Changi: articles

Laughing in the face of horror

LIKE a searing spotlight the sun illuminates the Aussie soldier.

He is standing centre stage on a wooden box, slumped to the right and threatening to topple at any minute.

Blood oozes from the place where his little toe used to be. His feet are sticky with sweat and gore.

Ever so slowly his raises his battered head and captures the Japanese prison guards in his hateful gaze.

Suddenly a band strikes up and the soldier breaks into song: "I've just got an invitation in the mail, your presence requested, it's formal, a top hat, white tie and tails."

The soldier's PoW mates join in: "Nothing now could take the wind out of my sails, because I'm invited to step out this evening in top hat, white tie and tails!"

The soulful rendition of Fred Astaire's Top Hat, White Tie and Tails seems strikingly out of place in the ABC's Australian war drama Changi.

But actor Anthony Hayes, who plays young Australian soldier Gordon Yates, explains that more than a little poetic licence is taken for granted during the John Doyle-scripted series.

"That's a fantasy sequence," Hayes says of his Astaire impersonation. "So you kind of go over the top and do whatever you want."

The song and dance routine takes place inside Changi prison camp where Gordon and his five best mates are prisoners of war.

With humour and mateship on their side they survive the ordeal and are reunited as old men.

"The whole series is based on comedy a lot because the nationality that survived in (prison) camps more than any other nationality was Australian and that was because of their humour," Hayes says. "It got them through."

Slim de Grey, who plays the elderly Curley Foster, was actually imprisoned at Changi the Singapore PoW camp run by the Japanese during World War II.

Through publishing Changi Diary and being part of the mini-series he has used humour to deal with the memories. But for many PoWs their time behind barbed wire is still no laughing matter.

Hayes says he is unsure how some people will react to the script, which is flavoured with Doyle's (Roy Slaven of Roy and HG) humour.

"I guess it's each to their own," Hayes says.

"Slim seems to think it's hilarious. But he's said there's some people who've read his books and said that's not true at all.

"I found when the old blokes were talking about it (all six actors who play the World War II veterans actually served) they didn't talk much about the horrible things that happened, but the funny things that happened."

If confronted with death himself, Hayes doesn't think he'd be laughing.

"I'd be shit scared," he says. "I'd be absolutely useless I reckon. I couldn't even comprehend it really."

Matthew Newton, Stephen Curry, Mark Priestly, Matthew Whittet and Leon Ford join Hayes in playing the young soldiers.

Bud Tingwell, Bill Kerr, de Grey, Desmond Kelly, Terry Norris and Frank Wilson play the respective characters 60 years down the track.

Hayes says it was a really great experience to work alongside the veteran actors.

"It was great to watch them, especially someone like Bill Kerr, who was just one of my idols when I was growing up," Hayes says.

"Just to see him as an 80-year-old man and to watch him on the screen he's still as powerful as he was all those years ago. All those guys were making jokes during rehearsals saying 'You better shoot us first because some of us might die before you finish the thing'. It kind of got a bit hard to get used to but because the whole series is so reflective ... we had great chats about what it is to be 80 years old."

Hayes says he spent a few days watching Wilson, who plays the aged Gordon, to become familiar with his mannerisms.

He also had to get used to the fact he may look like Wilson in 60 years' time.

Other on-set challenges included a gruelling daily make-up routine and shedding 5kg for the role.

"We weren't allowed to drink any alcohol and were only allowed a certain amount of fluids. But I said 'I'm not doing that' because I think it's a bit dangerous to dehydrate your body," Hayes says.

"The first diet they put us on was a no carbohydrates diet but you need carbs to keep going so all of us started feeling shitty on set and really weak. We got everyone together and said 'We need carbs to do 14-hour days' so they changed it a bit.

Other than that Hayes says the cast got on surprisingly well, considering they were boxed in at the ABC's new Gore Hill studio complex for four months.

Hayes accepted the demanding role because he believes opportunities like this only come around "about every three years so you jump at it and put everything else on hold".

Along with the film The Boys, Changi has been a career highlight. Although The Boys did have its downside in that he played the dark role so well that he was offered a succession of rapist roles for the next year.

"Changi has just been one of the greatest experiences I've had acting-wise," Hayes says.

"I mean, everyone occasionally gets sick of what they're doing, only because there's so much crap around. But then something like this comes up and re-inspires you that Australia makes pretty good productions, given the chance."

By Allison White
October 11, 2001
The Courier Mail