The applause and adoration from the audience left him wanting more.

"I learned I could get up on stage and create a reaction and that was intoxicating to me.

"I just followed the bouncing ball. I never entertained any other option after that. I pretended to. I did law - for two weeks. It was the hardest two weeks of my life. I was humiliated by the lecturer who asked me in front of a hundred other students ‘Mr Balme, what is law?'

"I thought what sort of question is that? I wish I'd said ‘You tell me, that's what you're here for'."

Balme started at drama school Toi Whakaari in 1987 with the likes of Cliff Curtis, Marton Csokas and future Shortland Street actor Michael Galvin. His ambition when he graduated was to get a job as an actor with the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin.

Theatre was a good bet, back when there were plenty of theatre companies and no local soap operas to cut your teeth on.

He recalls leaving drama school with Galvin saying: "What this country needs is a soap opera."

"And now look - the show was made for him!"

Shortland Street changed the landscape of New Zealand television and acting careers in this country, says Balme, who played a memorable role as easy-on-the-eye bad boy Greg Feeney.

He went on to play numerous roles in TV shows, including Mercy Peak and Via Satellite as well as film roles including Peter Jackson's splatstick classic Braindead and Jack Brown Genius.

He took to the boards again when he started touring group the New Zealand Actors Company, alongside his actor and director wife, Katie Wolfe, Robyn Malcolm and director Simon Bennett.

Unlike Curtis and Csokas, Balme never left these shores to act because he never had the time.

"I meant to but I always had work. A lot of friends and colleagues went out of despair.

"They were talented and found their niche in LA or Australia but I never got round to thinking about it."

Balme married Wolfe in 1994. They have two children Edie, 13, and Niko, 8, as well as Balme's older son Sam, 27, from a previous relationship.

Sam, an environmental building consultant, has no interest in following in his father's footsteps, Balme says.

Touring with him around provincial New Zealand during the school holidays knocked that desire out of him for good.

Edie is more interested in the make-believe. She's a big fan of Sherlock and is much more cine-literate than her dad was when he was as a kid. Niko would be interested in his profession if there was Lego in it, he says.

The bolthole in Mangawhai is a family escape from life in front of and behind the camera, says Balme. It's also a perfect surf spot.

He took up surfing there a few years back. A late start for a guy from Tauranga.

"I wasted 30 years of surfing by not getting myself organised. I was at Mangawhai watching people surf and I suddenly thought, why don't I do that?

"I gave it a go and didn't find it difficult. I got up straight away and that was it.

"When I'm surfing I can't think about anything else. It's a good way to focus on something other than work.

"Writing Brokenwood, I was holding together quite a big plot in my head and that takes up a lot of mental energy. Surfing keeps that out.

You get the feeling, though, that Balme relishes working those little grey cells into overtime conjuring up a murder most horrid with a nice little backdrop. He has his work cut out. Armchair specialists await.



The Brokenwood Mysteries starts tomorrow at 8.30pm on Prime. 

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