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.
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.