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The story of the missing Attenborough Opera House film

Made, lost, then uncovered half a century later – the saga of the controversial Autopsy on a Dream, as told by those in the middle of it.

Dominic Ellis

In 2012, ABC creative director Sam Doust discovered something that wasn't supposed to be found. Buried beneath piles of dusty stock footage in a BBC repository was a 16mm rough cut of a documentary. Completely stripped of sound, it ran 56 minutes and opened with a panning shot across a construction site on Sydney’s Bennelong Point. The building under construction? The Sydney Opera House.

“I looked at who was involved and saw John Weiley. I googled him and found his email ... And then on Saturday morning I got this ecstatic, euphoric response,” Doust says. “He couldn’t believe it. He thought the film had been completely destroyed. He said that ‘we’d found his lost child’.”

52 years ago, with the help of David Attenborough, a 24-year-old Australian filmmaker named John Weiley wrote and directed Autopsy on a Dream. It screened just once. Weiley's film was a critical look at the turbulent, drawn-out creation of Australia's greatest landmark, from buoyant beginnings to a final act shrouded in controversy, as young Peter Hall inherited a gargantuan task from dismissed, beloved architect Jørn Utzon.

It was also something much bigger: an account of a moment in history in which Australia faced a cultural crossroads. Narrator Bob Ellis expresses as much in his searing introduction: “The Sydney Opera House. Product of a people who had a genial bash at culture, then went back to their beer. But oh what a lovely bash.”

“[Weiley] saw Utzon’s firing as the exact reason that Australia was losing its cultural mind in the 60s – regressing to conservative values that cultural figures didn't want a part of,” Doust explains.

The son of a Liberal politician (who was close with Davis Hughes), a member of the flourishing Sydney creative community, and a friend of the Utzons, Weiley was the perfect intermediary to tell this story, with access to both sides of the culture wars. But editorially, Weiley says he was unswayed by familial allegiances.

“I was very committed to the ideals that drove Utzon and a cohort of my contemporaries in Australia at the time.”

So he took his ideals, and his ideas, across the ocean to David Attenborough, who was the commissioning editor of BBC2 at the time. As Weiley puts it, “They handed me a wad of cash and said ‘go make the film’”. 

But the film quickly ran into its first controversy. The ABC had expressed serious reservations to the BBC about diving too deep into the Opera House saga, as they had become tangled in negotiations of what to do with the theatre in Shell A2. Originally blueprinted as the main Opera Theatre, the ABC lobbied to convert the space into a multi-purpose hall. They went so far as to veto the creation of the documentary altogether. To this, Attenborough was defiant, and production carried on.

“I remember him saying ‘well they can get f**ked’,” says Weiley.

Little did Weiley know his film would go unseen for over 40 years and become itself ingrained in Sydney Opera House folklore. Autopsy was both scathing and deeply honest, echoing the discontent of the Australian public, while offering insider perspectives from big players like Utzon's architect successor Peter Hall and design engineer Ove Arup. In one of the film’s more explosive revelations, Arup, in what Doust describes as “very philosophical mood”, briefly considers whether he should have also quit following Utzon’s resignation – “he had a real Hamlet moment”. 

“He felt very loyal to Utzon, and the principles upon which Utzon was resigning. If you become an aficionado of the Opera House Project story, then that opens up a whole number of pathways for you,” says Doust.

Soon after filming was complete, one of Arup's colleagues, Jack Zunz, worked with the BBC's Head of Music John Culshaw on a theatre project in rural England. Weiley speculates that this project could have been the beginning of the end for the film, as Arup's reservations reached the BBC firsthand. 

“I tried this on Dave [Attenborough] and he thought it was possibly true: that Culshaw and Jack had talked it over, and Jack had convinced Culshaw that it really would be better if this thing didn’t exist. He didn’t want any horrible memories. 

“So that’s what I think: that John Culshaw, who was in a roundabout way my boss, had started to order its destruction,” explains Weiley, reiterating that this a yet unproven theory.

It’s actually a terrifying story, the stuff that’s been junked, it’d really make you cry.

For Weiley, this wasn’t the only time in his career that a major project had been destroyed. Not long after Autopsy, Weiley worked again with the BBC on a film in their Horizons series about bombing campaigns during World War II. It included interviews with Nazi minister Albert Speer and Dambuster pioneer Barnes Wallis, among other major historical figures. It too disappeared, albeit under less supsicious circumstances.

“It’s actually a terrifying story, the stuff that’s been junked, it’d really make you cry,” says Weiley.

And so it happened. Autopsy was literally sent to the chopping board. Yet somehow, likely by clerical error, one print remained untouched. When Weiley was reunited with Autopsy all those years later, he worked with the ABC to restore it to original form. He recovered old audio tapes and reconvened with original narrator Bob Ellis to redo the voiceover.

“The film ends with The Seekers singing ‘The carnival is over, this will be our last goodbye’ and when I put that in the film originally, I thought it really was the last goodbye. I didn’t know at that stage I'd be blessed with a standing ovation inside the building itself.”

In 2013, as part of the Opera House's 40th anniversary celebrations, Autopsy on a Dream – along with a new 30 minute prologue called The Dream of Perfection – played once again. Weiley, now a celebrated film veteran, IMAX innovator, and rare Australian member of the Academy, received long overdue recognition for his groundbreaking first feature.

It was an absolutely crucial part of my life. The people I’ve loved and the places I’ve worked – the Opera House is right there in the centre of it.

They put up an enormous screen in A2 [the Concert Hall] and it was very well received, to say the least. A pretty good conclusion from my point of view.”

For all his successes, the Opera House has remained a cornerstone of Weiley’s life, from his first job as an ABC cameraman capturing the work on site, until now. He describes the building poetically, regularly comparing it to the Parthenon and St. Peter’s, and reminiscences on sailing with Jørn Utzon, looking upon its near impossible geometry.

“It was an absolutely crucial part of my life. The people I’ve loved and the places I’ve worked – the Opera House is right there in the centre of it,” he says. “I’ve corresponded with Lin Utzon weekly or monthly. That whole family is very important to me. It had a vast impact on my personal life. As did the building itself. I’ve sat on top of the A2 shell with my legs dangling, drunk with the marvellousness of it all.”

Sam Doust is the writer and director of The Opera House Project, an online, interactive documentary archiving the creation of the Sydney Opera House.

Arup are a long time sponsor of the Sydney Opera House.

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