When Ewen Leslie read the scripts for Operation Buffalo he asked writer / director Peter Duncan (Rake) about the playing style.
After all, ABC’s miniseries on Maralinga, had more than a few lighter moments, indeed even those punctuated by mirth. Duncan revealed his intent was satire.
“One of the first things I said to him was, ‘This should go fast shouldn’t it?’ and he said, ‘I don’t write slow,'” says Leslie.
“He writes in a way that you don’t normally get on screen”
“He writes in a way that you don’t normally get on screen. The dialogue is very dense – you have reams of dialogue, that you normally only get on stage. You really have to get out the pencil and do the work on dialogue.”
The 6 part series, described as “historical fiction,” is based around the British Nuclear Test Program between 1953 and 1963 in Maralinga, South Australia. It left the land contaminated for decades and the Maralinga Tjarutja people dispossessed of their home.
Filmed in consultation with local indigenous communities, the series portrays this little-known chapter in Australian history, and comes with a formidable cast including Jessica de Gouw, James Cromwell, Tony Martin and Frances Djulibing.
“It was just absolutely mind-boggling that this happened, and mind-boggling that we don’t know the full story of this. It isn’t taught in schools that it isn’t a well-known part of Australian history,” Leslie continues.
“The story of Maralinga is so bleak”
“The story of Maralinga is so bleak, so horrible and just really, really sad. (Peter) absolutely wanted to pay respect to that and make sure that story came through over the 6 hours of the show. But at the same time, he wanted to make something that was entertaining and compelling, with characters that people could go with.”
Leslie plays Major Leo Carmichael, an engineer who supervises the various towers from which the atomic bombs are dropped. When the series opens he has his hands full with a missing prostitute and the early arrival of officials, including the British High Commissioner and members of the Menzies cabinet.
“I just have to apply it dead straight”
“I just have to apply it dead straight and get serious as it goes along,” he explains. “There’s certainly situations that I find myself in that are somewhat humorous -but only humorous in the sense that they are so incredibly stressful.
“(Peter’s) natural bent, as we know from Rake, is to go with somewhat of a satirical edge. But I loved that he was having fun with the period.
“Obviously, the whole reason they were dropping atomic bombs was because of the Cold War, the Communist threat, the fact that there were Russian spies in the British and Australian governments. There was so much fear around the reds under the beds.
“He absolutely wanted to pay full respect to the horror of what happened”
“He absolutely wanted to pay full respect to the horror of what happened and how terrible it was. But at the same time, the situation was ludicrous.
“I mean, you had one government which agreed to allow another government to drop atom bombs in its own country. They knew the radiation travelled, They were telling everyone that there were no Indigenous communities out there and no one would be harmed. And meanwhile, they had one guy patrolling an area the size of Great Britain. It was just absolutely ludicrous.”
Tonally, Operation Buffalo also pays homage to period film and television, including Catch 22 and Dr. Strangelove.
“In one scene it felt like I was doing Hitchcock noir, the next was like doing a political thriller, and then with Jessica de Gouw I was doing a Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn comedy. ”
Filming took place last year at Potts Hill in western Sydney and Parachilna in South Australia. Porchlight Films also consulted with the Maralinga Tjarutja community.
“By episode six there are… truth bombs being dropped on the audience.”
Leslie insists that for any light start the series has, things shift as the story unravels.
“By episode six there are -for want of a better word- truth bombs being dropped on the audience. I think a large amount of Australians know this story, but I think even the ones that do aren’t aware of the full facts. Hopefully that’s what people really love about the show: as it reveals itself and goes on, it has more shocks and surprises.
“And the most awful thing is they’re all true.”
Operation Buffalo airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.