When the ABC asked me to adapt Roger McDonald’s novel 1915 into a major seven-part serial, I declined. Ray Alchin, producer and head of the ABC’s film studio in Sydney, looked at me with disbelief and asked me to read it again. So I read it again, twice, and thanked him for having the good sense to see its possibilities, and gratefully accepted. My first reaction was totally wrong. I saw it as an artistic piece of work without the dramatic highlights to sustain it through seven hours of television. On the second – and third – reading, I found nuances of drama I had totally missed in the first cursory reading. Each time I picked up the book I found, sometimes within a sentence, depths and complexities in the characters that expanded into major scenes.
The first major decision was how to narrate the story, whether to jump forward and backward in time, as Roger McDonald had done in the novel, and indeed had suggested in an outline he had prepared for a television adaptation, or whether to make the story progress consecutively. I decided that although the former technique had attractions, it really wouldn’t be acceptable to an audience over six or seven weeks. In Television, unlike the theatre or films, the audience are not captive. They have alternatives, if what they see does not hold them with an increased feeling of expectation. They do not like to be confused. In between each weekly episode they see other programs. They cannot be expected to remember a show in such detail that they know precisely where we are in a complex structure that jumps time and events. In all television shows there is what a friend of mine once called the shit point. It is when this mass audience in their various armchairs say ‘O shit’, and get up and change channels.