Undoubtedly it is a hard sell putting forward a tragedy as entertainment, especially one wherein the audience feels like they already know the story.
These proved to be challenges for Nine’s excellent Gallipoli miniseries, compounded by a languid style, a double episode premiere at 9:00 in February -two months before centenary celebrations. No doubt if the network had their time over again they would schedule things differently.
But they are lessons that play to the strengths of Foxtel’s Deadline Gallipoli miniseries. As a 2 x 2hr exercise it will screen on consecutive nights in the week preceding ANZAC Day. Significantly, it has been fashioned from the viewpoint of 3 journalists and 1 photographer, all desperate to tell the truth about what was happening on the Gallipoli peninsula. The poster tagline for this drama is “The First Casualty of War is the Truth.”
Like its recent contemporary, Deadline Gallipoli opens on the shores of ANZAC Cove as troops race from boats to the hills, dodging shrapnel like a scene from Saving Private Ryan. But we run with Australian journalist Charles Bean (Joel Jackson) instead of the young soldiers. We then flash back to 8 weeks earlier in Cairo. Indeed, the death-ridden trenches are barely seen again in the first 2 hours.
Instead we follow Bean, British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (Hugh Dancy) and photographer Phillip Schuler (Sam Worthington) ahead of their landing at Gallipoli. These are largely three solo journeys, fore-runners perhaps to ’embedded journalism.’ Keith Murdoch (Ewen Leslie) will play a later role in their impact on the campaign.
But all 4 will face stringent freedoms under General Hamilton (Charles Dance), who vets their reportage to ensure it portrays positive news back home. There is to be “no room for personal opinion, no deviation from the facts” but “rousing reports…. to keep the home fires burning.”
Before they even reach Gallipoli the men will train on Lemnos and Imbros Islands, while others will be sent home from Egypt due to attracting STDs.
Ashmead-Bartlett, deemed by Hamilton to be “more irritating than a dose of the clap” has the most focus of the 4 and drives the stiffest opposition to the military campaign. Hugh Dancy is excellent in this rather difficult role, given he was a dapper chap, mingling in high circles. It places him as fighting the establishment from within.
In his first major role NIDA graduate Joel Jackson is dazzling as Charles Bean, and it is a performance that will deservedly put him on the map. As the official war correspondent for Australia, his is a more empathetic role. But his dull reporting couldn’t match the tone of Ashmead-Bartlett, who branded him a ‘diarist’ not a journalist. Across the four hour drama he undergoes cathartic change in his pursuit of eyewitness accounts and relaying truth.
Photographer Philip Schuler (Worthington) begins by snapping hospital boat scenes and re-enactments with the troops in military training. But he is frustrated at being barred from the cove -until he will finally witness the horrors first hand. Worthington is matinee-idol strong as the man with an eye for action, yet Dancy and Jackson adopt more pivotal roles.
Ewen Leslie as Keith Murdoch plays a central role in the later stages of the story, placing the truth of the war above his personal safety. I had to keep reminding myself this man was father to Rupert Murdoch.
The fifth key role is Charles Dance as British General Ian Hamilton, whose leadership is questioned by the journalists. As with his powerful presence in dramas such as Game of Thrones, he brings gravitas to the series with his mellifluous voice and sheer presence.
As we know from other dramatisations, the Australians -frequently referred to as “colonials”- are amongst those essentially sacrificed by the British campaign, literally sent up trench ladders to be shot by the Turks. It is harrowing, uncompromising stuff.
There are also supporting roles by Rachel Griffiths, Anna Torv, Jessica De Gouw, Bryan Brown, John Bell, Dan Wylie and James Fraser.
Director Michael Rymer is the unseen star of this drama, a master at bringing to life the drama written by Jacquelin Perske, Shaun Grant, Stuart Beattie and Cate Shortland. He deftly juggles the emotions of the individuals within the opera of this war, wrapped around grand set pieces that are most satisfying for the committed viewer.
The staging of battle scenes and the demanding location shots impress on the screen. Produced in South Australia, it is utterly convincing as Turkey and its surrounds -indeed, it is hard to think of a finer television production the state has produced. Only the ‘drawing room’ scenes back in the UK are less engaging, a minor criticism of this most faithful work.
Sadly, Nine’s Gallipoli reminds us that not every richly-produced work will find an audience (I don’t know how awards season will split these two commendable projects). If television is here to entertain and inform, there should also be room to educate -a 100th anniversary is time for such honour. Matchbox Pictures and Full Clip productions manage to do all three.
Deadline Gallipoli airs 8:30pm Sunday April 19 and Monday April 20 on Showcase.