Forget about comparing Foxtel’s new six-part drama Secret City to Netflix’s House of Cards.
This is really a gritty tale of good, old-fashioned journalism, as Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv) goes in search of the truth about the brutal death of a young man and, while she’s at it, reveals a sordid tale of international political intrigue.
And, if you’ve read Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, written by Canberra political journalists, Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, which inspired this series, you’d better forget about those books too.
They featured hardened old journalist Harry Dunkley, who, in the series, has morphed into a woman, Harriet, and the books’ satire has gone too.
What’s left is a great yarn that leaves me wishing politics was really like this instead of the dreary dross of the current election campaign.
After we see a young man on the run jump into Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Dunkley happens on his gutted corpse being pulled to shore. No one’s keen to talk about it and she relies heavily on her ex-husband, now transgender, Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman) who’s a spy.
Soon, Dunkley uncovers a story not just about the young dead man but also a long-buried Beijing arrest, which threatens to bring down her long-time nemesis, Defence Minister Mal Paxton (Dan Wyllie), and a young Australian woman who set fire to herself in China, shouting “Free Tibet” as she did so.
All of this is happening while the US and China are on the brink of hostilities in the South China Sea – with Australia being called upon to enter the fray.
Minister Paxton refuses to join the “American-led pissing contest” and he resists pressure from the Defence Force to buy ready-made Japanese submarines (“they’ll be made here”). Much to the rage of the party’s right-wing powerbroker (Jackie Weaver) and the US Ambassador (Mekhi Phifer from ER).
Reporting on all of this is the Daily Nation newspaper – best described by its Bureau Chief, Gus Reardon (Huw Higginson who played PC George Garfield on The Bill): “If we’re going to run the same stories as the tabloids, we need to have a fig leaf of respectability.”
So, the stage is set for an intriguing, beautifully realised thriller as good as any we’ve seen from Scandinavia, the UK or the US.
Canberra is definitely one of the stars – looking better than she has for years – and there’s some real strength in the cast. Anna Torv shines as Harriet – alternately warm, even sassy and serious, but always driven. No “puff” pieces for Harriet.
“Other people write about humans,” she says, “I write about politicians”.
There’s added integrity because this is the first series to be allowed to film inside the Houses of Parliament – which enabled many of the stars to take advice from those who work there.
Torv, for example, says she had helpful input from several female political journalists but Sacha Horler, playing Ludie Sypek, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, had less luck from her logical role model, former Tony Abbott staffer Peta Credlin.
Horler says she told Ms Credlin that she was playing the character inspired by her. She says Ms Credlin looked her up and down and retorted “more like Sophie Mirabella than me”.
That access was largely granted thanks to Uhlmann and Lewis who are respected political journalists in Canberra.
Speaking to The New Daily, Steve Lewis says drama allows them to tell stories that libel laws covering news would prevent and he’s confident there’ll be more to come in the future. Let’s hope so.
Secret City airs Sunday nights at 8.30pm from June 5 on Foxtel’s showcase channel. Watch the trailer below.