Sydney Opera House – “Autopsy on a Dream”

Sydney Opera House – “Autopsy on a Dream”

sydney opera house

To launch the SOH 40th Anniversary celebrations, on 17th October the Sydney Opera House will premiere Autopsy on a Dream, John Weiley’s 1968 film about the troubled birth of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece,  to an audience including former Opera House construction workers on Thursday 17 October

Autopsy On a Dream, is a controversial and provocative BBC film about the building of the Sydney Opera House, directed by John Weiley in 1968 and thought to be lost for 45 years,

It will have its first Australian television screening on Sunday 20th October, 9.25pm on ABC1

Directed by a then 21-year-old Weiley, Autopsy on a Dream was commissioned by then BBC1 controller David Attenborough.

Once thought to have been destroyed after its only screening on the BBC, the film was miraculously rediscovered by the ABC in the lead-up to the Opera House’s 40th Anniversary celebrations.

Newly restored and with an updated voice over by original narrator Bob Ellis, Autopsy on a Dream will finally be given the Australian screening it deserves.

The film is a reminder that the eventual triumph of the Opera House was anything but inevitable, that it required blood, sweat and sacrifice. It is also a timely reminder of how entirely Australia has been transformed in the years since the Opera House opened – and that is no coincidence.

john weiley

john weiley

The basement of BBC Television Centre – London 1969

Racks of film cans – thousands of them stretching into the distance. A balding man in a grey dust-coat working his way toward us running his finger along the titles. Finds what he is looking for and pulls it off the shelf.

A large traditional butcher’s chopping block. The man comes toward us, takes the rolls of film out of the can pops the cores out and places them on the block. He picks up a large meat cleaver (that we hadn’t noticed before) checks with his thumb that it is sharp then steps back and with a mighty swing chops the roll of film in half. He keeps chopping the rolls into smaller and smaller pieces. It’s quite hard. As he chops we zoom in slowly to the title on the discarded can:

Sydney Opera House – Autopsy on a Dream“.

The Sydney Opera House was always much more than a building.

It was a dream, a moral challenge, a test of will, a sacrificial altar, a love affair, a nightmare: It had a huge impact on the lives of everyone involved – and not just the central characters of the story.

When work on the opera house commenced I was a teenage trainee film director with ABC TV. Among my tasks was regular coverage of the construction work on the building. As the months and years passed I grew up with it – wading through puddles in the stage machinery pit and, as they emerged, climbing the sails to find new angles. I shot my first film there – a musical interlude featuring a ghostly girl wandering through the concrete maze.

I wrote for and helped to produce OZ magazine, worked on various underground films including Bruce Beresford’s first attempt and made some of my own (‘borrowing” equipment from ABC) with friends that included Martin Sharp, Richard Neville, Gary Shead, Germain Greer, Les Murray, Bob Hughes and others just as interesting but not so well known. Australia itself was the project. We dreamed of throwing off the Cringe – the subservience to things American or British – of overthrowing the ‘RSL culture’ of the time, where on any controversial issue: banned books, art, contraception – the key spokesman quoted would be the national president of the Returned Servicemen’s League. We felt sure we could build an exciting, original and independent nation in the South Seas and the Opera House was the perfect expression of those dreams.

My projects and protests sometimes got me into trouble with my bosses at ABC . In particular Talbot Duckmanton, the General Manager, was infuriated by criticism of ABC’s (successful) lobbying to dump the plans for the main opera theatre and convert the space into the concert hall that the ABC wanted – even though that had the knock-on effect of ensuring that not one performance space in the building is used for the purpose for which it was originally designed (that’s why the drama theatre has a cinemascope proscenium – it was intended to be a cinema). I was told not to film the cutting out of the stage machinery (that had already been installed in the main theatre) but I filmed it anyway – and that was to come back to bite me later on.

