The Dish

The Dish

Friday Film 11 October 2019 7.30 pm

Doors and bar open 6.45 pm
Lympstone Village Hall
Members free
£5 on the door

Programme Notes

These programme notes, including information about the shorts, also available as a PDF.

(Australia, 2000) Running time 101 mins

Directed by Rob Sitch

Written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch Starring Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington, Tom Long, Patrick Warburton

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1969, American astronauts prepared to land on the Moon. Six hundred million people sat glued to their televisions, waiting for the first small step. And a group of Australian technicians watched the space capsule and the astronauts through their 64 metre telescope dish at Parkes Observatory, New South Wales.

This film is a fictionalised account of a true story. It imagines what happened in the control room of the radio telescope at the time of the Apollo moon landing. In actual fact, two Australian telescopes were involved in these events, the other at Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, and the film makers have merged the two in order to give a coherent account. The technicians are fictional characters (the actual Director of the Observatory was John Bolton, who was born in Sheffield), but there’s nothing fictional about the Australian telescopes, which were a back-up to the main NASA telescope at Goldstone, California. But being a back-up has its moments, some of them comical…

The Australian film industry began in 1906 with The Story of the Kelly Gang, the earliest feature film ever made. Since the 1970s there has been a stream of international hits, including Crocodile Dundee, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Australian film stars range from Errol Flynn and Peter Finch to Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett.

Sam Neill, who plays the Director of Parkes Observatory, is a New Zealand actor born in Northern Ireland. He is also a writer, director, producer and vineyard owner. He achieved recognition with his appearance in Sleeping Dogs (1977), followed by leading roles in My Brilliant Career, Omen III and The Piano. He came to international prominence in Jurassic Park. Speaking of the moon landing, he said, ‘It was a wonderful period. I really don’t think we live in such heroic times now as we did then. It’s such an unlikely thing to do, to put a man on the moon, for no good reason. They didn’t bring any particular knowledge back that they didn’t have already. But what a wild and crazy thing to do.’

Much of the film was shot on location; the ‘cricket match’ and ‘hayride’ scenes were shot on the real dish and researchers often postponed experiments to position the dish for photography. But the majority of the movie was actually filmed in the small town of Forbes, 21 miles south of Parkes, because of its old historic buildings, and at Crawford Studios, Melbourne. The set reconstructing the 1969 control room was extremely accurate, down to the ashtrays. Some props were original NASA equipment used during the Apollo 11 landing, left behind in Australia as they were too heavy (i.e. too expensive) to ship to the U.S. Staff expressed amazement at seeing the set – like stepping into a time-warp.

The telescope itself ‘feels like a bit of an urban legend until you actually go and see it,’ said Rob Sitch, The Dish’s Director. In the middle of a field, miles from anywhere, the dish quietly listens to the stars. ‘There is no security fence around it, the farmer farms right up to the edge and it’s retained its own peculiar charm. I call it the most beautiful radio telescope in the world.’ John Sarkissinian, a scientist who works at the dish, agrees. ‘I love watching it in different light, at night and at sunset,’ he says. It feels nostalgic, but the radio telescope is no museum piece. International scientists still regularly use the fully operational observation centre, and have deployed the dish to discover more than half the known pulsars in our galaxy. The telescope has now been contracted to be used in a search for radio signals from extraterrestrial technologies for the heavily funded project Breakthrough Listen, the most comprehensive search for alien communications to date.

Harland Walshaw