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Before the dust settled

Television | The ABC’s satirical take on the Maralinga tests captures the confusion and the wilful blindness

Jessica Urwin 4 June 2020 1817 words

James Cromwell as “Cranky” Crankford and Frances Djulibing as Ruby in Operation Buffalo.

The rousing strains of “Jerusalem” play in the background as Maralinga’s less-than-savvy camp commandant, General Lord “Cranky” Crankford (James Cromwell), combs his beard in front of a mirror draped in Union Jacks. “Everything tickety-boo?” he asks when he is interrupted by famed Australian soldier Major Leo Carmichael (Ewen Leslie). After a moment’s hesitation, Carmichael responds, “Not quite, sir.” Something is amiss at Maralinga — not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.

In six pacy episodes, the ABC drama series Operation Buffalo takes its viewers on a cold war adventure. From the red-and-blue regalia of Cranky’s lodgings at Maralinga, viewers are whisked into the burnt-orange mulga-dotted landscape where Britain’s Operation Buffalo is taking place. But the story stretches well beyond the perimeter of the nuclear weapons testing site to 1950s Adelaide suburbia, the dark corners of Whitehall and the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, all under the ever-present watch of ASIO, MI6 and the KGB.

In these settings, among the sex, scandal, intrigue and espionage, the true tale of Britain’s nuclear testing program in South Australia is synthesised, dramatised and satirised. Despite the humorously exaggerated characters, each episode is introduced with a reminder that Operation Buffalo was real. “This is a work of historical fiction,” the producers tell the viewer. “But a lot of the really bad history actually happened.”

While the satirical elements of Operation Buffalo can make it difficult to discern fact from fiction, several of the series’s key themes hew closely to the documented history of the Maralinga operation. Between September and October 1956, Britain tested four nuclear weapons in the heart of the South Australian desert. Because the tests were deemed essential for imperial defence, Australian soldiers were heavily involved, though not well informed. British scientists ran the show, and little was known — or at least revealed — about the likely effects of radiation on Australia’s landscape and population. Aboriginal people were gathered into missions to keep them off Country, though the efforts of just one man, Walter MacDougall, were not enough to secure Maralinga’s perimeter completely. Each of these elements is enough to ensure that the Maralinga story has been cast as one of the great betrayals of Australia’s land and people by the British Empire.

Much like those who served at real-life Maralinga, the characters in Operation Buffalo search for the facts about the operation. But will we ever know the “truth” about this episode in Australia’s history?

As that interaction between Cranky and Leo shows, Australia’s place in the British Empire is fundamental to this story. Nuclear weapons emerged from the second world war as the ultimate measure of scientific prowess and military might. The image of a mushroom cloud ballooning upwards was a sign of virility; a dud weapon, lying on the sand in the outback, was a sign of impotence. Or, in the case of the bumbling boffins whose task it was to ensure detonation, a sign of imperial incompetence.

Through Cranky and his colleagues in Whitehall, viewers get a glimpse of the imperial intricacies of this historical period. Before he was posted to Maralinga, Cranky served for decades as an Empire soldier, fighting “Boers, Hun and Nazis.” He is as befuddled as he is British, and has been sent to Maralinga to see out his days. Donning his military redcoat, he spends his days drinking bloody marys in his private dining room.

In other words, Maralinga is the place where Britain’s doddery former heroes and disgraced career diplomats are “sent to die.” But even in an area as remote as this, the Empire lives on. “God Save the Queen” is frequently played over the speakers, and a portrait of Elizabeth II hangs in the mess hall. Maralinga’s new meteorologist, harking from Cambridge, is none other than Dr Eva Lloyd-George (Jessica De Gouw), the fictional granddaughter of former British prime minister David Lloyd George.

Interestingly, several of the series’s most devout servants of Empire struggle to reconcile their involvement in the nuclear tests. In much of the literature on Maralinga, this was a moral position held only by Australians. By building this complexity into characters who have traditionally been cast as unquestioning followers of Queen and country, Operation Buffalo raises one of this history’s key anxieties: to what end were these tests actually striving?

It is not only government officials or those in charge who question the point of the testing through the series. The viewer is provoked to ask whether anyone understands the consequences of what they’re doing. Tests are nonchalantly rescheduled, often for the sake of drawing attention away from other events in camp. The scientists squabble like children. The meteorologist ignores unfavourable weather patterns. The soldiers and nurses know to keep quiet about the horrors they witness.

The viewer is slapped by the lack of understanding of — or concern about — the effects of radioactivity, acutely represented by the multitude of characters struck down by radiation sickness and delivered to the Maralinga hospital under the care of nurse Corinne Syddell (Adrienne Pickering). Most of these characters are left unnamed — they are simply soldiers undertaking daily manual labour around the camp — but these scenes point effectively to the real experiences of Australia’s nuclear veterans. Many fell ill and died young, without having had confirmation of what they knew to be true, that this had something to do with their work at Maralinga. They were not compensated.

