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Politics peeled bare: The Mandarin Code

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Talk around town is that our political banter on Capital Hill is good for ratings with Canberra set to to become the backdrop for a hot new television series. Who thought of that idea? 

Until recently, I had no idea what The Marmalade Files were. A collection of recipes for homemade preserves? And The Mandarin Code; is that a new way to decipher the peeling of citrus fruits?

But after attending a launch at Parliament House earlier this month, I cracked it. The mystery that is. They’re books—filled with dark satire and a journey through the underbelly of politics set here in our nation’s capital.

With the first book, The Marmalade Files, an easy penning of 40 years experience about Canberra, Amanda Whitley and I caught up with the award-winning journalists turned authors, Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, to find out if it was just as easy to pen a novel the second-time ‘round.

Your first book was described by many as being a dark satirical thriller…is The Mandarin Code still in the same bane?

Steve Lewis: It’s darker. The big difference with this book is that it’s more dramatic. It’s anchored in Canberra…starts in Canberra and ends in Canberra using iconic and familiar landscapes. It’s a thriller more than The Marmalade Files, and we didn’t want to lose that. It’s set roughly 15-18months after it too.

The first book poured out of us because of the years of experience we’ve had in the capital, so with this one we wanted to explore that and raise some of the very serious questions about our trading relationship with China and strategic relationship with the USA, the Labor government and Harry Dunkley’s search for his best friend’s killer. It was a lot harder project; we had to research the areas that we didn’t know much about.

You say the first one poured out of you given your intimate relationship with Canberra, was the writing process similar for The Mandarin Code?

Chris Uhlmann: With The Marmalade Files we divided up the work and writing into two strands—one was a thriller, the other a satire. This time we mixed it up a bit more but we started with building a synopsis. Sometimes we wrote together; other times we worked separately and at the end we went down to the south coast and read it all out loud.

We had most of the chapters mapped out before we started writing it.

Is The Mandarin Code a similar game of pick the politician?

SL: They’re all fictional characters, (laughs). They’re composite characters and there are familiar traits in the characters. They’re a mash of things in the fictional landscape. It’s a parallel universe.

How did the idea for the film series come about?

SL: Even before we finished The Marmalade Files, we both wanted to make a miniseries of the books. At some point we approached Matchbox pictures and gave Penny Chapman a draft copy. She had wanted to do a political thriller film based in Canberra for years.

They’ve taken the two books and started to plot out a six-part miniseries but they’re still in the process of agreeing on the scripts.

Making a book a film, you’ve got the inevitable criticism that it’s not quite right…

SL: They started working on it when the second book was evolving. There are a lot of books that are adapted for screen and they are written for screen but we were co-writing the book for the miniseries.

Have you got any casting ideas? Who would you put as Harry?

SL: It won’t be up to us. We assign the rights and Matchbox handle the rest. The casting will be done at the very end. The actors will be predominantly Australian.

CU: But breaking news for HerCanberra, Harry becomes Harriette!

SL: Penny Chapman loves strong female leads and her argument was that there were a lot of male journalist characters. She thought it would have wider appeal.

Are you going to make any cameo appearances?

CU: Don’t know. They’re going to have to shoot in “this” building so it might be a bit difficult.

SL: We’re going to take a break after this one. We need to get involved in the miniseries because politically it needs to be really authentic. They need access to this building. They will probably push it back to mid next year to start. And Screen ACT has given money to them too.

Another book?

CU: One more. Matchbox has said they want something that’s returnable. We’re not going to run into the next but we will do one more.

Will it also be a Labor government?

CU: We will be heading towards an election. It will be a white knuckle ride into a bare knuckle contest on a local landscape, a domestic scene. We’ve got to resolve what happens internationally and what happens with Harry Dunkley.

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