Lights, camera, action. Behold, Canberra as a secret city, and a star

Tony Wright


Canberra does autumn like few other places in Australia. Trees flame, avenues turn golden, the air is brittle.

Mist ghosts upon the lake at dawn, hinting at secrets old and new.
I lived in Canberra for close to three decades, and grew accustomed, almost indifferent, to the loveliness of the place. Familiarity spoiled the senses.

It is only now, when I fly there as an outsider to report the doings of its parliamentarians, that the physical beauty of the national capital so many Australians love to disdain reveals itself. In technicolour, you might say.

Canberra has been, without enough Australians quite realising it, a film set waiting to be discovered.

Finally, it has.

A couple of mates from the Press Gallery, Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, have spent the past few years writing political thrillers set in Canberra: The Marmalade Files; The Mandarin Code.

The books proved to be popular because they contain rattling good tales, complete with evil politicians and diplomats, obsessive reporters and a transvestite spy.

Now the thrillers are about to go visual. Film company Matchbox Pictures has produced for Foxtel a six-part series called Secret City based on the books.

This week, in the theatrette at Parliament House, Canberra, glasses of bubbles in hand, a few of us got to see a preview of Secret City’s first episode.

It is bewitching, based on what we saw of the first episode. First-class actors – Jacki Weaver, Anna Torv, Alan Dale, Dan Wyllie – strong, tight scripting and an engrossing plot that just happens, as if serendipity guided the hands of the script writers, to hook in to the big issues of right now.

There’s a prime minister intent on building multi-billion-dollar submarines in Australia and snubbing the Japanese, growing tensions concerning China and the US, seething defence chiefs, secrets everywhere. It confronts the viewer from the very first scene with a ghastliness that is suddenly infecting our national story: a self-immolation, though not, in this film, on Nauru.

But it is Canberra that turns out to be the star. The physical city. Beyond its great parliament house, but including it, too.

And even for someone like me who lived and worked there for so long, this film-star Canberra is revealed as a genuinely secret city, one so physically arresting and surprising that it knocks you back in your seat.

Canberra’s tourism boosters ought to be doing handstands, for here is a place a lot of Australians could barely imagine: night scenes on the bridge over the lake as spooky as anything from the great cities of the world long favoured by directors intent on disquieting audiences; aerial panoramas of vast green parks that appear to float; a city hidden within a forest; a lake mysterious beneath its morning blanket of mist; a parliament brooding on its hill.

Another mate of mine, the writer Paul Daley, offered readers this city as a love story and a gritty history extending way back into the dreaming in his wonderful little book of 2012, simply entitled Canberra.

Daley explained his exasperation at the knowledge he would be wasting his time trying to explain the intricacies and the secrets of the place to those who insisted on dismissing it as a cliche – a boring town of roundabouts and self-satisfied public servants and politicians.

“I don’t tell them because first they would have to understand Canberra is the manifestation of a dream … Canberra is an accidental miracle,” Daley wrote.

Quite. You need to have spent time around Canberra to begin to understand its rhythms and moods; the things that are more lasting than the shouting in the large house on the hill.

You need to start with the knowledge that it is a mountain town, almost 600 metres above sea level, with higher mountains around. Understand that and you can forgive and embrace its cracking cold in winter and learn to love the sight of snow on the peaks.

You need to know, too, that it was a bare bowl until visionaries decided to embark on the world’s largest urban tree-planting exercise, changing the very essence of its light.

A million trees were planted to get things going in the 1920s, and 53 million more trees, shrubs and plants have been grown in a single nursery for Canberra’s public spaces over the past 90 years.

Up on Dairy Farmers Hill, a hillside roasted to naked earth in bushfires 13 years ago, 104 separate forests – 42,000 examples of Australia’s and the world’s most captivating species of trees – are growing. The National Arboretum is going to be a dreamy treasure when its forests grow up.

Meanwhile, when autumn visits, which is to say, right now, you can become lost in the change of colours of the leaves on streets lined with claret ash or red oak; of English elms and Chinese pistachio or pin oaks; or the grove of ornamental pear on the southern shore of the lake.

It has taken cinematographers creating a thriller to explain what Daley was trying to tell us, and what few have quite understood in the century of Canberra’s existence and evolution as our capital city.

It is the manifestation of a dream.

A film set. Who knew?