Character: Constable Renfield Turnbull
Fandom: Due South
Spoilers: All seasons
Author's Note: Two days late... Umm, sorry? A massive thank you to kill_claudio for beta-ing this monster and some very helpful suggestions.
Word count: 4,262 words
Welcome to Canada
Constable Renfield Turnbull is an often-overlooked character in the Due South fandom. It’s easily done; with so many other well written, (and attractive), characters in the show to draw the viewer’s attention. Most people’s first impression of Turnbull is fleeting and dismissive.
For many, this is as far as they will notice him, which is fair enough. His primary role in Due South is to act as comic relief, with his habit of fainting in exciting or upsetting situations, his strange, idiosyncratic, social skills and a fondness for phrases such as “Yes, indeedy-do”.
On the surface, Turnbull is an extreme caricature. If Constable Benton Fraser is representative of the general American stereotype of Canadians, (polite, law abiding…), Constable Turnbull exists to make Fraser seem normal and believable. Paul Haggis, the creator of Due South, said himself, "I loved the idea of having someone to whom Fraser had to play straight man, much as Ray had to do for Fraser." For the most part, it works.
However, Due South is a wonderfully well-written show and it doesn’t take much to scratch the surface of Turnbull’s character and discover that there are hidden depths beneath the murky surface of his psyche.
“That Man is….”
I don’t know when or why I first became interested in Turnbull’s character. I remember seeing Due South when it was first aired on the BBC years ago. At the time I couldn’t see much past the dashing lead role, which is understandable for a hormonal teenager, I’m sure. Early last year ITV3 began to show reruns of the program and I immediately became addicted. I’ve played and written in many different fandoms in the past, but this one sucked me in quickly and deeply. In fact, it broke a painful two year long writer’s block. I was overwhelmed by the colourful range of characters it offered and astounded that I had never noticed them the first time around.
My love affair with Renfield Turnbull wasn’t instant. To begin with, I was completely taken with the detective Ray Kowalski. I’ve read through my journal entries for the last year, trying to find the moment I first noticed Turnbull, what drew me to him? I can’t find any such entry; all I find is that suddenly I talk about him as if I’ve loved him all along. I certainly feel that way.
Over time, this love has grown to be quite consuming. I believe I’ve made a bit of a name for myself within the Due South fandom as “the one who’s mad for Turnbull”. In this essay I need to be careful, though, as my fanon Turnbull has developed many traits, interests and a history that there is no canon to support. For example, it’s widely accepted in fandom that Turnbull has an enthusiasm for cheese. I have yet to find supporting evidence in canon for this, so while my Turnbull likes his havarti, this will be the last you will hear of that.
I first came to Chicago…
Well, we don’t know exactly when Turnbull first arrived at the Consulate, or why. Unlike with his fellow Mountie, Constable Fraser, very little is handed to us on a plate about Turnbull’s history or life. We don’t know where he came from, nor what his family are like, yet if you know where to look there are clues that help us to build up a picture about this man, to take the caricature and make him a character.
We first meet Constable Renfield Turnbull in the forth episode of season two, A Bird in the Hand. There is no mention of how long he has been at the Consulate, but he seems to be at ease behind his desk and confident in his role. He isn’t under the Consulate’s employment two episodes previous, when a different Mountie gets knocked out by running into a door. This replacement had been brought while Fraser took vacation time to recover from his life-wrenching encounter with Victoria Metcalf. In all honesty, a second fulltime Mountie is probably required anyway, as Fraser seems to spend a great deal of time not doing his own work but running around Chicago with one detective or the other. Constable Fraser, at least, seems reluctant to accept Turnbull as a fellow work colleague or a permanent fixture, introducing him to visiting FBI agents as the “temporary, assistant, interim, associate, deputy liaison officer.”
We then go for most of season two without seeing Turnbull again. He makes a brief appearance in episode fourteen in a non-speaking role where he simply hands over a holdall of ransom money for detective Ray Vecchio to make an exchange on a train. While this role is in stark contrast to his previous appearance, this being of a far more solemn nature, I have to question why he appears in this episode at all, except to show that he is still in Chicago and not as temporary as Fraser seemed to believe.
