The Mission

The story of a brazen art robbery from a monastery in WA twists and turns like a Tarantino caper.

Marc Fennell is building quite a reputation as an offbeat storyteller of unique, sometimes obscure, tales thanks to his podcasts and docos such as Stuff the British Stole and Framed.

His latest work The Mission, which returns to the world of art, is a three part re-telling of a brazen 1986 heist that is so wild it could make for a movie.

It centres around the grand yet incongruous Spanish monastery New Norcia founded by two Spanish Benedictine monks in 1846, 132km north east of Perth. The drone shots of this imposing, sprawling building already raise your curiosity. Why the hell is this “little bit of Spain in the middle of nowhere?”

At its height there were 70 Benedictine monks living at the site, working, praying and as is suggested, converting a First Nations community to European Catholicism.

Amongst its earthly treasures were some 100 religious oil paintings housed in an art gallery, some dating back to the 16th Century.

That was enough to prompt an audacious robbery one day in 1986 when 26 paintings were brutally slashed from their frames. It was a crime the small town, and the state of Western Australia, had never seen before.

In revisiting this tale Fennell speaks to several of the key players and media who were there to report it.

They include John Skeffington, who headed up the newly-established Major Crime Squad of WA -the New Norcia case would be their very first. He was assisted by Det. Ken Gregson who, although having no art experience, tells Fennell, “The word Desecration springs to mind” for the way the works were slashed and ripped from frames.

Alas, the amateur thieves, who bailed up an elderly caretaker during their operative, would also make their share of rookie mistakes. The grim tale begins to take on a comedy-of-errors as Fennell follows the path. It was the ’80s after all, where security was not particularly sophisticated, before DNA profiling, and computer technology was still developing in policing.

But the clues would send police interstate “On a mission from God,” Gregson recalls, amusingly quoting from The Blues Brothers.

The doco written and directed by Corrin Grant (not to be confused with comedian Corrine Grant) draws upon archival footage as well as re-enactments to visualise its era. Other characters will thicken the plot of this yarn which looks set to wrap in its first 60 minute instalment -until it doesn’t.

Yes, there’s more.

Indeed the trail the filmmakers have extensively embarked upon will take them to several foreign territories. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. The Mission twists and turns like a Tarantino caper and makes for very intriguing viewing.

The Mission 8:30pm Tuesday on SBS.

One Response

  1. Fennell shows his age (or rather his lack thereof) by describing it as a forgotten event in the remote outback when the town of New Norcia sits on Great Eastern Hwy, the primary road link to the Eastern states and less than 2 hours from Perth, I recall taking a Sunday afternoon family road trip there in the mid 1970s. I can assure you that it was big news here in WA at the time and most definitely remembered still.

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