Marcel proust had his madeleine. For the TV show Changi, writer John Doyle has a rubber duck. But in the abc's six-part drama, starting Oct. 14, the effect is the same. For temporarily blinded World War II veteran David Collins (Charles "Bud" Tingwell), the sound of the squeaking toy transports him back nearly 60 years, to the notorious prison camp in Singapore. Here the young David (Matthew Newton), his face bloodied, lies in the back of a Japanese truck awaiting his fate. In another episode, a stroke-stricken old digger's efforts to raise his right hand trigger memories of his wartime refusal to salute a Japanese officer. Forget the slouch-hat abc promos-Changi is all about the power of sense memory.
You know Australian TV has come of age when it makes you start mentioning Remembrance of Things Past. Yet the comparison is apt. In Changi, time doesn't stand still. It ducks and weaves and bleeds into the present, as six war veterans rediscover their shared history on the eve of what could be their final reunion. As with Proust, the series leaves itself open to charges of solipsism. "If you're not careful," warns David's wife (Jill Perryman) in the first episode, "it could become very self-indulgent this time round."
But Changi ain't Combray. Like the Burma-Thailand railway and the Kokoda Track, Changi, which housed some 130,000 Allied troops after the 1942 fall of Singapore, embodies for Australians a mythic national spirit. To survive the next three and a half years, as a disproportionately large number managed to do, the Australians perfected the art of insouciance, singing and joking their sufferings away. "Think Australian," one digger advises a British soldier in Changi. "You know, you couldn't give a bugger about anything."
Clearly the national broadcaster could give a bugger: it lavished $A6 million on the series, recreating the Selarang Barracks at a disused quarry at Ingleside outside Sydney and launching a Pearl Harbor strength marketing blitz. Yet it lacked the foresight to provide reviewers with tapes of the final three episodes. So we'll hold off from calling the series a masterpiece, though it's fair to say that for half its length, at least, it's the finest, most thoughtful local drama since Australia's miniseries heyday in the 1980s.
So much so that it's easy to forget that Changi started out as a sitcom. Originally pitched by Doyle (a.k.a. Rampaging Roy Slaven, of satiric Club Buggery fame) as a Hogan's Heroesstyle farce called Worn Out and Weary, the show soon developed dramatic legs. But the ghost of Doyle's sitcom survives. In the pow scenes, fart jokes abound, and much predictable fun is wrung from the diggers' mispronunciation of Lieutenant Aso's name. And when the older Gordon (Frank Wilson) dismisses his hospital neighbor as "a f-----' goose," the insult could have come from Rampaging Roy himself. Viewers expecting a Spielbergian documentary of prison life will be disappointed. While Changi doesn't shy away from starvation or slaughter, the focus is on gregariousness, not grit: in this camp, even a prisoner with his toe cut off can break out into a rendition of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails. "We're celebrating the mateship and humor, not the deaths, diarrhea and malaria," says producer Bill Hughes.
One can quibble with the inmates' at times fresh-looking boots, robust bellies, and clichéd Japanese soldiers of the Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence variety. But then the series isn't about history's Changi. It's about the idea of Changi, and how it refracts through the years to become something repressed, mythologized and feared. Its reality registers in the marvelous faces of the senior cast: the chipper stoicism of Tingwell's retired property developer, the cracked Mount Rushmorelike façade of Wilson's stroke victim, the lovelorn eyes of Terry Norris' Bill, a physics academic for whom only numbers carry surety. Most movingly, it's about the transfer of memory to the next generation. Giving his lost granddaughter a prison drawing of his mates, Bill says: "I want you to have the life I didn't have. And in a way I'm coming with you."
It's a gift worth celebrating. And a sign that Australian TV is beginning to look at contemporary life "in a different kind of way," says Changi director Kate Woods. "We're getting away from the revolving door of the police station and the hospital corridor." Indeed, the sentiment of current hit shows like Always Greener, which swaps two families between the city and the country, and The Secret Life of Us, about the collective id of a group of urban twentysomethings, is existential, not nostalgic, playing with the possibilities of TV drama. "Let's see if you and I can stretch time," Bill (Leon Ford) tells his wartime lover. When Changi's acting, writing and direction come seamlessly together, Bill's wish comes true.
So in the end Changi isn't about war but about the perceptions of a life touched by it. In one of the series' most tender moments, Tingwell's character, haunted by his past and shadowed by ailing sight, recovers his vision to see his wife dressed in blue. Filming the scene was a moment of truth for the veteran actor, an Australian wartime pilot who was recently operated on for cataracts. "It was quite miraculous when the eyesight came back," Tingwell recalls. "One of the first colors you become aware of is the vivid blue of the sky." Changi leaves you with a similar feeling of a wartorn life experienced, blocked out, and seen again.