Both Constable Fraser and their superior, Inspector Thatcher, are on the train that Vecchio is going to rendezvous with, leaving Constable Turnbull in sole charge of the running of the Consulate building in Chicago. For them to be willing to do this, having spent months working with the man by this point, he must have shown himself to be perfectly capable of taking responsibility for essentially the public face of Canada within the city of Chicago. Knowing the passion he has for his job, I like to imagine him sitting at his desk alone at the Consulate and shuffling papers, torn between pride at being trusted with such a big responsibility, and pouting because he was the only one who didn’t get to see the Musical Ride.
By season three Turnbull has become a regular character, and while he is often still played for laughs, we are granted some insights into his background and character:
Where the Heart is
We don’t know much about Turnbull’s hometown. However, we do know that in Call of the Wild part two he is nervous about flying, as he has never flown before. This at least rules out the more inaccessible areas of Canada, although that still leaves an awful lot of ground not ruled out.
While we know little about his present residence in Chicago, we do know that the first place that he lived when he arrived in the city was very unpleasant as Fraser chooses the location to use as a temporary hiding place during the season three episode, I Coulda Been a Defendant. Why Turnbull still has access to this property after finding a new place to live is a mystery.
The apartment appears to be a bedsit, with a closet and a bathroom leading off from the main room. It is cramped and has no central heating. Neon lights blinker outside, and the view out of the window is of a brick wall. It does not seem to be a very nice neighbourhood to live in. Fraser claims that Turnbull gave it up because it was too roomy, and he now lives in a cardboard box, “a very nice one, though.” He is joking, of course, although from this comment, one can’t help wondering whether Turnbull’s new apartment is better or worse than the old one.
kijikun and mardahin put together a couple of wonderful posts about what information we can glean from the uniforms worn in the show and speculating on the ages of various characters. From this information, we can age Turnbull anywhere between 24 and 29 years old when we first meet him in season two. This can be deduced because he wears a single star on his left sleeve, throughout both season two and three, indicating at least five years of service for the RCMP, but less than ten years, at which time he would receive another star. If he had been in service for more than seven years, he would have achieved a second star by the end of season three. He could have either joined the RCMP at the age of 19, or else attended University first and joined at the age of 22. This leaves the leeway of 5 years in his possible age in season two.
For a light relief character, Turnbull has many interests and talents, giving him a more fleshed out character than he may appear to be at first glance.
He has an absolute devotion to the British Monarchy; displaying any loyalty that he is expected to feel towards the Queen earnestly. During the season three episode, Burning Down the House, his first reaction to the suggestion that the Consulate building could be on fire is charging outside, clutching the portrait of Her Majesty to his chest.
In Easy Money, we discover that Turnbull is a keen cook. In fact, so much so that he locks the door of the Consulate building. He neglects his duty as a glorified receptionist, in order to cook ratatouille!
In the same episode, we discover that he is both an enthusiastic and talented artist. After witnessing a kidnapping, Kowalski asks for a description of the kidnapper, but is instead treated to the following digression:
“I managed to make a quick sketch. A little something in charcoal. You see, I left my pastels at home. nervous laugh But maybe I can work it up for you later? I’m doing some lovely work in oils.”
As it happens, the charcoal sketch is plenty good enough for Kowalski to know who the kidnapper is.
Turnbull is passionate about curling, to the point where he is willing to get into a fistfight with Kowalski in the episode Asylum, when he calls the sport “housework” and tells him “It may be a pastime. It may even be a hobby. But it is definitely not a sport.” To Turnbull, curling is “a calling”.
He once again shows that he is willing to neglect his duty when Inspector Thatcher and Constable Fraser aren’t around to catch him doing so, by watching curling matches and nature programs on the Consulate television rather than attend to visitors to the building. Although he is the caricature of Fraser, even he has his human side, perhaps more so that his counterpart in this matter; he is as capable of slacking off in absence of authority as anyone else.
