Changi: articles

Captive audience has barbed comments for ABC

 They were always going to be the series' toughest critics.

Changi, the ABC's new six-part mini-series starting tomorrow night, cost $6.7 million but a group of veterans reckons the ABC should have put its $6.7 million elsewhere.

Or at least allocated a fraction of the project's budget to research.

"It's a big joke, half of it's rubbish," says Malcolm Mackay, formerly of the RAAF's 8 Squadron, who spent time in Changi in 1942 before being moved to the Thai-Burma Railway.

"They're all wearing shirts!" roars Frank McGovern to his mates of almost 60 years, Ray Barker and Arthur Bancroft. Memories of Changi and those appalling G-strings flood back - the trio lost everything, including their uniforms, when HMAS Perth sank off Singapore in 1942.

The 2/18 Battalion's Merv Blyth nods and chuckles.

"I read somewhere that John Doyle warned there would be a lot of criticism over what he's done. And by crikey, I'll tell you what: He's right."

Changi is fiction, as ABC's publicity department and the series' writer John Doyle (aka Rampaging Roy Slaven) point out at every opportunity. Loosely categorised as a drama, the series, five years in the making, incorporates humor and song-and-dance in its six one-hour episodes.

"It is a series that runs the risk of offending everyone and satisfying no one," Doyle said earlier this week, explaining that authenticity was not one of Changi's goals.

But this group of five veterans who took up the offer to become critics for a day have no qualms accepting the series' fact-as-fiction premise, nor Doyle's distinctive brand of black humor. It is the unnecessary and glaring factual errors Doyle has built his fiction upon that irk these veterans.

A Japanese guard herds his prisoners into the back of a truck, but one Australian is left behind and nearly pays for it with his life.

"Where's the tenko?" the critics wail in unison, referring to the endless head counts and roll calls all PoWs were subjected to before anyone ever went anywhere. The Japanese never left anyone behind.

A hatless soldier stands on a box all day in 40-degree heat. He repeatedly refuses demands by a Japanese officer to salute. But everyone knows that a bloke without a hat had to bow, not salute. The list goes on.

At more than $1.1 million an episode, Changi hasn't come cheap. Surely it wouldn't have cost much to get a few facts straight, the group muses as they put away their critics' notes and head off for a beer or two.

Thousands of men suffered and died as prisoners of the Japanese in World War II. It's just possible that Changi's writers and producers had a moral duty to ensure the facts they presented within the context of their fiction were truthful.

As a psychologist, historian and educator with a PhD in industrial education, Mr Barker admits that if Changi was a piece of work one of his students handed in, he would have to fail it. Sloppy work indeed.

For entertainment value, he gave the series three-and-a-half out of 10. "I would have switched off quite early in the piece. I came away feeling like it was a first draft," Mr Barker said. And for factual accuracy? "Certainly no more than three out of 10," he said.

As far as these blokes are concerned, Changi has about as much integrity as The Bridge on the River Kwai. "But without the great scenery," Mr Barker adds. "But then, I suppose, we're not the target audience."

By Kelly Burke
October 13, 2001
The Age