I shared a big Paddington terrace house with other young students, artists and models. Through a long chain of coincidences a new arrival turned out to be Lin Utzon – the 17 year-old daughter of Jørn – set to become an Art student at East Sydney Tech. Lin and I came to be very close friends – and have remained so all of our lives. I got to know the family well but when the controversy erupted my situation became very complicated.

My father, W.R. Weiley, long time Member for Clarence was not only a member of the government that went to war with Utzon, he and I were long-time friends of Davis-Hughes – Country Party Member for New England and the Minister for Public Works. 
On a couple of occasions I returned from a Sunday with the Utzon family at their Whale Beach house to have dinner at Parliament House with my father and the Minister – Utzon’s sworn enemy

I lobbied furiously but it didn’t help. The politics of the clash of values was totally intractable. Utzon departed Australia and so did I , sure now that I knew now the answer to the question posed in Bernard O’Dowd’s poem “Australia”:

“Are you to be a drift Sargasso 
or the Delos of a coming Sun-God’s race?”

Definitely the sea weed I thought – and by Qantas VJet I left Australia for ever.


London 1966.

Swinging. Yes indeed: The place to be.

Breathtakingly lucky I lobbed into one of the best jobs in the world – a couple of years with Granada Television’s lavishly funded documentary unit (Seven Up, Lusitania, This England) with offices just off Carnaby Street in Soho and brilliant colleagues: Mike Apted, Michael Newell, Mike Grigsby (and some who were not called Mike).

But I had a story that I desperately wanted to tell – a story about Australia and the opera house and the dream of perfection. Granada had no slot that would fit so in 1968 I took the idea to the new and adventurous BBC 2.

David Attenborough was head of BBC 2 and he gave the go-ahead. 
The BBC production manager sent off the usual request to ABC in Australia for the use of a camera crew and equipment. For the first time ever the answer was “no”.

Attenborough called me to his office. He was reading a foot long telex from Talbot Duckmanton – General Manager of the ABC – who had taken time out from a conference in New Zealand to set down at length the ABC’s objections to an Opera House film made by John Weiley . “We are flatly told that we must not let you make this film”. 
He paused thoughtfully and then, with perfect articulation, said 
“Well they can get fucked”.

I was given the cash and authority to hire my own crew in Australia and make my film.
“The Sydney Opera House – Autopsy on a Dream” was completed in September 1968. A screening was organised for the expatriate community in London. The film was fiercely applauded. For them the tragedy of the opera house was the tragedy of Australia. Several left the theatre in tears. It is hard now to convey just how strongly that generation felt about the possibilities for Australia – how frustrated they were by its mediocrity. All of them passionately believed “It’s Time” .

In the process of making the film I came to greatly like and admire Ove Arup, head of the giant London based engineering company responsible for the structure of the Opera House. I visited Arup at home in Highgate and came to think of him as a friend. I was awed by Arup’s honesty and by his commitment “to try to make something perfect”. Arup had put tremendous pressure on his company by pressing on through all the difficulties when many had advised him to cut and run. But the Arup company’s role in the final breakdown was controversial. Utzon expected Arup to resign along with him (though typically he never asked). Arup ultimately decided that he could not resign but the decision to compromise his dream broke his heart. He talked about this openly with me and when interviewed for the film his pain was obvious.

The day after transmission I spoke to Ove on the phone. He was obviously distressed. His partners had been calling him – what about his loyalty to them! How could he reveal his sentimental doubts for a TV show!

I was dismayed. I had to face the fact that I had been deluding myself that Ove would not be upset by the inclusion in the film of his doubts about continuing and I was not sure that my conscience was absolutely clear – was I doing the right thing as a reporter trying to distil the truth or had I betrayed a confidence for the sake of a scoop? I was assured by the legal department that the film gave no basis for legal action so I loaded up my 2CV and left for Crete – vowing to have nothing further to do with documentary “truth”.

Months later I returned to London and to the BBC and joined the team at “Tomorrow’s World” a new series that I was sure would throw up no ethical dilemmas.

Several of my new colleagues asked if I could arrange a screening of the somewhat notorious opera house film. No problem.