It seems that when watching a curling match, he becomes easily distracted and would agree to pretty much anything. During the same episode, Ray gets between him and a match on television. Turnbull agrees to lend Ray his uniform when Ray simply threatens to “whiz in the sink.” Turnbull is so instantly horrified by such an unhygienic thought and the desire to watch the match in peace that he doesn’t even pause to consider any other alternative, he agrees to Ray’s demands. He even begins to undress in front of the television, in plain view of Ray and tourists passing by the door, only moving away from the match to change in private when it appears that his team is losing a play.
Turnbull is a follower of country music. When country music icon, Tracy Jenkins, visits Chicago in Mountie Sings the Blues, Turnbull turns into an overexcited fanboy and promptly faints the second he sees her. When he recovers, he spends most of the episode fawning over her, and even pitches a song that he has written to her. It’s a called I Won’t Be Home for Supper Because They’re Gonna Hang me Tonight. It’s a “twenty-one and a half verse story-song that blends the world of horticulture with the world of bank robbery”.
Turnbull shows himself to be at his most insightful and meditative when talking about country music. He has a grasp of the poetic and can analyse the ideals of the musical movement as well as any degree student:
“Country music is the poetry of the people. Unaffected, heartfelt, it has great strength and beauty, and if you love the tender muscle of the English language, you have to love a man for simply saying – You were always on my mind.”
This is Turnbull letting down the mask, letting the viewer see his innermost thoughts. Most will be surprised to find that there are actually any thoughts at all.
In contrast to this softer side of him, he also seems to have quite an appreciation of firearms. In Asylum, whilst checking in weapons belonging to visitors to the Consulate, he becomes quite enthusiastic about one particular gun: “Oh, Sir. A two-tone buretta, model ’92, nine millimetre. Eleven rounds in the magazine. Sporting a muzzle velocity of two thousand feet per second. Very nice.”
It is quite possible that this is simply related to his tendency to remember trivia and relay it at the slightest opportunity; on another occasion during the same episode he relates several court cases in which people have had to be extradited from Canadian soil, reeling off details including the plaintiff and defender, and year of the case. However, as he is capable of confidently handling the weapon and checking the ammo clip, and wears his cross pistol marksman badge on his uniform, it can be assumed that he not only has received firearms training, but is also a good marksman. An interest in firearms and their related trivia could also be assumed.
One of the last things that anyone would expect Turnbull to be interested in is politics. But yet, in the finale episode Call of the Wild part two, we discover that Turnbull decided to leave his career with the RCMP to pursue a career in politics. We learn that his campaign for Public Office “got off to a rocky start when he was run over by his campaign bus.” Note, however, that we are not told that his campaign was ended, or short lived, simply that it “got off to a rocky start.” This suggests that despite this start, Turnbull had the ability to follow his career change through.
Hardly a Professional Diagnosis
The episode A Bird in the Hand introduces us to the aspect of Turnbull’s character that most viewers remember him for; his eccentricity. They say that it is a fine line between genius and insanity; I think that Turnbull is a very good case in point.
On first viewing, it would be easy to write off his behaviour as that of a naïve and clueless buffoon. However, with further and repeated viewing it becomes clear that Turnbull has one very strong talent. He has the practice of obfuscation down to a fine art. It can sometimes be hard to determine whether this is intentional or not, such as in the following exchange:
Fraser: Don’t let anyone go in or out of that door.
Turnbull: Including myself?
Fraser: Especially not yourself.
Turnbull: Not in, or out.
Fraser: That is correct.
Turnbull: But, I’m already out, Sir.
Turnbull: So, if I find myself inside, I should just stay there?
Does he genuinely believe that he could find himself on the other side of a locked door without going through it? Or is he simply drawing attention away from a situation that he knows is subject to extreme confidentiality? His awareness of the sensitive nature of the situation is shown later on when he uses his talent to ignore the blinding obvious and steer the other person in another direction completely. In this scene, Lieutenant Welsh telephones the Consulate to confirm whether a prisoner that Fraser has locked in his office is actually there:
Turnbull: I’m sorry, but I’m not at liberty to divulge that information.
