Series Mania: ‘Operation Buffalo’ Creator Peter Duncan on His Tale of Betrayal

Leo Barraclough

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Operation Buffalo” is a high-end series set in Australia in 1956, at the height of the Cold War. The action mainly takes place on a top-secret military base at Maralinga, in the Australian Outback, where the British are conducting atomic bomb tests, with the connivance of the Australian government.

The six-part show – a blend of espionage thriller, political satire and biting black comedy – features a top-notch ensemble cast, led by Ewen Leslie, Jessica de Gouw and James Cromwell. It was ordered by Australian broadcaster ABC, and is being represented in international markets by About Premium Content.

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Variety spoke to writer-director Peter Duncan about the show, which world premiered as part of Series Mania’s ongoing digital edition (March 25-April 7).

What was it about the historical events – nuclear testing, the Cold War, Suez etc. – at the center of your story that inspired you to write the series?
Ever since I was 11, I’ve had a fascination for politics (domestic and international), espionage and history in general. I grew up with my grandfather, a deeply fervent communist and my mother, a capitalist as a result of my grandfather and also an avid spy novel reader.

I guess it’s somewhat macabre but I found this story to embody many of my passions. Atom bombs, politicians, diplomats, soldiers, a down-trodden first people, spies – it was irresistible. I also think at the heart of it lies the notion of betrayal – which I think can be a compelling driver of drama. Arthur Miller said: ‘Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.’

What do the dark comedic and satirical elements add to the drama alongside the deadly serious issues? Were there other works or writers from whom you drew inspiration, such as “Catch 22” and Stephen Poliakoff?
Dark comedy/satire are siren songs for me. I guess it’s largely due to my personal nature but I’ve always thought, as a writer that satire allows you to push boundaries – particularly when you’re fictionalizing history. It allows you to be bolder and somewhat naughtier.

In this case, it was a no brainer for me because at the heart of this lies the delusional madness of two governments. Allowing another government to drop bombs on your own country, in the full knowledge that your own people would die or suffer is madness. One could approach this in a didactic way but that’s not my style. I wanted to embrace the madness that was these tests and use that energy to craft a story that was not only revelatory but entertaining.

Yes, ‘Catch 22’ was an inspiration. One of my favorite books, and I loved the recent television adaptation, but ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was a bigger inspiration – as was one of my favorite movies ‘Network’ (the Lumet version). All three depict how effectively the serious and the comedic can closely co-exist in a mad world.

How did you ensure that the period tale was relatable for a contemporary, global audience?
The madness of the world is a constant. It is no respecter of time or place. For good or ill, people are pretty constant too. Betrayal, war and love are as contemporary as they are ancient. I don’t think audiences care about period if they believe the characters are real, however heightened the reality.

The locations, sets and the caliber of the cast are impressive, and presumably expensive. How usual is such an upscale TV drama in Australia and will this set a new benchmark?
I wouldn’t say the scale of our production is usual but it’s not unique in Australia. It was relatively expensive (but not expensive enough for our liking of course. The expression “smell of an oily rag” springs to mind). It was very much the case that we had to convince a number of parties that this was a big story and could not be cheaply done. Otherwise it would be a futile exercise. We’re very grateful to our investors for their faith and sheer bloody pluck! I hope the show does set a new benchmark – but who knows what sort of bench that might turn out to be?

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