New mini-series Secret City puts Canberra on the world stage

Karen Hardy

23/05/2016

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One of the best things about Canberra, according to Chris Uhlmann, the ABC’s political editor and co-author of The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, is that most people have no idea what goes on here.

Even those who live and work here, and whose work is connected in some way to the greater machine of the Federal Parliament, are ignorant about the process.
“And you know what? That’s the great thing about Canberra,” says Uhlmann with a laugh.

He’s speaking from his office at Parliament House and, from where he’s sitting, he can see Malcolm Turnbull saying something on a screen.

“I’d better chase that up later,” he says. For the moment, his attention is focused on another, very different project – Secret City, the Foxtel mini-series inspired by the books he and Steve Lewis first imagined back in 2011.

It was over a conversation at a cafe in Deakin that the pair first tossed around a few ideas. Uhlmann had a scene for a mini-series in his head, Lewis was talking about a book; the project was probably always destined to end up on the screen, but Uhlmann’s happy to admit the finished project has exceeded all expectations.

With a world-class cast, including two-time Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver and Anna Torv, best known for her work on the FBI drama Fringe, Secret City is a smart, intelligent political thriller that will encourage a second look at the city most blame for the nation’s ills.

“I think what the show does is open up another side of Canberra people don’t think about,” says Uhlmann. “Per square metre of space in Canberra, there are more spies than anywhere in the country.
“Are they up to the nefarious deeds suggested in the mini-series? Well that’s up for the viewer to judge … I’m sure the embassies would say, ‘That would never happen’.”

Nefarious deeds? In the opening scene alone, a young woman sets herself on fire in a Beijing park. Flick to the next scene, and a young man is sprinting down Commonwealth Avenue in the dark, chased by two men in suits. He swallows a SIM card from his phone, and the next morning is found washed up on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, gutted. There are rumblings up on the hill about the escalation of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, and defence contracts upsetting triangular alliances between Australia, the United States and China.
Minus the body, it could be almost any morning in Australia’s capital city. And that’s what makes Secret City so smart – that its storyline is still so current.

“When we started writing this stuff back in 2011, the core idea in it was that Australia would get caught between its strategic relationship with the US and its economic relationship with China and would find it very difficult to make decisions,” Uhlmann says.
“That issue hasn’t changed at all. We were looking at things as they were emerging, but they remain very contemporary issues.”

So much so, he says, that after a pre-screening of the first episode at Parliament House, the night after budget night, many people noted how relevant the issues were.
“That’s once they stopped yelling out things like, ‘If she was going to the Treasurer’s office she would have turned left, not right’,” Uhlmann says.

And that’s another joy of Secret City – we know our city. Every shot, every scene will have you picking out local landmarks – the National Library, for example, or a particular section of the lake’s shore. There goes an action bus in one shot, and in the next, you could be seeing your neighbour as an extra.
“One of the best things about it is that it’s captured all the moods of the city,” says Uhlmann.

“Canberra is definitely a character in the screenplay.”

Producer Joanna Werner agrees.

“I promised when we went there we’d make Canberra look sexy, and we absolutely did,” she says.

“But not only that, it looks sinister and chilling, intelligent and interesting. I think it’s remarkable.

“We know from the response we’ve had from our international partners, NBC Universal, that people are finding it incredibly unique that there’s this amazingly high-tech, high-powered city in the middle of this bush wilderness. It doesn’t look like anywhere else in the world.”

Werner is full of praise for Canberra as a location, as well as for the support the production had from the ACT government and ScreenACT.

“They were fundamentally important for us, a big support through filming as well. We wouldn’t have got it done without them.”

The production had unprecedented access to Parliament House, shooting there for three months from August.

“Obviously, Parliament House isn’t a film set, [so] for us to be able to fit in and not interrupt the regular proceedings of the building we had to work around a lot of things,” Werner says.

“We held our breath for a long time about the level of access we would get but it came through at the last minute and we are eternally grateful.”

But if Canberra’s a big town ready for the world stage, it’s still, in many ways, a small town.

“The night we closed Commonwealth Avenue for shooting that first scene, I think the whole town was there,” says Werner, laughing.

And when they needed some locations to shoot internals, Chris Uhlmann simply called Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron – “Is there anyone in Canberra Chris doesn’t know?” asks Werner – who came to the party with locations to set up the Prime Minister’s office and the supposed offices of the Australian Signals Directorate, complete with mobile phone lockers and eye scanners.

Locals will love, too, the many references to the cold.

When Defence Minister Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie, Puberty Blues, Tangle) asks the newly appointed US ambassador Moreton (Mekhi Phifer, ER, Divergent) how he’s finding the cold in his new posting, Moreton comes back with a classic line.

“Minister, this is going to feel tropical compared to the f—ing freezer the White House is going to put you in,” is the answer.

Things might be getting cold in Canberra but one thing can be assured: Secret City is about to heat things up