Welsh: All I wanna know is if Gerard is in Fraser’s office or not.
Welsh: (lying) Fraser says put him on the phone.
Banging heard in the background as Gerard tries to get out of the office
Turnbull: In order to do that, Sir, I would have to confirm that there was someone here.
Gerard: I have to use the bathroom, you moron!
Welsh: If he’s not there, who’s that yelling to use the bathroom?
Turnbull: If it’s of any help, Sir, I can confirm that we do have a bathroom.
Much of Turnbull’s eccentric behaviour could be attributed to intentional misdirection. Although, this begs the question; when not practicing obfuscation in the name of duty, what exactly is he trying to distract everybody’s attention away from?
A large part of Turnbull’s reputation seems to stem from the glaring fact that he doesn’t cope well with exciting or traumatic stimulation. He fainted when confronted by his musical icon, and again in Mounty on the Bounty part two when Mort offered to slice the “treasure map” straight off a dead man’s chest. The threat of fire changed him from a subdued calm man, to one in a state of panic to get out of the building, as if a switch had been flicked. In Easy Money the sight of a brandished gun triggered such extreme alarm that he managed to run into a wall and knock himself out cold.
I don’t see how someone with such an unstable reaction to adrenaline boosting situations could have been allowed to graduate from Depot. My only suggestion is that he wasn’t always so flighty, and that something occurred after his graduation to cause this reaction now. This could also explain why he has found himself posted in a position that must surely be the booby prize of the RCMP. Unfortunately, whoever decided that Chicago was a safe, quiet, place to post him had never heard about the exploits of Constable Fraser…
As we discover in Strange Bedfellows, it is a requirement that each member of the RCMP undergo a psychological profile assessment as part of the job. Turnbull’s mental state is likened to a “block of Swiss cheese”. This statement riles me, as it is hardly a professional diagnosis.
In Mountie on the Bounty part two, Ray is trying to give coordinates out over his dying cell phone and Turnbull is the only one with pencil and paper ready to write them down. However, he gets the numbers mixed up and Inspector Thatcher barks that Turnbull is dyslexic. This got to me as much as the Swiss cheese comment did. So much so, in fact, that I produced a short essay on whether dylexia, dyscalculia, or dyspraxia, could explain his unusual mannerisms.
After some discussion on the subject it was decided that while Turnbull displays some symptoms of each of these conditions, it is unlikely that he is either dyslexic or dyspraxic. However, he may have a mild form of dyscalculia, as this is a condition that would cause him to mix up the order of numbers. Other symptoms also include poor memory for the "layout" of things, (hence him running into a wall that has always been there), getting lost or disoriented easily, having a poor sense of direction, losing things often, and seeming absent minded.
I also suggested that activities, such as his obsession with cleaning, or locking the workplace door in order to cook could be considered techniques to avoid doing paperwork that involved numerical data.
If Turnbull does have dyscalculia, it seems quite probable that the same quack that compared him to Swiss cheese would have also misdiagnosed his disability.
Play Nicely with the Other Children, Renfield
Turnbull’s interaction with many of the other characters in Due South is interesting, to say the least. This is where his comedy value can be played to the maximum, because everybody else seems normal when engaged in conversation with him. However, I once again will sing the praises of the quality of writing in this show, as every character interacts with Turnbull in different ways.
The simplest interaction is between Turnbull and Inspector Thatcher. She is his superior and he treats her as such, by showing an appropriate level of deference towards her. Mostly, the Inspector remains frustrated with him and his actions, but puts up with him as best she can. Her view of his value as a human being is very easily demonstrated in Perfect Strangers when she locks up the Consulate and places the keys beneath his hat as he stands on guard duty, as if he was nothing more than a garden ornament.
Turnbull’s interaction with Fraser is surprising. Even though they hold the same rank, Turnbull shows a degree of submission to Fraser by addressing him as “Sir.” Fraser is aware that Turnbull looks up to him. “Hero-worship” would be putting it mildly:
Kowalski: What are you? Like, a King or something?
