Changi: articles

Ghosts of the past revisited

It took John Doyle's unique perspective to do honour to the memory of the Australians of Changi. He talks to ELEANOR SPRAWSON.

As John Doyle sees it, the story of Changi prison camp is only now coming to an end.

Fifty-five years after the liberation of the Allied prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese in the infamous Singapore camp during World War II, the man better known as Rampaging Roy Slaven has written a history of what happened there.

But the resulting six-part ABC drama series called Changi is history as we've never seen it before, despite a long tradition of khaki-coloured mini-series. It's history about today.

"What interested me wasn't so much what happened to the men in the camp, but what happened afterwards, as a result of their experience how it affects the rest of their lives," he says.

"It's the story of the way memory works and the impact even at this distance that those things still have upon them, which is glaringly evident when you talk with them.

"So I couldn't have written the story any earlier but it couldn't have waited much longer either it was a case of running out of time, but I felt it would really have been a great missed opportunity not to spend some time to explore these issues, to explore this time in Australia's history before it disappears completely."

Changi tells the stories of six young Australians who meet in the prison camp and then go on to live lives that are deeply affected by their experiences there.

Now elderly men, they find themselves once again suffering the same sort of weakness and powerlessness they experienced as prisoners of war and their minds begin slipping back with more frequency and power to that time in the camp when they faced mortality for the first time.

"With the ageing thing, it's the big picture," says Slim de Grey, who plays the character known as Older Curley. "With just the Changi story, it's just another adventure whereas this involves now. It involves today. And that's the way it really is."

De Grey should know. The actor was himself a prisoner in Changi for 3? years and in fact honed his talents as an entertainer in the shows and concerts the PoWs there regularly put on to boost morale.

"I'd have been terribly annoyed if I hadn't been cast in this," he laughs. "I would have brought the joint down! I would have burned the place! But I tell you, it's a wonderful thing to happen at my stage of life."

De Grey is joined by five other veteran Australian actors Bud Tingwell, Frank Wilson, Terry Norris, Bill Kerr and Desmond Kelly to play the six former PoWs as old men. The same six characters as young men in the camp are played by the same sort of who's who of a new generation of actors Matthew Newton, Anthony Hayes, Leon Ford, Mark Priestley, Stephen Curry and Matthew Whittet.

The older actors were cast first and then the hunt began to find younger ones who looked enough like the veterans to be convincing. The end result borders on the eerie largely thanks to the young actors' uncanny ability to embody the mannerisms and traits of their elder "selves".

"We spent a lot of time watching the older guys to get it right," says Ford, who plays young Bill the younger version of Norris.

"It must have felt quite weird for them I remember at one stage early on, the six older guys were sitting in the middle of a room just having a normal conversation talking about old times, one of them saying, 'I haven't seen you since colour!' and the six of us young guys were on the outskirts just watching them and taking notes."

Bill's story is told in the third episode and perhaps marks the point in the series when it veers away from a familiar path often trodden by war dramas albeit one with a surreal, dreamlike quality thanks to its sudden musical interludes and becomes something truly special.

"There are pretty big ideas happening and it was scary to play," says Ford of the story that charts the experiences that lead Bill to devote his life to mathematics and, in particular, mathematic harmony and perspective.

"It was a massive leap of faith in terms of trusting the script and trusting the audience to understand the big ideas even though there aren't the big climatic scenes you get in the earlier episodes," he says.

Doyle says the unfurling of ever-more subtle layers over the six parts is very deliberate.

"It does develop in complexity with each episode," says the writer, who worked on the series for four years. "So I wanted six really different types of characters to represent the different aspects of the complexity of war and the complexity of how to cope with life afterwards."

What holds the very different six people together through their wartime experience and the rest of their lives is their sense of humour the characteristic that historians believe set the Australian PoWs apart from prisoners from other cultures and accounts for our much higher than average survival rate in such terrible circumstances.

"The funny things that happened kind of helped us get out of there, entirely, for sure," de Grey recalls. "The mateship and the laughter, they were the important things not so much the atrocities, you know.

"I mean that's what I found so amazing about the script John got it so right. It amazed me, the detail. And it brought back a lot of memories, I can tell you."

By Eleanor Sprawson
October 11, 2001
The Daily Telgraph