The soldiers and workers on the ground were not the only ones exposed unwittingly to radiation. Little heed is given in popular accounts of this history to the families of those who served at Maralinga. Veteran testimonies from the 1980s Australian royal commission into the British nuclear tests demonstrate that it was not uncommon for wives to be exposed to radioactivity when they washed their husband’s uniforms. In Operation Buffalo, Leo Carmichael’s home and work lives collide violently when a balloon tracking radioactive fallout floats into the backyard of a young family in Adelaide and attaches itself to their Hills hoist, where two children play with it happily. Word of the balloon travels fast and Leo’s own children are invited to marvel at the mysterious object.

While there were no reported cases of meteorological balloons finding their way into suburban backyards during the tests, historians can confirm that invisible clouds of radioactive fallout tracked across the country. High readings of radioactivity were taken as far away as Queensland. As the series suggests, all of this was made possible by countless administrative errors and the impatience of two governments desperate to prove their military might.

Australia’s Anglophilic prime minister Robert Menzies is usually seen as bearing a heavy responsibility for this episode. But other Australian ministers and departmental officials were also complicit in the testing. Placated by booze and women, these politicians toddle along behind their British counterparts, leaving a trail of destruction. But for fictional attorney-general Dick Wilcox (Tony Martin), who has hopes of overthrowing Menzies, the happenings at Maralinga present an opportunity to win favour within the party.

Despite their vices and ambition, the one thing the politicians in Operation Buffalo seem conflicted by is the presence of Aboriginal people at Maralinga. At the beginning of the series, the defence minister asks Wilcox about the inhabitants of the Maralinga lands. “We both know there are people out here Dick, don’t we?” he asks nervously. Wilcox responds with a sigh, “Depends how the Constitution defines people.” This sentiment slowly unravels as several of the main characters are confronted head-on with the reality that Aboriginal people inhabit the test area. No amount of denial — government or otherwise — can change that fact.

But Britain’s testing program needed to maintain the illusion of terra nullius in order to be legitimate. This meant denying the presence of Aboriginal people, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Having intimately researched this history, I found Operation Buffalo’s depiction of the systematic erasure of Aboriginal peoples to be its most important contribution. Characters in the series look an Aboriginal woman, Ruby (Frances Djulibing), and her children in the eyes and deny their existence. The lack of humanity afforded to Ruby’s family will evoke shame or disbelief in many viewers.

Ruby’s fictional story echoes the tale of a very real Aboriginal family, the Milpuddies. Mother Edie, father Charlie and their two children were found with their dingoes within the Maralinga testing range in 1957. Having spent the night sleeping on the sand near the bomb crater of Marcoo, they were decontaminated by soldiers and driven to Yalata mission. They spoke no English and didn’t understand why they weren’t supposed to walk on Country. In Operation Buffalo, Ruby’s story follows a different trajectory, but her very existence highlights the stark fact that this was not terra nullius.

One character in Operation Buffalo is more aware of this reality than others. Dalgleish (Angus McLaren) — nicknamed “Orange” by Ruby and her family — is Maralinga’s “border rider” whose job is to secure the perimeter of the testing zone. This is official jargon for keeping Aboriginal people out. Dalgleish’s character is cleverly spun off the real-life figure of Walter MacDougall, who patrolled the missile testing range at Woomera, in South Australia, from 1947 on. Once the nuclear tests commenced, he was promoted to native patrol officer and given the job of patrolling 100,000 square kilometres of desert. MacDougall’s knowledge of Aboriginal people is echoed by Dalgleish, who provides the camp’s only means of interacting with Aboriginal people.

MacDougall’s real-life role at Maralinga, and the effects of the tests on Aboriginal communities, was captured in the documentary Maralinga Tjarutja. Screened the week before Operation Buffalo’s first episode, it was intended to provide viewers with a better understanding of what unfolded at Maralinga. The documentary was created in close collaboration with the Maralinga Tjarutja community, which has been displaced from the lands encompassed by the Maralinga Prohibited Area since the early 1950s. Photographs, paintings, landscapes and stories highlight how this vibrant landscape was peopled for tens of thousands of years prior to the tests. Viewing the series in tandem with Maralinga Tjarutja makes Operation Buffalo’s satire all the more striking and uncomfortable.

In taking its viewers into South Australia’s deserts and the centre of Australia’s nuclear past, Operation Buffalo grapples intimately with the history of Britain’s nuclear testing. While the story of Maralinga is a decidedly Australian one, the series encapsulates the broader peculiarities of the cold war period. Through its quirky characters and engaging plot, viewers are provoked to laugh, to question, to feel emotions ranging from guilt to disbelief, and — it’s to be hoped — to pursue the history of this period further. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.

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