April 2012. News Limited newshound Steve Lewis and I are hustling to a meeting at the ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo. We are there to see the development manager for drama, seeking advice on turning our yet-to-be-published political novel, The Marmalade Files, into a mini-series. Steve has feelers out everywhere, carpet-bombing the television industry with emails and phone calls. Greg Waters politely points out that we are going about things backwards; we have to have a production company prepared to make the show before we approach a broadcaster. ‘Who is the best?’ I ask. ‘Penny Chapman at Matchbox Pictures,’ he says. ‘But you’d have to be very lucky to get a meeting with her.’ As ever, Steve is checking his phone as we depart. Crossing the ABC foyer he stops, grins and holds up the screen. It’s an email from Penny Chapman.
Matchbox’s office is in a renovated bond warehouse on Sydney’s Millers Point. The view is cluttered with excavators burrowing the foundations of Barangaroo. Penny is a pocket dynamo with a fiercely intelligent fire in her eyes. The former ANU student has always wanted to make a Canberra-based drama. She says our manuscript has ‘the bones of a great TV thriller’ but there is not enough material for a six part series. ‘Well,’ says Steve, ‘we are writing a sequel.’ It’s kind of true. But we haven’t actually started it.
June 2013. Steve, Penny and I are at the home of Foxtel’s cable empire in North Ryde. The network’s head of drama Penny Win likes the synopsis we sent and agrees to make a pitch to her finance committee for some development funding. We leave hopeful. The wheels on the project are beginning to turn.
October 2013. Scattered around a conference table at the Prince hotel in St Kilda are six of Australia’s best scriptwriters. Penny has called us to a two-day workshop to develop the screenplay ‘bible’, a detailed synopsis of the six-part story arc. The core of the plot is the backbone of the books: Australia torn between its alliance with the US and its economic dependence on China as the two powers jostle for supremacy. And there are traitors in our ranks.Steve is Sydney-based but has become a regular houseguest at my place in Canberra as we finish off The Mandarin Code. One night Penny Chapman calls with an idea: what if we change the sex of the lead character? Harry will become Harri, which will make her relationship with the transsexual intelligence analyst even more intriguing. And, apparently, a 30-ish female journalist is sexier than a 55 year old man. Are we in?
July 15, 2014. I’m off to a meeting with the new president of the Senate, Stephen Parry. A week earlier Steve, Penny and I had spent half an hour outlining the project to Bronwyn Bishop.
August 6, 2014. Tony Abbott is about to launch The Mandarin Code in Parliament House’s Mural Hall. We have been sweating on an announcement from Screen Australia about funding. The call comes and the final piece of a $9 million puzzle falls into place. The working title is Secret City and Jacki Weaver joins the cast, which already boasts the luminescent Anna Torv as lead.
August 2, 2015. The marathon of the mini-series has suddenly become a sprint. Then we, literally, hit the wall when Bronwyn Bishop resigns. A week’s shooting in Parliament has been scheduled for early September and despite a year’s worth of legwork we still don’t have permission for a single frame. A week out from the scheduled date for the Parliament House shoot and I get a call from Senator Parry’s Chief of Staff. Relaying the news to the traumatised series producer, Joanna Werner, is just about the most satisfying moment of the entire journey. ‘We’re in,’ I yell.
September 14, 2015. 8am. I’m in the ABC’s Parliament bureau, deeply worried. First, because last night I led the 7pm news with a report that the PM will shortly face a challenge but we are now in that uncomfortable dead zone where it could come in hours, days or weeks. Second, I just had a call from the Secret City location manager who tells me that the police have stopped them filming outside the ASIO building at Russell. I tell him to stand his ground and ring a contact in ASIO. ‘Blame me if there’s a problem but there shouldn’t be,’ I say. ‘The crew is using the building as a backdrop but they are filming from a public car park.’ ‘It’s not a problem,’ he replies. ‘Security just got a bit excited and called the police. I’ll settle them down. Now… what’s the story with Abbott?’ Shortly after Question Time my phone lights up with the name of a conspirator. ‘It’s on,’ he says and I sprint to the studio.
May 4, 2016. It’s the day after the Budget and MPs, Senators and journalists have gathered for the premiere of Secret City. Steve is in his element holding court. It’s five years since we began writing the first book. The third will be out in September and a mini-series before that. It’s hard to believe we got here. One of the defence writers recognises a face in the crowd as being an emissary from the Chinese embassy. Then my phone rings. It’s a Government contact. Australia’s most wanted terrorist has been killed in a US drone strike in Iraq. It could only happen in Canberra.
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‘Secret City’ airs on Foxtel Showcase at 8.30pm on Sunday, June 5
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