Ewen Leslie stars as Major Leo Carmichael in the TV series Operation Buffalo.
Ewen Leslie stars as Major Leo Carmichael in the TV series Operation Buffalo. Supplied

Rake creator's new satire reveals Australia's dark history

A SPY thriller, a Hitchcock noir and a Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn comedy all rolled into one?

Ewen Leslie couldn't pass up the chance to star in Rake creator Peter Duncan's new Cold War satire Operation Buffalo.

The six-part outback series is inspired by true events during Britain's nuclear testing in remote South Australia in the 1950s.

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"It's a dark chapter in Australia's history, but Peter and the producers wanted to present it in a way that would be entertaining for an audience," Leslie says.

Harry Greenwood, Julian Garner, James Cromwell and Jessica De Gouw in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.
Harry Greenwood, Julian Garner, James Cromwell and Jessica De Gouw in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.

"To have one government that's allowed another government to drop atom bombs in its backyard is completely ridiculous. The Australian government was saying no flora or fauna will be harmed by this - that there were no indigenous people there. They had one man patrolling an area the size of Great Britain, which was an impossible task. It's ridiculous in a very tragic way."

Shaka Cook, Shantae Barnes-Cowan and Frances Djulibing in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.
Shaka Cook, Shantae Barnes-Cowan and Frances Djulibing in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.

The series follows Major Leo Carmichael (Leslie), a highly decorated military engineer tasked with the design and supervision of the atomic test towers at Maralinga. Answering only to his commandant General 'Cranky' Crankford (James Cromwell), Leo is also responsible for the day-to-day running and logistics of the base, a role that gives him unlimited influence and power.

"He became a war hero, but when he returned back to Adelaide and tried to assimilate back to life he just couldn't do it. He's someone who's addicted to war and the adrenaline of that," Leslie says.

"When we meet him, from his point of view he has the best job in the world. He's flying in prostitutes and alcohol and stuff like that - things they could turn a blind eye to. He has this attitude of I'm a soldier just following orders and the people above me are doing what's best, but he becomes a barometer for the audience.

Angus McLaren and James Cromwell in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.
Angus McLaren and James Cromwell in a scene from Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.

"The further the series goes along, the more he's unable to turn a blind eye to what's happening and he decides to try and change it."

Enter Maralinga's new meteorologist Eva Lloyd-George (Jessica De Gouw), beautiful and fluent in Russian, who starts asking awkward questions about operations at the base.

"They form a very distrustful alliance," he says.

"They realise that together they have a common goal they can work towards, but the ground beneath them is constantly shifting. They're never entirely sure if the other person is telling the truth, but then a deep attraction grows between them."

 

Jessica De Gouw and Ewen Leslie in a scene from the TV series Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.
Jessica De Gouw and Ewen Leslie in a scene from the TV series Operation Buffalo. Supplied by ABC-TV.

Taking inspiration from wartime satires Catch-22 and Dr Strangelove, Operation Buffalo delivers action, laughs and brutal home truths in equal measure.

"Tonally it becomes a knife-edge thing. Peter's big argument always was 'I'm not making a comedy, I'm making a satire'," Leslie says. "He said 'I want you to play the truth of it and in there you have a bit of wiggle room to push both sides'. For my part, I dipped my toe on either side.

"I hope it's a show people really enjoy watching that is entertaining and takes them on a bit of a ride, but also enlightens them to this part of Australian history that I don't think many people know too much about."

Operation Buffalo airs Sundays at 8.30pm on ABC-TV.