Attenborough got Opera House film made; NSW made sure it was never seen again – until now

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Australian filmmaker John Weiley was gobsmacked to discover his 1968 BBC documentary detailing the cost-cutting and compromises that led to the resignation of the Opera House’s Danish architect Jorn Utzon had been chopped to extinction. With a meat cleaver.

To prevent the film, Autopsy on a Dream, from being screened in Australia or again on the BBC or anywhere else in the world – and stave off legal threats about its inflammatory content – it was destroyed soon after airing in the United Kingdom.

Director John Weiley was commissioned in 1968 to make the documentary Autopsy on a Dream by then BBC2 controller David Attenborough.Credit: Elise Derwin

“Nothing’s ever destroyed,” Weiley responded in disbelief when he heard the news.

A guard showed him the spot in the bowels of the BBC2 archives in Shepherd’s Bush where the cleaver was used. “When we get a destroy order, we put it on the chopping block,” he told Weiley.

“I was just stunned,” said Weiley, speaking from his home in northern NSW.

Why was the film destroyed? “They [the NSW government] were terrified of looking like idiots,” he replied.

A recreation from the documentary about the destruction of a controversial film about the Opera House that was destroyed.Credit: The Dream of Perfection

Its destruction also blindsided Weiley’s boss and supporter, the now famous wildlife documentary maker Sir David Attenborough. “The notion that it could be physically destroyed was a surprise to me,” Attenborough said. “It was taken out of my hands.”

On Thursday, a restored version of Autopsy on a Dream and a newer documentary by Weiley with producer John Maynard about the film’s destruction and restoration, A Dream of Perfection, will be screened at the Museum of Sydney as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th anniversary.

A young John Weiley. Credit: The Dream of Perfection

As part of the celebrations, it will be followed by a Q&A with Weiley and Maynard in conversation with Museums of History NSW curator Dr Jacqui Newling.

It is thought to be only the second time that both have screened in Sydney. It was finally screened on the ABC during the 40th anniversary of the Opera House.

Newling says it is a fascinating snapshot of 1960s Sydney, with the cultural cringe in full swing.

Weiley said he searched for decades to find traces of the film until researcher Sam Doust found a silent print that had survived.

Finding it was “like some child taken away at birth and got in touch,” he said.

Weiley had kept the audio for 45 years. “I still have it right here, a Globite suitcase full of it. I couldn’t bear to throw it away. I was appalled, and thought if they destroyed the print, they would destroy [the audio] too.”

Jorn Utzon, left, with a model of the Opera House in 1966.Credit: Geoffrey Bull

Working together, Weiley and Maynard restored the film – one of the first screened on TV on colour – and matched the sound as best as they could. It was tricky – some negative had been cut for use in other films, and never returned.

Weiley asked the original narrator Bob Ellis to do it again. “[The Sydney Opera House] is an object of reverence,” roars the late Ellis in the remade version of Autopsy. “And yet, it is a failure. An antipodean Babel, the greatest local joke on record, the product of people who had a bash and went back to their beer.”

There was an element of the surreal about the project. Maynard said: “Here is a country building an Opera House, and they don’t have an opera company.”

Weiley says he has always been in love with the Opera House. “It still takes my breath away. It is just amazing.”

As a cadet reporter at the ABC before leaving for the United Kingdom, one of his jobs was to document its construction: “climbing the sails” and talking to the workers and engineers who attempted to nut out a way to build the shells.

But he was appalled by the treatment of Utzon by Sir William Davis Hughes, who became the public works minister responsible for the Opera House when the Askin government came to power in the 1965.

When Utzon asked for total control, Hughes replied: “Your wish to build the ‘perfect’ Opera House is understood, but it must be accepted that all such proposals must be considered in relation to cost …” reported the Herald’s Tony Stephens.

Weiley’s personal and professional life also clashed. By chance, he ended up in a share house with Utzon’s daughter, Lin, and became friendly with Utzon. But Weiley’s father Bill was also an MP in the government, and friendly with Hughes. “I would spend a day with Utzon, and then have dinner with Davis Hughes and my father,” he said.

Sir David Attenborough in the Dream of Perfection.

When the Opera House began construction, an optimism swept the country. Soon that hope of perfection gave way to political pressure to cut costs.

“The Opera House is not a project with a beginning or an end. It is a cathedral to the idea of excellence and the whole idea of pursuing perfection,” Weiley wrote in the Dream of Perfection.

Utzon’s departure at a critical stage of the House’s construction left a generation of young people like artist Martin Sharp in mourning for what could have been. Many quit the country. Photographer David Moore described it as the biggest setback to the arts in 50 years.

“It was a generation’s lament for a homeland’s loss,” said Weiley of the lost film. After leaving Australia in disappointment, he pitched the idea for Autopsy on a Dream to the BBC2’s controller, Sir David Attenborough. He sought the ABC’s support, asking for use of a camera crew.

In an unusual break with convention, the ABC’s chair Sir Talbot Duckmanton refused for the first time ever, and sent back a long telex complaining about Weiley.

Attenborough was defiant: “Tell him to get f—ed.” Attenborough has achieved worldwide fame with his wildlife films. And Weiley also made a range of wildlife films made a range of IMAX films, including Antarctica.

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