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Saturday, 4 June 2016

Sex Changes and a Cisgender Actor in Canberra's Secret City

It’s being spoken of in the same elevated tones as Borgen and House of Cards (even the title backgrounds are similar). But, frankly, it's not shaping as being in anywhere near the same league. Excellent filming (who knew Canberra could be made to look so intriguing?), an interesting - if far from credible - storyline, but utterly unconvincing acting, I'm afraid. And lead actress Anna Torv (FBI agent Olivia Dunham in the Fox series Fringeis at the top of the list. Torv, as political journalist Harriet Dunkley, is supposed to be working for a newspaper called the Daily Nation (it was The Australian in the original story), yet she seems to be able to work to anything but a daily deadline. In fact, in 47 years in print newspapers, I've never seen a journalist work quite the way Torv does. Given Torv's aunt is Anna Murdoch Mann, who was married for 31 years to Rupert Murdoch, and her cousins are James and Lachlan Murdoch, you'd think she'd know better.
On Thursday I went to see a preview screening of Secret City, the supposed "Scandi-noir"-style political thriller set in Canberra which opens on Foxtel tomorrow night (Sunday).
Given that Chinese diplomats are broadly portrayed in such sinister shades (even the stunning Eugenia Yuan, left, a 1988 US Olympic Games gymnast, becomes Weng Meigui, which means "I am ghost") the first two episodes in this six-part TV mini-series were shown, ironically enough, at The Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