In the vaults beneath Television Centre the librarian flicked through a drawer full of cards. “No – not here: That’s been destroyed”. Disbelief was the first reaction. It could not have been destroyed – nothing was ever destroyed – someone would have told me. “What do you mean destroyed?”. “Well,” said the librarian “when we get a destroy notice we put the rolls on that chopping block and we chop them up so there’s no possibility of an accidental re-run when the rights have run out – or whatever.”

I was in shock. It sounds like hyperbole but it really was like losing a child. Could something that had meant so much – had caused so much trouble – really have ceased to exist ? I phoned David Attenborough. “Impossible” said Attenborough, “there must be some mistake – it could not be destroyed without my approval and I have authorised no such thing. I’ll call you back. For several days hope flickered but then the call came through – “I’m sorry but it’s true.”

Some time later I was told by a colleague (Peter Goodchilde I think) that the film’s destruction was achieved by a gentlemen’s agreement – the BBC and Arup were both involved in restoring Benjamin Britten’s little opera house at Snape in Norfolk. John Culshaw – head of music at BBC was sympathetic to the Arup argument that it would save everyone a lot of trouble if the planned re-broadcasting of the film on BBC1 did not go ahead – so on the train to Snape it was agreed. It would be better all round if Autopsy on a Dream was never seen again. And so to the block.

Decades passed. I went on to a successful career producing documentaries for BBC then feature films in Australia then IMAX films all over the world. I remained close to the Utzons – visiting them in Denmark and Majorca while Lin came quite often to Australia. But I never forgot “Autopsy”. It had a special place in my life and the wound never quite healed. As recently as last year I wrote to every public broadcasting organisation in the world that might have acquired a print of the film seeking information. No one could help.

Then – as if rising from the dead –

From: Sam Doust
Subject: Major Opera House Project
Date: 15 February 2012 4:51:07 AM GMT+01:00

Hi there.

I’m hoping to reach John Weiley with this email.

I’m heading up an online documentary project about the Sydney Opera House, spanning 1954-2012. Wondering if John is available for a discussion by phone and whether you have a copy of Autopsy of a Dream. The people at Thought Equity have prepared a screener for us, but don’t seem to have a record of the sound!
Regards, Sam

In shock I clicked on the link: It couldn’t be – but there it was. The entire film – stripped of sound but there was every frame of the image – alive and kicking after all those years. And yes! I did have the sound – at least most of it – original sound tapes of the interviews, and complete transcripts of all the interviews and narration. And so it may be possible that the end of this story will be a new beginning : From Autopsy to Resurrection!

Now in a quite extraordinary turn around, it is proposed by the Opera House Trust to make a screening of the film a centrepiece of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the opening (20 October) – introduced by Lin Utzon – with the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark as special guests arranged with the cooperation of Arup Associates and the BBC – which originally suppressed the film – and the support of the ABC – which originally tried to stop it being made!


About John Weiley

JohnWeiley David Bradbury

John Weiley, the creator of the third-highest grossing Australian movie of all time, Antarctica, is recognised around the world for his exciting use of the giant screen format, IMAX.

His latest film, Solarmax, explores the relationship of Earth to the sun and humankind’s efforts to understand it.

1 Comment

  1. Lynne Heggie - October 18, 2013

    How wonderful, as a young child I remember the Opera House Lottery to support the building costs, my family were relocating from Melbourne to Sydney and I recall my father discussing the controversy. I’ve always held enormous admiration for the design and the architect.

    There was a screening of a film about Utzon, the project ,the Liberal Government and the controversy , was it for the 21st anniversary , it screened on the ABC , I’m sure ?

    I know I was heartbroken at the sheer vindictiveness of the Liberal power brokers, and their destruction of the integrity of Utzons design.

    I look forward to this viewing, how incredible that it has been found !
    Who was responsible for the other documentary, is it from this original film. It seems familiar that Bob Ellis was the narrator.

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