Canberra on the world stage
The new Foxtel miniseries Secret City does a lot of things well. It sees Australia throwing its hat into the political thriller ring, a space traditionally occupied by the Americans and Brits (and more recently and increasingly by a fair few Europeans).
It provides a great showcase for home-grown talent on both sides of the camera, including a stellar cast headed by Anna Torv, Jacki Weaver, Alex Dimitriades and Alan Dale.
But perhaps most impressively, in the words of costar Dan Wyllie (of Love My Way fame), “Dare I say it, it makes Canberra look sexy”.
It’s true, that’s not often a term one applies to our capital city and political hub. But Secret City gives Canberra a moody, atmospheric feel that’s well and truly in keeping with the complex and suspenseful drama of the story, based on two novels by political journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis.
“They have great insight into Australian politics and particularly Canberra politics,” says Wyllie, who plays Defence Minister Mal Paxton in the six-episode series.
“They were pivotal in the production getting the access it had to Parliament House, which is absolutely remarkable.”
Wyllie adds that Uhlmann and Price’s two novels are “magnificent”, but that Secret City differs slightly in
Every culture in the world has their version of it – someone providing a link between the real world and what lies beyond.
There are many names for it. Witch doctor. Shaman. Clairvoyant. In this country’s indigenous mythology, that person is known as the Cleverman.
There’s a good chance you may not have heard the term, but that’s about to change, thanks to the new six-episode ABC fantasy series Cleverman, which folds the rich, vibrant archetypes of indigenous mysticism into a compelling drama that addresses race relations and the refugee crisis.
Set in the near future, the story sees Australia coming to terms with the emergence of a race known as the “Hairypeople”, who have hidden in the shadows for thousands of years but are now beginning to co-exist with humans.
Strong, fast and, well, hairy, they’re feared and distrusted by the powers that be and relegated to a closedoff community called The Zone. Those trying to live elsewhere are detained and imprisoned by the brutal, ruthless government agency called the Containment Authority.
It’s a powder-keg of a situation, made even more explosive by a string of murders the authorities and the media are quick to pin on the Hairypeople.
There’s only one being – tone, taking more of a dark, dramatic approach in depicting what begins as a political scandal but deepens into a far-reaching international conspiracy that could reshape and even jeopardise Australia. the Cleverman – who has the ability to find out who or what is behind these killings and restore some sense of balance to the world.
But there’s a catch: the young man who has been inherited the title and powers of the Cleverman wants nothing to do with any of it.
Koen West, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, is estranged from his family and disconnected from his cultural roots. But when he’s empowered with the supernatural gifts of the Cleverman, he finds himself in a position of great responsibility. If that seems a little familiar, it’s because it’s similar to any number of superhero stories you may have seen. And according to PageLochard, that’s a deliberate choice on the part of Cleverman creator Ryan Griffen.
“Ryan talked about the first Spider-Man movie, the one with Tobey Maguire, and how the first season of Cleverman is like the first 15 minutes of that story,” says the young actor and dancer, who is also the son of Stephen Page, artistic director of the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre.
“Koen is discovering his powers and there’s a lot of room for him to move, a lot of places he can go. His journey is a powerful one – there are personal aspects to it, including his relationship with his family and his own coming of age, because he doesn’t know his identity and his place in the world.
“He’s a classic character
Political journalist Harriet Dunkley, played by Torv, has long been in pursuit of Wyllie’s Paxton, but her pursuit of a story that could put some of his hidden dealings in the spotlight is complicated by a series of incidents here and abroad that hint at dangerous alliances between the world’s superpowers.
“The show is incredibly complex and doesn’t spoonfeed its audience,” Wyllie says.
“You’re dealing with issues like the AustralianAmerican military alliance and China’s actions in the South China Sea, as well as collusion between industrial forces and military forces. It’s got multiple storylines running parallel at the same time, so there’s this intricate and wicked web being woven. – a flawed hero who needs to improve for the good of everyone around him.”
So for Page-Lochard and everyone involved in Cleverman, it was “a big privilege” to be able to tell such a story through an indigenous lens.
“I was ecstatic!” he laughs. “When I first read the script and absorbed the ideas of it, I was like, ‘Yes!’ It had our mythology and legends but it also had sci-fi and monsters and fight scenes, and it struck me as so smart to take everything about us and everything that has happened to us and just add fun. And I wanted to be part of it and help push it forward.”
Just as his character Koen has been given an important job to do, Page-Lochard takes his responsibilities as a storyteller seriously as well.
“We haven’t had the chance to share anything like this with the rest of Australia, and sharing stories about culture and history is how we come to know and understand one another,” he says.
“If people had got to see something like Cleverman or Redfern Now or the Bangarra Dance Theatre 50 years ago, I believe things would be different today.
“When we were making Cleverman, [co-star] Iain Glen said we were saying things that people would relate to globally. It’s like we were part of a movement. And having fun with it at the same time.”
“There’s a lot of wheeling and dealing the public never knows about, and it’s so interesting the way we delve into it in Secret City.
“It’s incredibly current. We were hoping when we were shooting that the news wouldn’t catch up with us or even overtake us.”
Secret City is the kind of program that rewards the patient and engaged viewer, in much the same way as international productions such as Borgen or House of Cards.
“Those Scandinavian shows and other things that are bit more challenging than traditionally formulaic fare, it’s great to be involved in something like that,” Wyllie says.
Australia’s capital isn’t a city to reveal its secrets easily, but the new Foxtel political thriller digs into the dirt. GUY DAVIS speaks with co-star Dan Wyllie.