Brutal truth behind Mardi Gras set to air

Robyn Plaistel and Peter de Wall will relive the past Mardi Gras through a new telemovie Riot.
Robyn Plaistel and Peter de Wall will relive the past Mardi Gras through a new telemovie Riot.

In just over a week's time, thousands of people will take to the streets in Sydney's CBD to celebrate the 40th Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, but many may not realise what it took to get to this point.

Following the legalisation of same-sex marriage, spirits are definitely high, but two of the people who were part of the group that instigated the first ever Mardi Gras remember what they went through to get here.

Known as the "78ers" a group of gay and lesbian activists came together to hold a march down Sydney's Oxford Street to show their solidarity with gay civil rights groups around the world, however, it ended badly with many activists beaten and arrested by police.

"The brutality was just extraordinary. Unprovoked. The police were just so worried because we had taken power," 78er Peter de Waal told AAP.

"We took over that little bit of the city but they didn't want us to."

"We had no realisation that we would attract a whole lot of people as we walked down Oxford St, nor did we realise that the police would be so violent against us," 78er Robyn Plaister added.

The events of that night have been dramatised for a new ABC telemovie, Riot, which stars Damon Herriman and Kate Box.

Both Mr de Waal and Ms Plaister spent some time on the set, watching as actors recreated the moments of that first Mardi Gras parade.

Mr de Waal, who has been a gay rights activist since 1970, said as he reflects back on that night in 1978, he believes now that those events may have helped to advance the cause for equality.

"Another perspective has occurred to me more recently, I think it's really the police who publicised the Mardi Gras," he said.

"I wonder what it would be like if the police hadn't stepped in? Would we have a 40th anniversary? It might still be existing as a parade, I'm not sure it would have the same significance."

* Riot airs on ABC TV and ABC iview on Sunday February 25 at 8:30pm (AEDT)

Australian Associated Press