Brothers in harm's way

Television writer and producer Shelley Birse was on an overseas trip visiting her grandmother when two world events set her creative antennae twitching.

"It was around the time that the Arab Spring was just starting to bubble up and there were two Australian journalists who were really instrumental in getting that story out to the wider media," recalls Birse, whose previous writing credits include GP, Love is a Four Letter Word, Wildside and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.

"At the same time, Julian Assange was another Australian who was standing on the world political stage. It was an interesting time in that you didn't need to have the traditional trappings of power, vast pots of money or great connections to have a political voice."

The result is ABC political thriller The Code, which traces the story of internet journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and his hacker brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), who stumble across video footage of a car accident in the outback that they decide to post online, unaware they are about to set off a chain of events that will threaten their lives and eventually expose some dark dealings at the highest level of government.

It's a tense, multi-layered and brilliantly acted six-part series that touches on technology, subterfuge, and the lengths governments might go to in order to suppress sensitive information from the public.

With the idea of sophisticated hacking systems, cyberterrorism and information-leaking never more pertinent, Birse's script taps into some topical themes.

"In recent years it's become really apparent, the division between what government is and what communities want," Zukerman says.

"I don't think the show is trying to be didactic but it does pose a hypothetical situation and if people see similarities and start asking some questions, that's wonderful. There are no real 'villains' in the show as such - everyone's trying to do something for what they believe are the right reasons."

The Code was shot across three separate locations - suburban Canberra, Broken Hill and inside Parliament's corridors of power.

The cast is stellar: alongside Zukerman and Spielman, David Wenham stars as deputy prime minister Ian Bradley, with Aden Young as the PM's somewhat oily chief of staff Randall Keats, Lucy Lawless as Alex Wisham, a teacher at a remote indigenous school, and Dan Wyllie as Federal police officer Lyndon Joyce.

But the heart of the story is the relationship between Ned and Jesse, who is described in press notes as having Asperger's-like characteristics without actually being defined as such.

"It was clear to me early on in the script that Shelley hadn't written the name of his condition into the script," Zukerman says of his manic, intelligent, often funny character, who has a knack for hacking into websites with supposedly iron-fist firewalls.

"He's just described as 'unique'. There was this series of clues in the script and I had to bring them to life. When you're dealing with a script that's so well drawn, the goal is to meet it rather than trying to extend it or do anything that's 'beyond' the script."

Zukerman, previously seen in police drama Rush and comedy Lowdown, had never worked on something that was as physically, emotionally and intellectually draining and he savoured every minute of it.

"I left work every day after filming on a high and feeling so energised, and that was really unusual for me. There were no politics on set. We knew we were working on something wonderful and all the energy on set was going towards that."

Birse knew there needed to be a central personal relationship to anchor the more abstract political and technological elements of the narrative. As Ned, Spielman plays a protective role towards his unpredictable younger brother.

"I wanted to explore the tenderness and complexity of a relationship where one person is essentially the carer for another," she says. "It's something human and hearty against the backdrop of a world of technology that can feel quite separated from humanity."

For Zukerman, The Code is a perfect example of the way in which TV now allows its actors the scope and reach once reserved only for film.

"It's a dream to be working on these kinds of shows," says the 30-year-old actor, who is working on the American drama Manhattan, a fictional retelling of the US race to build an atomic bomb during World War II.

"TV has become long-form now. A season can be like a 13-hour film, separated into episodes, so you can analyse a character for five years and talk about the things that films used to talk about but don't any more. Although for me it's not really about what the form is, it's just whether or not it's great writing, with well-drawn characters, and whether I'm going to be working with interesting people. The rest is just about the best format in which to tell the story."

Pip Christmass visited Sydney as a guest of the ABC.

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