Tangible dread

The dark landscape where much of The Kettering Incident was filmed fills Greg Bruce with foreboding
Elizabeth Debicki starts in the Kettering Incident.
Elizabeth Debicki starts in the Kettering Incident.

It is not giving too much away to say that the opening scene of The Kettering Incident — the smartest, most compelling television series to come out of Australia in maybe forever — features two girls on bikes, one in a red hood, both riding along a forest road so foreboding, so horrifyingly thick with freighted dread, that their chances of survival are clearly absolute zero.

It is not giving too much away to say that it was about 3pm on a weekday in late July when I finally arrived at My Slice of Pie Cafe, in the heart of Mountain River, the dark Tasmanian landscape where large parts of The Kettering Incident were filmed.
I'd driven clean past My Slice of Pie the first time because it looked like the type of modern brick three-bedroom house you'd see on a new subdivision. When I went inside, there were three staff behind the counter and not a single customer in sight.

It's hard to overstate how little call there appears for a cafe in Mountain River — with its occasional houses punctuated by wide, empty swathes of land — let alone a cafe with a staff of three.

The sky was low and closing, there was snow on the mountains, night was not far away. A man murdered both his parents, well-liked local teachers, in this community four years ago.

I was there to meet the owner of an abandoned house and property that plays an important role in The Kettering Incident. She arrived not long after me and we left the cafe without having bought anything. The staff didn't say anything.

Her house was up a long, twisting driveway, in the low foothills of the mountain known in real life as Sleeping Beauty and in the show as Mother Sullivan's Ridge.

"Do you still live there?" I asked her.

"No," she said. "That's why it's 'The abandoned house'."

The house was crumbling, rusted, peeling. In the low, milky overcast of late afternoon, even without unsettling music and post-production manipulation of light, it conveyed a feeling of deepest unease.

We carried on a couple of hundred metres up the hill, to a terrifying derelict pig pen, and then still further, up to where the property came to an end, and the paddocks flattened and opened out.

There in the distance, its top lopped off by lowering grey cloud, was the long, wide mount

ain.

The day had been calm but the wind had thickened through the afternoon and the high eucalyptus trees between us and the mountain now roared with it. Perhaps it was that I'd already watched four episodes of The Kettering Incident, or that I'd just found out about the horrific double murder down the road, or that I'd learned too much about Tasmania's terrible history, but that view filled me with trepidation.

It was unimaginable that anyone would have wanted to spend even a single night on this property. I couldn't wait to get out of there.

IN A COUNTRY where relations between the indigenous peoples and the new arrivals were never better than very bad, they were nowhere worse than in Tasmania. "The Black War" of the 1820s killed 1000 Aborigines and "The black line" was an attempt by 2200 whites, 10 per cent of the population in 1830, to sweep Aborigines from the island.

About three-quarters of present day Tasmanians are descended from convicts — many of them not run-of-the-mill convicts, but those considered too bad for imprisonment on the mainland. It's an inheritance that is sometimes referred to on the island as "The Stain".

The convicts did bad things to get there and they did bad things while there. One guide, pointing out to me a particularly hellish Tasmanian convict site, said, "What was the quote? 'Buggery was rife'."

"People here don't like talking about the past," says Vicki Madden, Tasmanian, creator, writer and producer of The Kettering Incident.

"They try to drive out the past, like most places do that have a history — it's just that we have a particularly bloody and brutal history."

The state changed its name from Van Diemen's Land to Tasmania in 1856 in a failed attempt to escape or avoid much of this past, and that's something Madden says it's still doing, and is something she wanted to confront in making The Kettering Incident.

The Tasmanian  landscape that plays a leading role in The Kettering Incident.
The Tasmanian landscape that plays a leading role in The Kettering Incident.


The pain and trauma of that past, the suffering that flowed from the lives and actions of the first European arrivals, is forever embedded.

"There are certain places in Tasmania where you can actually go into the town and you just know something bad has happened there," says Madden. "It's just got that imprint."
She says Australia's image, the one it projects to the world at least, is about hot sun and beaches.

"Down here it's obviously very different and very gothic, and I thought, 'I want to tell that story, to show my world on screen'."

The Kettering Incident isn't specifically about Tasmania's history or the bad that has happened there — it's a mystery with otherworldly overtones, a police procedural and a character study — but it is a particularly strong example of the importance of place to storytelling. Had this story been set somewhere else, it would have meant something completely different.

Among other shows, The Kettering Incident has been compared to Scandi noir series, such as Borgen and The Killing and to Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, but it is actually uniquely Tasmanian, rooted in and drawing meaning from that wild land where so much bad has happened.

Like all the best modern golden-age television, it puts compelling and complicated characters in a very particular time and place, and thrusts their stories upwards to say something meaningful about all of us.

It rises up the ladder of abstraction from the disappearances of two girls in a small town to the political clash between forces of economy and environment, to questions of innocence and ignorance, and ultimately to the question of what it means to belong.
Madden grew up in a small town in the north of Tasmania, but left when she was 18 and moved to Europe. When she returned, neither she nor the island were the same.
"I was so upset about that," she says. "It hit me like a thunderbolt: 'I don't belong here'."
She says she was recently asked by a journalist why she didn't use The Kettering Incident to tell a Tasmanian story. "I said, 'Do you know what? It is a Tasmanian story because I'm a Tasmanian writer and it's my experience. Just because it's not about our convict story or our war on Aborigines, it's still a Tasmanian story.'"

The Kettering Incident is a story of an outsider on an island of outsiders; a story about a place full of stories people don't want told, written by one of those people.

"My mum's a great one for shutting down," Madden says "which I used to do a lot and I
think if I could say anything good about being a writer, it's that it makes you open
up, makes you become more truthful and open to things."

In The Kettering Incident, Madden raises questions and doesn't offer easy answers. Like the island on which it's set, The Kettering Incident is underlaid by a sense of unease. Like the island on which it's set, it's not always easy to look at. Like the island on which it's set, that's part of its appeal.


Lowdown

The Kettering Incident, episodes 1-6 available now on Lightbox. New episodes on Mondays at 11.30pm.

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