Entertainment TV On the box: our answer to Downton Abbey

On the box: our answer to Downton Abbey

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If you’ve been surviving on a steady diet of English drama these past few months, it may be time to look closer to home for your viewing pleasure.

Georgia Flood as Sister Alice Ross-King.
Georgia Flood as Sister Alice Ross-King.

The television gods have delivered in the form of ABC’s new six-part miniseries Anzac Girls, a sprawling Aussie epic about the nurses of World War One and the men who arrive, bloodied and broken, on their doorstep.

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It’s got all the drama, elaborate sets and sexual tension of BBC’s beloved Downton, but with an added bonus: the five female protagonists were real people and the script is based on their diary entries, photographs and letters.

“The thing with acting in this show was we were depicting women who actually existed,” lead actress Georgia Flood (Tangle, Wentworth, House Husbands) told The New Daily. “Not just any old women but nurses who have military medals and who risked their lives for our freedom. So no pressure!”

Flood has been tasked with the role of Sister Alice Ross-King, a young Victorian nurse who took her bravery and work ethic straight to a military hospital in Cairo in 1914. She was later awarded a Florence Nightingale Medal for her services.

Armed with Sister Ross-King’s actual diary, Flood has created a character reminiscent of Downton’s Lady Mary Crawley – complex, beautiful, prim and constantly doted on by a bevy of male suitors.

Along with fellow leads Laura Brent, Anna McGahan (a standout as the perpetually upbeat Olive), Antonia Prebble and Caroline Craig, Flood shot on location in Adelaide, where clever set designers transformed the Botanic Gardens and Oakbank Racecourse into street scenes straight from Egypt and France.

The five young actresses giggle, chat and cry their way through rough situations in a way that’s strangely relatable to even the most tech-savvy teen.

In particular, their fevered conversations about letters from suitors are similar to the way the text messages of today are dissected on reality television.

This was the goal of writer and producer Felicity Packard, who wanted to do justice to the lives of these women whilst still appealing to younger audiences.

Nurses attend to wounded soldiers.
Nurses attend to wounded soldiers.

“I really wanted young people to be able to watch it and engage with it,” Packard told The New Daily. “It gets pretty intense. And we didn’t have to make it up! Their lives were so rich, the twists and turns and drama and love and friendship and conflict was all there, we just had to pull it together.”

Packard’s plan has paid off; she’s managed to make a century-old story (told more than a few times, let’s be honest) seem fresh, captivating and moving.

“Before the show I had no idea about anything, I felt quite ashamed,” 21-year-old Flood admits.

“But I could have picked up a book. Too many people my age ask me ‘what happened in World War One again? Was that with Franz Ferdinand? Isn’t he a singer?’ The show will be good for young people.”

But beware: ANZAC girls doesn’t baulk at its rough content – gruesome wounds are on full display and bomb blasts rings so loudly they may as well be in your living room.

“Maybe for those who don’t have a strong stomach the blood and gore might be difficult,” Flood laughs.

Even so, one gets the idea that sugarcoating the situation would have been a disservice to these truly extraordinary women, and the final product is transportive, even for the actors involved.

“Sometimes you’d be on set and it’d be 2am and you’d be cold and covered in mud and you’d have wet shoes and a cough,” Flood recalls.

“But then you look around and just take a minute, breathe deeply, and think ‘Hang on a second…this person actually went through this! This actually happened! Man up!’. There’s no time to dwell, you’ve just got to get the job done.”

Anzac Girls airs at 8.30pm, Sunday nights on ABC One.