Secret City is based, none too closely unfortunately, on two books by political journalists Chris Uhlmann* and Steve Lewis, The Marmalade Files ("A Sticky Scandal. A Political Jam", "Political Bastardry", 2012) and The Mandarin Code ("Politics Peeled Bare", 2014). There is a third book in this series, The Shadow Game, due out this coming August 22. The producers of Secret City, Matchbox Pictures, decided to remove the humour from the books and go with nothing but the intrigue. Bad move. Without the humour, it didn't leave a lot of plausible (or vaguely interesting) material left. The original House of Cards, screened in 1990 by the BBC and starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, had lots of humour, even if it was mostly as black as soot. The problem is, I guess, that we don't "do" humour, black of otherwise, well in this country, but is that any excuse not to tackle it at all?
(*Disclosure - I am a close personal friend of Chris and his brother, fellow Canberra journalist Mark Uhlmann).
Above, Lewis, left, and Uhlmann.
Below, Torv sculling on Lake Burley Griffen in Secret City.
For me, however, the saddest part is that Harriet Dunkley has changed sex. In the Uhlmann-Lewis books, Harriet was Harry, a "veteran journalist" and a vastly more believable character. He's a "seasoned newshound" in a sea of TV anchors who, amusingly, "simper and fawn". This may sound sexist of me, but male journalists know how veteran male journalists behave, and Uhlmann and Lewis wouldn't have done a young female reporter very well at all. Harriet has apparently been nicknamed "Harry", but she is not the he that Uhlmann and Lewis created. Chris's brother Mark, unlike Chris still (at least for the time being) a Canberra Times journalist, wrote Stink of a Journalist in 2006, and got it pretty much spot on. Stink is characterised by AustLit as being about "Marriage conflict, psychological stress, disillusionment, love affairs, ambition". The Australian National Library says it is "a revealing expose of life behind the scenes at The Canberra Times. It also happens to be a fine and comically presented tale. It is hard to avoid the inference that this is a very thinly disguised insight into the real Canberra Times over recent years, with many of the characters simply taken from real life and given new names."
Listening to Matchbox co-founder and executive producer Penny Chapman (above) talk about Secret City at the advance screening on Thursday, I couldn't help but think that Dunkley might have been, even if subconsciously, turned into a mirror image of a much younger Chapman. After all, a former ANU student herself, she too once dabbled in sculling on Lake Burley Griffen. But she obviously has had no experience inside real newsrooms, and that's clearly the case with Torv/Harriet Dunkley.
Let's not forget Chapman was also executive producer of last year's Gallipoli centenary mini-series on Foxtel, Deadline Gallipoli. My own personal experience, of being asked to offer typewriter-related advice to members of the production team for that series, quickly revealed that they had no idea whatsoever about how news reporters actually worked, especially those in a war zone in 1915.
Above, Hugh Dancy, as Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, using an Empire typewriter in Deadline Gallipoli. Below, the real Ashmead-Bartlett typed out in the battlefield in the Dardanelles.
As well, I found myself readily agreeing with Matt Akerson on the Same Same website when he wrote of Secret City that it "may break new ground with a transgender character at the heart of the shady political shenanigans [but] high-level security analyst Kim Gordon is played by cisgender actor Damon Herriman ... We're sure he’ll do a fine job, but as always, we’d love to have seen a transgender actor in a trans role." Akerson added that the Kim character "was married to Harriet before her gender transition". Having seen the preview, I'm much less sure than Akerson was, as I found Herriman to be far from convincing as Kim (unless the role is meant to be the one last vestige of humour left from the original stories).
Above, Herriman as Kim Gordon.
Below, Herriman as a bloke.
In the Uhlmann-Lewis books, Kim is Harry's "best friend, cross-gendered intelligence analyst Kimberley Gordon". Actually, he started out as Ben Gordon, but obviously the name Ben didn't translate well to a transgender version. Either way, I feel certain this character "worked" much better in print. Similarly, Defence Minister Mal Paxton started fictional life with the more Australian name of Bruce Paxton. Mal or Bruce, Dan Wyllie in this role is just plain awful. On the surface, these changes may seem to be immaterial, but in reality the context (and the underlining humour) just evaporates. 
The sleazy Wyllie and Weaver in Secret City.
The undoubted acting talents of Oscar-nominated Australian Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook, Animal Kingdom) appear to be completely wasted in the Foxtel rewriting of one of the most colourful characters in the Uhlmann-Lewis books. The health-impaired Catriona, or Cate, Bailey, nicknamed "Attila the Hen" (as in being Thatcheresque), was Foreign Minister in the books and becomes a robust Attorney-General, for some obscure reason, in the TV series. In the books, readers "laugh with and [are] inspired by" Bailey, with her Jackie Lambie-like dialogue. There is no light relief in the Foxtel version, more's the pity. Instead, it's all about "a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger" and  "endangering the freedom of every Australian". All much too heavy, too convoluted and far too unrealistic. At least in the books there is, as one reviewer wrote, "an eerie ring of reality". "This is fiction, but truth lurks behind every corner of it."
Torv, a "journalist" with plenty of time to contemplate matters.
A columnist called Ben Pobjie wrote of the TV series, "Today, TV is worse than ever at inflating our expectations of the real world ... In defence of Secret City, it's hardly alone in inculcating an unrealistic vision of life [but] can we try harder? Can we bring about a new golden age of evidence-based TV, where everything is true-to-life, and nothing is more exciting, more action-packed, or more graphically nude than it is in real life? I hope so."
The title "The Marmalade Files" is historically based purely on humour. It was not an ASIS dirt file but a collection of humorous, often risqué and sometimes downright bizarre communications kept by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra. The only surviving link with Secret City is that the officer in charge of the files was referred to as "Mr Harry" (Ralph Harry). Even at the height of the Cold War, in 1958, these collected documents recognised the funny side of diplomatic life - from Chinese rabbit breeding to the uselessness of tadpoles for contraceptive purposes.
This newspaper clipping of German and British leaders meeting at the lavatory compartment on a train appealed to the Marmalade Files' sense of toilet humour.
The gem of the Marmadale Files collection held by the National Archives here was written on an Olivetti typewriter by the British Consul in Medan, Indonesia, J.A. McKay, on June 26, 1958 (see original letter in full below. Also see a blog post here).
McKay said he had "the honour to make an unusual report" about an Australian national, a Mrs D.L. Godfrey, a woman of a certain age. "Lilly" was the "fabulous barmaid from Calgoorly [Kalgoorlie] ('Is it really the toughest mining town in the world?'), a Mae West type of bold-eyed beauty, an Amazon with a great thirst and an eye for very young males. A forceful go-ahead character who gets what she wants and the devil take the hindmost." Lilly had arrived in Medan searching for her fiancé, Johnny Banting, an Australian Caltex employee. Over the next few days Lilly drinks McKay out of house and home before doing the same at the expatriates' club. At one point, McKay finds her passed out naked in his bed, but is disposed to be generous, thinking she had not done this to be provocative but merely because she had mistaken his bedroom for her room. "She claimed that she had been a spoilt child; that she usually got what she wanted by creating hell all round," McKay recorded. Lilly falls in with some unscrupulous Dutchmen and is rescued by McKay, and then tells him her life story, inter alia revealing why she is afraid of whips. Later, in the town of Pakenbaru, Lilly shocks the Catholic priest who had taken her in, by both her drunkenness and immodest undress, and tells an American colleague of McKay's "who had consumed more liquid than he could reasonably contain, to 'do it on the lawn, it's much more convenient, I always do'." McKay was disappointed to see the back of Lily; he found her "a great tonic for this rather conventional and war weary countryside - long may she rampage and ravage around ... but not in my area again, not unless there is an Australian Consul around."
Writing about these real files in the aftermath of the first Uhlmann-Lewis book, former DFAT member Alan Fewster said, "If there is one thing [they show] clearly, it is the truth of the old bureaucratic saw: 'If you have to choose between a conspiracy and a stuff up, go for the stuff up every time.'"
This sums up my feeling about the TV series Secret City. I'm very much jaded by television series about unfounded and utterly unbelievable conspiracy theories. Give me a show about a Lilly Godfrey any day. I'd watch that with considerable glee. But I found the Foxtel show about as boring as bat shit, which is a subject that one might learn about in the real Marmalade Files.
A typed letter such as this also makes one wonder about the loss of typewriters from all spheres of commercial and political life. Typewriters usually had a tendency to encourage a longer, more winding and often more amusing road to the point at hand (if there was any at all). Fewster writes, "Alas, in these days of the new managerialism, such colourful reporting rarely finds its way on to DFAT files any more. At most overseas posts, diplomats simply do not have the time to indulge themselves in the flights of fancy so celebrated in the Marmalade Files. The despatch, a long courtly letter from ambassador to his political minister, was once a mainstay of diplomatic correspondence. Depending on the author, these missives were read with varying degrees of anticipation in Canberra. Nowadays, such communications are regarded as an indulgence and are rare, limited often to valedictory message."
That's just so sad, too.

1 comment:

Richard P said...

The tale of Lilly is most entertaining.

I know Herriman from his role in the series "Justified," set in Kentucky (but actually filmed in California). He plays a dimwitted ne'er-do-well.