“This is a work of historical fiction. But a lot of the really bad history really happened,” the opening card on Operation Buffalo tells us.
Maralinga, a largely untold chapter of Australian history, comes to life in a new ABC miniseries by writer / director Peter Duncan (Rake, Children of the Revolution, Passion).
What we get is certainly unexpected: a theatre of the absurd… an atomic comedy of errors, where the principal characters are the Aussies and Brits playing wargames with the lives of ‘invisible’ indigenous.
Major Leo Carmichael (Ewen Leslie) oversees the towers standing distant in the South Australian desert in 1956, from which bombs will be tested by the Empire. Left largely to his own atomic devices (save for the diminishing faculties of his commander, General Crankford), Leo has a wild ol’ time flying in hookers from Adelaide, including Molly (Bojana Novakovic), and making merriment for the boys in the army.
But when Canberra’s Attorney-General Dick Wilcox (Tony Martin), Defence Minister Lachlan (Alan Duke) and British High Commissioner (Willian Zappa) pay an unexpected visit, Leo has his hands full: a hooker is missing, and Nurse Corrine (Adrienne Pickering) is worried there are rapes going unreported.
“You can’t report anything in this place. Especially if you’re a woman, and especially if the rapist is someone with clout,” she tells Leo.
While General Crankford (James Cromwell) has a black tie dinner party to host for his guests the day before the latest atomic testing, the visiting officials are dismissive of any obliteration of Aboriginals that may be necessary.
“We both know there’s people out here don’t we, Dick?” asks Defence Minister Lachlan.
“Depends how the Constitution defines people,” the Attorney-General replies.
Meanwhile Indigenous locals Sam (Shaka Cook), Ruby (Frances Djulbing), Peggy (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), are justly suspicious of these strange men from “the place where the big clouds come.” For the record, these characters do speak a local language with English subtitles. The cast also includes Jessica de Gouw as a mysterious meteorologist Eva Lloyd-George.
Yet while the horrors of what is taking place unfold the balance of the story -at least initially- is given to boys’ hijinks and stuffy shirts in the Aussie outback. Duncan takes a satirical approach to the subject. The title and rollicking music are dead giveaways this is detouring from any worthy, serious path at high velocity. By episode 2 scientists turn practically vaudevillian…
Perhaps, like Catch-22 or The Dish, the intent is to highlight the ridiculousness of such grand folly …except that this was a shameful and tragic chapter in our history and as a national broadcaster drama, I found this a challenging choice.
While Ewen Leslie admirably strives for sincerity, sometimes there are pantomime performances surrounding him… notably James Cromwell’s “tickity-boo” General, and the fine talents of Tony Martin resembling something closer to Fairfax & Carstairs in ‘Allo ‘Allo. Fa, fa, fa, fa….
To be fair, producers Porchlight Films did consult with the Maralinga Tjarutja community, with Translators / Advisors Gavin Peel & Dennis Brown, plus Indigenous Cultural Consultant Dr. Jared Thomas.
A documentary this most certainly is not, as the opening card declares (ABC airs a Blackfella Films doco tonight). Hopefully by the end of the series the balance of this tragedy is not overwhelmed by its opening capers.
Operation Buffalo airs 8:30pm Sunday May 31 on ABC.