There’s a saying I learned from the producer who taught me the ABC’s of writing documentaries. It’s OK to add colour so long as it’s historically accurate. “Never teach your audience something they will have to unlearn – they won’t thank you when they find out.” The producers of ANZAC Girls might have benefited from meeting him.
ANZAC Girls is a six-part series airing on the ABC that tracks the inspiring and largely unknown efforts of Australian and New Zealand army nurses during World War One. Based predominantly on the book The Other ANZAC and drawing from the diaries of actual nurses, it introduces us to the experiences of the nearly 3,500 women who served the troops of the British Empire. Their stories are seen through the eyes of five key characters – Alice (Georgia Flood), Elsie (Laura Brent), Olive (Anna McGahan), Hilda (Antonia Prebble) and Grace (Caroline Craig). As we follow them through Egypt, the seas off Gallipoli, and the battlefields of France we discover not only the extreme sacrifices made by men and women of that generation, but their longing for adventure, fun, friendship and of course love.
ANZAC Girls is brought to the small screen by the same writers and producers who gave Australia Underbelly, Sea Patrol and Home & Away. These are quality programs in their own genres but the pedigree should give viewers pause for thought. The first episode opens with a warning,
“Certain characters, events and timelines have been created or changed for dramatic effect.”
That also is not, in itself, a problem. It’s impossible to put real life into a television without making serious choices. However the motivations for those choices is all-important, particularly where historical programs are concerned – and that’s what has me concerned…
From the first episode ANZAC Girls begins to stretch time and geography like so much elastic. For example our nurses rush to the balcony of their quarters in Egypt woken by a battle taking place around the Suez Canal. Alexandria is more than 360 kilometres away from the Suez – think Sydney to Gundagai. I’m not an expert on meteorological conditions but it did raise my suspicions. Then a soldier stationed in Egypt tells the nurse he’s sweet on, “They’re calling us ANZACs – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp!” Now it happens that our troops weren’t popularly referred to as ANZACs till after Gallipoli, but that’s just a small thing. Yet the suggestion troops would be writing about their movements and battle conditions to family members is more troubling. Censorship was a significant part of the war effort (often the responsibility of unit chaplains) because lives were at stake. In fact if an officer actually did tells one of the nurses,
“The Poms have got it sorted. A sneak landing in the Dardenelles, a quick dash to Constantinople and Bob’s you’re uncle.”
– he would have stood a good chance of being charged. It’s also equally unlikely any officer from that period would have said:
“Call me old fashioned but I don’t like the thought of you so close to the front. War is no place for a woman.”
It wasn’t ‘old fashioned’ at all. It was the prevailing opinion of the time. But it gives Nurse Alice an opportunity to announce how well trained she is and her opinion that ‘this is where she should be’ – in a tone that’s five decades ahead of its time.
It’s not that ANZAC Girls is historically inaccurate; it’s just historically unbalanced. All of these events could have happened – including nurses sneaking into officer’s tents in the middle of the day for sex and lying around undisturbed afterwards in post coital bliss – but giving precedence to them over the more likely run of events provides an inaccurate picture. Throw in some breathy dialogue and a few emotional outbursts and Home & Away is more into focus.
Sisters treated matrons and doctors with extreme respect only thirty years ago – I know, my mother nursed during that period. But it’s more dramatic to have their parents questioning opinions and loudly voicing disagreement. The hospital the ANZAC nurses staffed in Alexandria was six days steaming from Gallipoli. But it’s more dramatic to have its ward suddenly inundated by screaming soldiers covered in mud and blood, with unbandaged wounds as though they’d just staggered off the line. Drama is the motivation, and so the danger. We actually end up learning less about the real trials of war – the waiting, the not knowing, the patient, late night efforts – and more about a conflict cobbled together for television ratings. Take ANZAC Girl’s attitude to Christianity for example.
I’m in the process of writing a documentary that will air as part of our nation’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. The team researching the script have assembled a clear picture of a nation that saw the first world war as a holy struggle for civilization. It was their duty to fight, not just for the empire, but the Christian values the empire held dear. But ANZAC Girls gives pride of place to a Lieutenant Harry Moffit (Dustin Clare) who openly doubts God has role in what’s going on:
Harry: “And this is all part of his grand plan? I’m afraid I don’t believe that.”
Alice: “Then why are you here?”
Harry: “Australia’s a young country. We have to engage in the wider world.”
The 21st century ‘citizen of the world’ arrived early? Yes, there were atheists prior to World War One but the great loss of faith in God suffered by western civilization occurred after that conflict, not before. The early 20th century was a golden age of belief that shaped social endeavours across the planet. Are Harry’s opinions historically accurate? Possibly, but they’re not historically representative. And the more you draw from the fringes to make your story, the more your audience has to unlearn once the telling’s done.
Release Date: Sundays, 8:30 PM