The last in ABC’s current wave of new local dramas will premiere this Sunday night -and it may just have left the best until last.
Devil’s Dust is the sombre story of the fight for legal justice by asbestos-afflicted ex-employees of James Hardie Industries.
The fight was personified by the late Bernie Banton who persisted against the odds, winning the legal battle but losing his life in 2007.
This two-part mini-series is produced by FremantleMedia and inspired by the book Killer Company by ABC journalist Matt Peacock.
Peacock worked for ABC Radio in the 1970s when he became aware of the dangers of asbestos. At the time, the material was widely used on factory floors across Australia, seen as little more than an annoying workplace pest. Little did anybody realise the dust was showering a poison over the workers and anybody who came into contact with it. When Peacock later interviewed Banton for The 7:30 Report the two became united in their drive.
The characters of Banton and Peacock share the load in this saga.
Bernie Banton is played by Anthony Hayes (The Slap, Bikie Wars) who followed his brothers as a lathe worker in James Hardie factories. Even then he showed a tenacity for bucking the system and questioning authority. But he was also a drinker, which contributed to the end of his first marriage. His luck was to change in meeting widow Karen (Alexandra Schepisi) at his local church, who ultimately became his wife for the remainder of his life.
Peacock is portrayed by Ewen Leslie (Mabo, Lockie Leonard, Jewboy) as an early crusader against the might of James Hardie. He lays down a lot of the foundation of the story as he pieces together the science and the conspiracy theories uncovered by his investigative journalism.
The two men form a friendship for a common cause. Both need one another. In Banton, Peacock has a face for his campaign while Banton draws upon the media advice from the ABC journalist. Such is his anger that Banton doesn’t need much prodding to lock horns with James Hardie, government and lawyers. As his health deteriorates he still gives sound bites to media that show he won’t go quietly.
The third principal character is Hardie PR man Adam Bourke (Don Hany) a slick, spin-doctor who represents the multinational and who sells the company line. Hany brings complexity to the role, but unfortunately this is a fictionalised character in the midst of a true-life saga. This undermines its impact.
Director Jessica Hobbs and writer Kris Mrksa balance the personal life of Banton with the greater cause and whilst it may not always be an easy watch, learning what one man went through seems like the least one can do. Both Matt Peacock and Karen Banton were also consultants on Devil’s Dust.
Anthony Hayes and Ewen Leslie make a formidable duo in what is a very satisfying dramatisation from Producers Jason Stephens, Stephen Corvini and Antonia Barnard. Hayes’ testaments in which he champions the sick, the dying and the grieving, while constantly attached to an oxygen tube, are powerful stuff.
Another scene with NSW Premier Bob Carr (Drew Forsythe) meeting asbestos victims is sensitively performed. It shifts him from an independent view to a believer at a time when James Hardie was looking for an easy exit, by relocating the company overseas.
Of all the Sunday telemovies that have aired recently, this is the most accessible and the most important.
Devil’s Dust airs 8:30pm Sunday and Monday on ABC1.