How Nine won the battle for Gallipoli over the ABC

John Edwards had expected Gallipoli to find a home on the ABC, until Nine made its case.

2014_04_Gallipoli Ep4BSc18-20_0005It really would have made perfect sense for the Gallipoli miniseries to have been on the ABC.

The 100th commemoration of the event would be been right at home as a Drama on our national broadcaster.

Producer John Edwards had always presumed the ABC would be the natural home for the 8 part miniseries.

But when Endemol asked networks to pitch their case for the series he got quite the surprise.

“I suppose we’d had that prejudice,” he says of the ABC as the logical broadcaster.

“But Nine’s pitch was so overwhelming and thorough, serious and committed. Nine’s view was they wanted to be the broadcaster of big events, the things that matter.

“We basically said to everybody, ‘If you want it you tell us. Give us your marketing plan.’

“Around the foyer of Nine there were these beautiful posters of Gallipoli artwork, with a soldier in the mist and the words ‘The Television Event of the Century’ and an Airdate on it.

“I stepped out of the lift on the third floor at Channel Nine and there were 2 soldiers in period dress saluting us, marching us down the corridor to the Board Room. The doors open with the Nine execs sitting there with rosemary in their lapels, billy tea, damper, ANZAC biscuits and then they presented us –in the same logo as the poster- a 27 page marketing book with their plans.

“Michael Healy’s words were, ‘Is it clear that we want it?’”

Nine’s aggression in landing the series, was contrasted by a lacklustre meeting with the ABC.

“We went to the ABC they said ‘Oh we thought this was a meeting about the next meeting…’ We’d already had two meetings. And it was in writing!”

The rest is, pardon the pun, history.

The series has been crafted over three years, with writer Christopher Lee creating fictionalised characters based on the history book by Les Carlyon. Edwards says the story has been given an unapologetic point of view.

“The great truth and in fact the poetry of Les’ book is what we’ve set out to try and achieve,” he maintains.

“To make 8 hours of television you need to have people you are following all the way through. Fundamentally we see the story through the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character -he and his bunch of mates, and to some extent the people around him.

“On top of that we look particularly through the eyes of Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, the English journalist who was the principal correspondent and critic of the campaign. He was only 34 but he had covered 7 wars.

“There’s also the point of view of the Commander in Chief Sir Ian Hamilton.

“In some stories the British are universally regarded as villains. We don’t see him that way. We see him as a deeply flawed Commander. Under-resourced, way out of his depth, but certainly not maligned or evil.

“We see all of the characters in a great deal of complexity, not just good and bad.”

He maintains the story has only had one key adjustment in its adaptation to television: enabling the various battles to be seen by a core group of characters. In real life the timing of such events meant no single soldier could have witnessed all of the events depicted.

“Being both truthful and accurate in every detail you can is critical to it,” he continues.

“If you are going to tell the whole story there are certain things you need to do. One of them is the dawn landing, the first day, the August offensive, the Armistice. All of the particular things we felt a need to cover.

“If you’re being absolutely literal no one person went through all those things but they only missed it by a few hours.

“They would have had to have landed at 11:00, not dawn. So we’ve had to make a little bit of a twist by a few hours. So we’ve slightly fictionalised a Unit by about four hours.

“You couldn’t have one bunch of characters land at dawn and then not see them again, and start another story with a new bunch of characters.

“That’s the only place where we’ve departed from being absolute sticklers for history.”

Accuracy is central to such a revered chapter in our history. Gallipoli benefits from months of planning following the scripting stage, both for economic benefit and historical accuracy.

“We built a 3D model of the peninsula a metre to the kilometre from Google Earth. It was cut in Styrofoam, with all the mountains, hills and valleys. We worked out where the battles were and we were able to consolidate it into about 5 areas,” says Edwards.

“One of those is a trench system which we visit and redress a couple of times. It’s 90 metres of meandering Australian trench, then below it is a support trench and below that another. Then there is a ‘no mans’s land,’ and across on the other side one Turkish trench.”

In addition to some photography taking place in Turkey, filming was based at 16 Victorian locations near Werribee, Bacchus Marsh, Point Cook and Mt. Eliza doubling as the Gallipoli beach, which even lent itself to the right alignment for the sun.

“The whole point is you land at dawn and the sun has to come up in the right direction. You just can’t be wrong. After the first day it doesn’t really matter, but it does matter on the first day. It’s part of the story.”

Gallipoli also includes some perspective from the Turkish point of view, albeit with less emphasis. Armistice Day scenes finally depict the warring sides finding common ground.

“It was only at the point where they stopped to bury each other’s dead that there was a mutual respect. There was this thing that happened between the two sides where (the Turks) said ‘Your sons are our sons. They are buried here with us,” he explains.

