Secret City co-creator Steve Lewis loves House of Cards, but he wants to see more Australian political thrillers on our screens. By Caris Bizzaca.
Five years ago then-journalist Steve Lewis was frustrated. Whenever he turned on the TV, he could find political dramas such as West Wing, House of Cards and Borgen, but none based in the country he worked.
“We were importing political drama from America, from Britain, from Scandinavia, and I thought ‘we can do this from Australia. We can do this out of Canberra’,” he says.
Lewis vented his annoyance to fellow Press Gallery journalist Chris Uhlmann.
“Chris told me he had this idea for a satirical television script swirling around in his head (while) I always wanted to write a political thriller,” he says.
When they caught up again, “we had a blank sheet of paper and we started writing what became The Marmalade Files, our first book.”
A second book The Mandarin Code would follow, but while it was still being written Lewis took the idea of an adaptation to executive producer Penny Chapman at Matchbox Pictures. In what Lewis calls “another piece of serendipity”, Chapman had once studied at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and also harboured a long desire to make a political drama there.
The wheels were in motion. They got the support of Foxtel and Screen Australia and began adapting The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code into a six-part series, now set to air on Showcase on June 5.
One of the major changes from page to screen was taking the protagonist – old-fashioned, hard-boiled journalist Harry Dunkley – and making him a female character.
Lewis remembers getting the phonecall from Chapman.
“Penny basically said, ‘we’ve got a proposition to put to you – how do you feel about Harry becoming Harriet?’” he says.
“The writers thought they could make a more interesting character out of a female journalist and I’ve got to say having watched the first three episodes, Anna Torv as Harriet is absolutely outstanding and quite true to the character that we created in the book.”
Torv stars alongside a cast including Jacki Weaver, Alan Dale and Dan Wylie in Secret City as a political journalist who stumbles upon a brutal murder and tries to follow the trail, as Australia navigates mounting tension between China and the US.
Lewis and Ulhmann had wanted their books to lift the lid on what it’s really like in Canberra. They wanted to show the intrigue and drama, not just the bureaucratic city so many see.
“The books and Secret City itself are very close to the bone and I hope people will see it as an authentic depiction of political life,” he says.
“It really does try to provide insights into the interaction between journalists, politicians, public servants and spies, and show that all of that stuff that does go on. Of course that doesn’t mean that all the scenarios of Secret City are actual depictions of real life.”
But there was drama unfolding offscreen while the cameras were rolling.
Directed by Emma Freeman, filming took place from August to October in 2015 – the same time of the leadership spill.
“When we started filming Tony Abbott was Prime Minister and when we finished filming Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister,” he says.
“The fact that we were filming when the leadership spill happened last September and the fact that it’s being shown on screen in the lead up to the July 2 election is great because (people) can watch the 7 o’clock News and then switch over to Secret City and perhaps they won’t be able to tell the difference between the two. Which is the more surreal: who knows?”
It’s not the first political thriller to take place in the nation’s capital, after 2014 series The Code, whose second season was in production at the same time as Secret City.
Lewis hopes it’s just the start of a number of similarly themed series, which gain traction here and overseas.
“Then we can build a franchise in Australian political drama because we can do it here just as well as anyone around the world.”
Secret City premieres on Foxtel Showcase on June 5 at 8.30pm.