Fraser: To Turnbull? Yes.
From Ayslum. Although this is said in jest, it is not far from the truth.
The most interesting part of the interaction between Fraser and Turnbull, however, is the fact that Fraser can barely tolerate the other man. The most patient and polite man in the whole show easily becomes frustrated with Turnbull and is often straight-out rude to him. The character that is designed to make Fraser seem more like a normal human is the one who draws out this most human flaw.
Kowalski is unable to keep his temper with anybody, so it isn’t surprising that he gets frustrated with Turnbull. However, as Turnbull is in general patient, he is able to communicate well with the detective. Just as long as the honour of curling isn’t at stake. He even manages to subtly teach Ray something about the sport in the short time that he spends at the Consulate, which must have taken some degree of devious subconscious manipulation:
Kowalski: ’S got the makings of a Bonspiel... I just made a curling reference. I’m gonna go lay down.
Turnbull is very good with the children in Bounty Hunter, even if he does initially appear flabbergasted at the idea of having to look after them. He quickly falls into the roll of entertainer and doesn’t just want to read them a bedtime story; he wants to perform it. It could be argued that he isn’t very good with the children as he ends up overpowered and tied up by them, but its worth remembering that he was reading the story of Gulliver's Travels. It is no coincidence that he ends up tied up as Gulliver was by the Lilliputs.
Also bear in mind that earlier in the episode he is seen carrying one child under his arm, herding the other two in front of him. He is aware of his own strength and could easily control the children if need be. For a notoriously clumsy person, he is also extremely careful and gentle around those that could be hurt by his mishaps. He enjoys encouraging the imagination and playfulness of the children and declares the next morning “What a hoot!”
Turnbull’s interaction with Francesca Vecchio is another relationship of interest. In the episode Mountie Sings the Blues there appears to be a romance forming between the pair, yet nothing comes of it in following episodes. When you look at their interaction in detail in this episode, reading between the lines, things become clearer:
Knowing that Turnbull is an expert on country music, Frannie contacts Turnbull to help her win a bet relating to country music. Turnbull agrees, on the condition that she allows him to try to “convince her of the depth and resonance” of that genre of music. When Frannie tells him that she’s too busy right now, he pushes the point because he wants to spread his enthusiasm for the music to her, and so asks if they can talk over a drink on her lunch break. Frannie is the one who interprets this as a date, and when she says so to Turnbull, he becomes quite flustered; “possibly… perhaps.” Frannie then has to reluctantly decline, as she has to work through lunch, prompting Turnbull to do the most romantic thing I have ever seen.
There is no doubt that the meal in the break room is a date; Turnbull cooks for her, he sets the table and finishes it off with a rose and candles, he pours her wine. However, I feel that the situation is different for the two people. To Frannie, she is on a date. To Turnbull, he is performing a date, because that is what Frannie was expecting it to be. This doesn’t detract from the absolute thoughtfulness of the gesture, but it does alter the meaning. Turnbull never directly answers Frannie’s incredulous question, “I was always on your mind?” as if he is unwilling to either confirm or deny it.
I’m not trying to imply anything that isn’t told to us in canon, but in Mountie on the Bounty part two, during the “romance” daydream scene, Kowalski and Welsh are busy romancing female Mounties, Fraser and Thatcher are having a moment, even Diefenbaker has found the ship’s dog (bitch) to pursue. Meanwhile, Turnbull is telling a fellow male Mountie that he finds him an “incredibly aggressive young man”, and indulging in arm wrestling with him. Draw your own conclusions.
Constable Renfield Turnbull is a character of many parts. He can be enjoyed by the viewer on many levels; from the most superficial comic relief, to a thoughtful romantic soul. His interaction with the other main characters in Due South help to further their characterisations as well as his own, enriching our viewing experience greatly. His eccentricities and idiosyncratic view of the world make him an entertaining and thoughtful character who deserves far more recognition than he receives.