“We felt we had to show that and I think it’s deeply moving part of our story.”

But for all the grand planning and massive marketing, Gallipoli must, like every other series, be put to the test by viewers. Will audiences flock to the series and how will they respond to this viewpoint of a most revered chapter in our history?

A seasoned producer, Edwards isn’t assuming anything.

“We’ve either got it right or wrong. We’ve chosen to tell the story subjectively. It’s a very subjective story.”

Gallipoli premieres soon on Nine.

26 Responses

  1. John Edwards is brave to speak out about the ABC but as a producer for a large multinational production company he can afford to and his criticism of ABC indifference and sheer tardiness is spot on. The independent sector contracting to an unaccountable public sector broadcaster is often a very unhappy cultural and commercial mix. But this is the model the ABC increasingly seeks. I would suggest the best solution is to employ commissioning editors, executive producers and the programmers on contracts of three years with a only a two year renewal. Otherwise they never leave the place. A good in-house ABC executive will always find a place elsewhere while a mediocre one will stay and stay. It is perhaps time for the incumbents to move on. And the ABC has no shortage of money when it really wants a program. The Asian Cup is a very good and recent example.

  2. It is hard to go past Bazza’s analysis.

    If you want to tell a story with that much spectacle, especially over 8 hours, you need big money. The ABC doesn’t have that, at least not in the way that Nine and Seven do.

    It will probably be a better series for being on Nine rather than the ABC. If you don’t like it with ads, buy the blu-ray.

    Let the ABC focus it’s attention on projects that are cheaper to make well.

  3. @moonserf – only Aussies write sex, nudity and relationships into tv shows?! And those facets are all part of life so I don’t understand the distaste for them. Should it just be 16 hours of men being slaughtered (violence being so much more acceptable)?

  4. My take-away from this article is that one of the most successful and prolific drama producers in the country tried to engage the ABC in a discussion about an “event” mini series to commemorate 100 years since the Gallipoli landing, based on Les Carlyon’s seminal book and the ABC rep was not particularly engaged or interested in the process even though the scripts were underway. The audience is asking how these disappointing ABC drama decisions keep getting made.

  5. On ch9, sadly, it will clash with the non-entertaining reality programming it will schedule before Gallipoli goes to air and be a nightmare to watch, even to PVR. As it was written by an Aussie team I would guess, there will no end of nudity, relationships and sex that ruins a good story. It remains to be seen if plot based drama lovers will watch it. I won’t

  6. Have to agree with HardcorePrawn here.
    Unfortunately the poinant moments will invariably be spoiled by garish screen pop ups covering a third of the screen. They annoy me on random shows.

  7. I find it hard to believe that John Edwards really prefers to have his show butchered with ads, as well as being peppered with ubiquitous onscreen teasers and previews for whatever upcoming juggernaut Nine have planned.

    And of course, should it not rate as well as expected (will the episodes that show the battle from the Turkish perspective, or the ones that show the Anzacs in a less than glorious light still rate), will Nine still treat it respect or bump it to a later slot, or even to Gem or Go?

  8. I love cynicism as much as anybody but I think we need to give Nine their due here. They clearly wanted this and they went out and got it. If a truckload of cash was part of the deal, so be it.

    There will be ads in it – that is how a commercial station makes its money – but hopefully Nine will allow a good 20-30 minutes to be free of ads and pop-ups/supers so that people can get into the mind-set of the story.

  9. Gallipoli was announced 3 years ago, so probably was being considered by the ABC as Anzac Girls was commissioned a year later.

    I think the whole 9 getting it over the ABC was likely not the message of the speech (for those who attended) as it was more the effort they undertook which sounds well above and beyond the norm.

  10. The ABC was just its normal bureaucratic self. Producers are always complaining about the endless meeting and multiple layers of management required to sign off on anything.

    For 2015 the ABC are making Secret River, which appeals to them more. They probably made ANZAC Girls for the anniversary of the start of WWI after Nine got Gallipoli.

  11. What a load of codswallop! The ABC has limited resources and had already brought us the somewhat underwhelming ‘Anzac Girls’ and the greatly superior ‘The War That Changed Us’ in the last year-now whatever this show I, it will be packed with moronic pop ups for 9’s reality rubbish and ads every 30 seconds as well as start times and slot shifts at the whim of programmers with very dubious pasts on this.

  12. I will be recording this to avoid all the ads (and I am sure there will be many) but I wonder will Nine start it on time each night and the big question…will they leave it on a fixed night at a fixed time…or will they do the usual…..

  13. The ABC had obviously decided to go a year earlier with ANZAC Girls (which turned out to be a major ratings hit). They could have bought Gallipoli. They didn’t want it.

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