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Tackling the Anzac legend

Jacquelin Perske on the challenges of Deadline Gallipoli.

Now that the TV schedule is no longer wall-to-wall Anzac commemoration, there’s time to go back and sift through the sentiment for overlooked gems.

Screened on Foxtel’s premium Showcase channel, Matchbox Pictures’ Deadline Gallipoli told the story from a fresh angle that gave the miniseries a life that is bound to extend beyond this centenary year.

Jacquelin Perske, one of the quartet of screenwriters on the miniseries, together with Stuart Beattie, Shaun Grant and Cate Shortland, came to the project knowing little about the subject that she had not learned at school or from watching Peter Weir’s film in her youth. But as a writer whose credits include Love My Way and The Secret Life Of Us, her chops when it comes to writing about relationships are beyond dispute.

Perske brings a contemporary edge to historical figures, shaking the dust off their uniforms.

“Part of the development process was to find the real people in the history. 1915 was before film or radio so we only had the written word to try and understand who our characters really were."

"Even their diaries were written in a very formal way – this is pre Freud. Feelings and emotions were not discussed, even privately.”

Perske admits that at first she was wary of Matchbox’s approach: “My eyes glazed over a bit at first – until I heard the angle, which had been developed with Sam Worthington (who plays real life press photographer Philip Shuler and was also one of the series’ executive producers).

Joel Jackson stars in <em>Deadline Gallipoli</em> Joel Jackson stars in Deadline Gallipoli

The challenge in making war correspondent Charles Bean (played with convincing intensity by newcomer Joel Jackson) the central character was that he wasn’t immediately sympathetic. I’d always thought he was a right wing reactionary. He was tricky to find a story for as he lives by the book – he’s a factoid, very dry in his comments, almost anti – heroic.

“What made me fall in love with him was that he knew his limitations – for example, that he lacked a sense of humour. Today I think we’d say he might have been ‘somewhere on the spectrum’ given his obsession with statistics. But he was also heartbroken and disillusioned by what he saw. At the start he was so very ‘King and Country’ in his loyalty and then became completely anti- British and refused a knighthood not once, but twice, quietly.”

Further research found elements of drama in the small details of logistical oversight that contributed so tragically to defeat- a lack of water to hydrate the troops, the absence of greatcoats when winter came.

“We tried to avoid the cliché tropes of the story and we were fortunate in that because journalists were our central characters we didn’t have to go into too much detail about the fighting in the trenches. My favourite scene is a small one at an English garden party where British journalist Ellis Ashmead Bartlett (played with panache by Hugh Dancy) accidentally-on-purpose bumps into a Turkish prince so that he can pump him for information, while revealing that they have previously fought together on the same side. I liked the bizarre slightly surreal nature of this and that they were now supposed to be enemies.”

As a writer who is known for memorable female characters, Perske found it challenging to have few women on screen: “It was hard to create a story that was not about the romance factor. So instead I concentrated on finding ways for the men to bond.”

Next on Jacquelin Perske’s slate is an ambitious adaptation of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Eliot Perlman’s sprawling novel of moral twists and turns, for Matchbox Pictures. It releases on ABC TV in early 2017.