Changi: articles

Aussie spirit in Changi

This powerful drama started life as a sitcom, writes Robert Fidgeon, Herald Sun

IT IS a story of Aussie mateship. A story of boys who become men in a climate of fear - boys who decide the best way to cope with terror is to laugh at it.

The story is Changi, Channel 2's new six-part Australian drama, which some believe will be regarded as one of the best Australian television dramas of all time.

Former ABC head of drama Sue Masters, now with Network Ten, first saw John Doyle's script when she was with the national broadcaster, describing it as "probably the best script I've ever read".

Interestingly, however, when Doyle, better known as the Rampaging Roy Slaven half of HG and Roy, set out to write his prisoner of war story Changi, he saw it as a sitcom.

"It was called Worn Out and Weary, a sort of Hogan's Heroes-type thing, but the ABC comedy department saw something in the screenplay that decided them to pass it over to the drama unit," he recalls.

Doyle had spent four years writing Changi, and saw his story of six boys who survive 3 1/2 years of incarceration in the infamous prison camp, as potentially humour-based with added dimensions - the clash of cultures, horror, fear and deprivation.

"What it is though, I hope, is honest to the spirit of those who endured and survived and lived into old age to be able to pass on the information," he says.

The series opens on the eve of a Changi PoW reunion, with the story of the experiences of the six young men told in flashback.

Veteran actors Bud Tingwell, Frank Wilson, Terry Norris, Slim de Grey, Bill Kerr and Desmond Kelly play the characters in later life, while Matt Newton, Anthony Hayes, Leon Ford, Mark Priestley, Stephen Curry and Matthew Whittet as the same characters in the PoW camp.

"The script was just the most amazing piece I've ever read," says Hayes, who plays young tough guy Gordon.

"John (Doyle) had crafted such a moving work. I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of it."

Hayes, who won a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his stunning role in the Aussie movie The Boys, started his acting career as a youngster in the TV series Animal Park, which he has followed with guest roles in several series including Blue Heelers, GP, Halifax, Wildside and Farscape.

Wilson plays the older Gordon and, like Hayes, was drawn to the project by Doyle's script.

"So often you get scripts that have to be tidied and added to or changed, but it was all there with John's script," says Wilson, who for 12 years hosted the popular talent show New Faces, along with acting roles, spanning 30 years, from Bellbird to SeaChange.

"Reading Changi reminded me of the reaction I had to reading the script for (Wilson's movie) Travelling North - it was 'wow, it's all there'."

Doyle's uncle Jack was in Changi for six weeks and introduced his nephew to many former POWs, leading Doyle to attend many reunions as he gathered research.

Changi producer Bill Hughes (Phoenix, Janus) says the biggest challenge was converting Doyle's script to the screen.

"It had so many levels of drama to take into account," he says.

"It has life, death, comedy, tragedy, music, song and dance, dream sequences - the lot.

"It really is quite an exceptional work."

Changi premieres Channel 2, Sunday, 8.30pm.

By Robert Fidgeon
October 10, 2001
The Herald Sun