Screening on STAN, BBC I, six 52-minute episodes
Review by © Jane Freebury
For such a big cohort, there have been fewer stories on screen, than you might expect, involving the hundreds of thousands of British immigrants who sought a new life in Australia after WWII. Perhaps it’s why this new six-part television series on streaming platforms has a hint of déjà vu. Of course, there have been the documentaries and the fiction films with ten-pound Pommie backstories, but it is less likely that they will feature.
For good reason, some would say. One of the funniest signs I heard about once was posted near the ticket booth at the old African lion safari zoo west of Sydney, where the wild animals were viewed from the safety of a car. It went something like ‘Brits on bicycles admitted for free’. Aussies have long been conflicted about their relationship with the Old Country.
Sympathy for the whingeing Pom has always been in short supply. So, it goes
The postwar assisted immigration scheme that encouraged immigrants to book passage to this country for ₤10 ran from 1945 until 1982. For a tiny fee, which was waived for anyone 19 or under, it was easy for an entire family to take the plunge, though they had to undertake to stay for at least two years.
This lavishly staged production comes from British-based company, Eleven. Two eminent directors have worked on the first season. Young Scotsman Jamie Magnus Stone, a BAFTA-award winner and nominee, and Ana Kokkinos, whose television work became well-known to Australian audiences after her remarkable breakthrough fiction feature, Head On, screened in cinemas in 1998. British screenwriter Daniel Brocklehurst, also a BAFTA nominee, holds the screenplay credit.
There are only three British actors as the rest of the cast, including youthful performers like Declan Coyle (a young Russell Crowe lookalike) and Hattie Hook as British teenagers, are local. The shoot, with Meg White on camera, took place in NSW.
The series narrative is bustling with characters and plots, too many really. However, the lives of married couple from Manchester, Terry and Annie Roberts (British actors Warren Brown and Faye Marsay), and their friend single mum Kate (played by Michelle Keegan, also a Brit), supply the central throughlines.
The first three episodes that I had access to follow Terry and Annie and their two teenage children to Australia. Lured by the prospect of year-round sunshine, they decide to immigrate down-under in search of a new life, which is code for a new start for Terry’s POW experiences in Dresden that are impacting his ability to live a normal life. He suffers from PTSD, and drinks and gambles. The pair are engaging and empathetic.
It’s surprising that no scenes take place on board ship, but go straight to regional Australia
Kate, a nurse, is aboard the same ship and lands alongside them at the hostel, a collection of Nissen huts in the bush with an old lookout tower that suggests an ominous former life. In retrospect, it is surprising that no scenes take place on the six-week journey across the sea. It surely offered lots of opportunities for character development, but it’s straight to regional Australia.
Here our gentle, unassuming migrant family encounter several crudely drawn Aussie caricatures, in particular David Field’s scary workplace bully Dean who takes Terry for a spin in his Holden Ute one evening. It did feel like we were veering dangerously close to Wake in Fright territory. The ugly Australian, the pub culture, the racism in that seminal Ted Kotcheff film is haunting still. Perhaps the British showrunners watched it one too many times during lockdown. Director Magnus Stone has been comfortable to let Field’s maniacal character fill the frame.
On the other hand, the intersections that Terry and Annie each have with the local Indigenous community set up promising trajectories. Rob Collins, an Indigenous actor with significant presence, plays Ron, a community leader and friend to Terry at work.
Even if TPP is set in the 1950s, the migrant experiences overall in this first season seems unlikely to encourage many in post-Brexit Britain to contemplate a move to Australia. It isn’t hard to imagine why 25% returned home.
If you have ever seen the beautiful, arty posters that advertised a new life in Australia you cannot be surprised by the appeal they had for Brits pummeled by years of war. It will be interesting to see where this big, ambitious production takes us.