In the 1970s Seven had a love affair with colonial television: Against the Wind, Cash and Company, Tandarra -all of them rather wonderful valentines to our rich and occasionally flawed history.
But it’s been a long time since we’ve had a prime time period series as the setting of their new Wild Boys.
And as a commissioning move for 2011 it is just about as bold as they come. This is the year of the period drama: Underbelly: Razor, Downton Abbey, Paper Giants, Cloudstreet -if nothing else Seven’s timing is pretty good.
Produced by Sarah Smith and Julie McGauran (Rescue Special Ops), the setting for this tale is 1860s Australia. We’re out of the convict era and smack bang in the middle of the gold rush. It’s a time of Mad Dog Morgan, Ben Hall, Captain Thunderbolt and not long before Ned Kelly. Flouting the law was an attractive pastime, and if you were robbing from the rich to help the poor it was practically a redeeming quality. Wasn’t it?
In Wild Boys the bad boys are good and the good boys, the police troopers, are bad.
The four boys are Jack (Daniel MacPherson), Dan (Michael Dorman), Conrad (Alexander England) and Captain Gunpowder (David Field). Jack is a pin-up bushranger, with dimples, perfect teeth and derierre-hugging britches, who’s complaining? Dan brings a hint of comedy (but not too much) and is a balladeer. Conrad is a strapping lad and Captain Gunpowder, as his name suggests, is an older loose cannon.
The troopers are led by Francis Fuller (Jeremy Sims) who has a vendetta against these law breakers and his 2IC, Mick Scanlon (Nathaniel Dean). In the opening episode it’s pretty clear that they will have all the fun as villains we are supposed to love to hate. Newcomer Alexander England is also one to watch.
Publican Mary Barrett (Zoe Ventoura) is the object of Jack’s affection, and gossip reports their on-screen chemistry runs deep. She’s a woman with a bar, a brothel, a kid. Anna Hutchison plays Emilia Fife, the sweet girl being wooed by Conrad. She’s also the daughter of the local mayor.
But this show is really all about the blokes. They shoot, they drink, they ride horses, they blow stuff up, and they get caught with their pants down. In between gunfights they’re stealing kisses from the ladies and defending the weak. Their moral compass is pretty skewed. It’s fine to rob stagecoaches with rich folk, but they won’t stand for an old Chinese man being taunted in the pub.
If you’re making a period drama like this then you’d better have good production values, and Wild Boys does. The sets, costumes, locations and photography all impress. The credits list is chockful of horse masters, wranglers, grips, construction foreman, stunts, armourers, and foley artists. Assuming these will actually run on air, the list resembles a moderately sizes film crew.
But the script paints with very broad brushstrokes and the dialogue is littered with cliches:
“This coach isn’t going to rob itself.”
“Righto people. You know how it goes. Cash, coin, jewellery.”
“There’s a new Superintendent in town. Things are going to be a lot different around here.”
“Okay Jack, let’s talk turkey.”
There was the obligatory “Let’s get outta here.”
There’s even a shot of Daniel MacPherson through the legs of Zoe Ventoura -a visual cliche perhaps?
Rather than necessarily giving us an insight into the era, Wild Boys celebrates the romance that has emerged through folklore.
In a PG timeslot this aims for the widest possible audience, and it may very well get it. Deadwood this isn’t. But there have been plenty of similar backdrops that have attracted populist audiences: The Man from Snowy River, All the Rivers Run, Five Mile Creek. There would be nothing shameful about joining that posse.
Ultimately, this is a show that happily aims for a family audience. On that front it hits its mark. It’s entertaining, dashing and so darned different from the pack that it’s worth going along for a ride.