Kevin Harrington commits to the role of a folk hero, but ABC's telemovie falls short of the finish line.

17cliffyThere’s a moment in the opening scenes of ABC’s telemovie Cliffy where Cliff Young (Kevin Harrington) is chasing cows on his Beech Forest farm.

The 61 year old then pauses for a moment to help a tiny, struggling frog reach some much-needed water. Yes, Cliffy is that kind of guy.

Before long we learn that the family farm is struggling to pay the bills, so he tries to sell a Jersey cow, but can’t bring himself to do it. Like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, he returns home to mum (Joan Sydney) unable to part ways with the poor thing.

As one local tells him, “You are bloody useless. No wonder you can’t pay your bills. Your old man would be spinning in his grave!”

Not to be outdone, the unassuming Cliff has one trump card: his ability to run, and run and run…

It’s 1983 and he hears about the Westfield Ultramarathon race from Sydney to Melbourne with a $10,000 prize. Gyton Grantley plays the marathon promoter Powell (a fictitious character added by the writer) with big dreams and a handlebar moustache.

Young asks friend and masseur Wally (Roy Billing) to train him, but Wally takes some convincing.

“You always were a dreamer, Cliff,” he insists.

During his training regime he encounters a local girl, Mary (Krew Boyland), 39 years his junior, but our coy hero can’t manage much more than a sheepish grin.

When his family and locals get wind of his grand plans they laugh off the idea, but in his need and naivete Cliff plods forward.

By the time Cliff reaches the registration point in Sydney with his family support crew, Powell tries to stop him from entering the event. “You’re 61 and a potato farmer and I will not have my race turned into a farce,” he says.

But Powell relents, allowing at least half of the telemovie to focus on his marathon run, with TV news updates from journalist Griffin (Stephen Curry). The rest, as they say, is history.

Harrington has committed much to this role, losing a pile of weight and giving an understated performance as this reluctant folk hero. He has the ‘gumboot shuffle’ down pat and makes the most of a meek role with limited dialogue. Roy Billing largely plays second banana to Harrington’s straight man.

Anne Tenney, Martin Sacks and Josh Hine play family members while a number of actors who have been absent from our screens for some time have supporting roles or cameos: Ross Daniels, John Walker, Spencer McLaren, Babs McMillan, Peter Cousens.

Directed by Dean Murphy (Strange Bedfellows, Charlie and Boots) and written by Robert B. Taylor (Muggers) this leans as much toward comedy as it does drama. Many of the rural characters, especially the men, are portrayed as hokey, simple folk talking in vernacular clichés. Some dialogue hammers home the bleedingly obvious.

Female performers Joan Sydney, Anne Tenney and (despite a dodgy 1980s wig) Krew Boyland, are more effective in giving truthful performances.

The telemovie also encapsulates Cliff Young’s difficulties dealing with post-race fame and, for reasons still unclear to me, we’re even privvy to his honeymoon night with young bride Mary.

Cliffy has its heart in the right place, and would be far weaker without Harrington in the title role, but while it’s admirable to look back on our social history I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the relevance of this bio-pic was. I’ve longed championed the diversity of ABC’s Drama slate but I’m just not convinced we need a telemovie to mark the 30th anniversary of Young’s run.

As I look to this weekend on the ABC we have a documentary about Gough Whitlam and a drama about Cliff Young.

Imagine what we might have gotten if they’d been done the other way around.

Cliffy airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC1.

23 Responses

  1. I loved this movie. Adore Kevin Harrington. The whole script and actors were great and the story is inspirational. Does anyone know how and where Mary Howell is these days please?

  2. I saw it. Plus Whitlam. I thought Whitlam was informative and Cliffy was reasonably enjoyable. I’m glad I didn’t care about it like Doctor Who because I note the dreaded pop-ups are back with added extra. Plus the end credits ads.

    I just like to thank the ABC for that pop-up free time. I loved it. I was surprised it happened. I hope one day it might happen again maybe permanently. But I won’t hold my breath for this decade. Because just like it doesn’t make sense for ABC News 24 to be out of sync with most of Australia during prime time. It also makes no sense to give the viewers the ability to avoid the ads.

    I’ve never hated the ABC and I guess we’ll see whom outlasts whom. I vote for television to exist long after I’m dead (hopefully of natural causes ). I’m also sorry for the other viewers they don’t deserve this punishment. But I guess they are getting it anyway.

  3. I lived through the whole “Cliffy” saga and I’m still disgusted with the media and this country for elevating him to folk hero status. It seemed to be symptomatic of the old guard of the media at the time desperate for “Aussie characters”.

    When I think of all the young sportsmen (and women) at the time who put in the hard yards, ate the right food and had the sporting mindset being ignored in favour of an old man wearing gumboots I really despaired over what this country had become.

    The whole Cliff Young thing happened just after Australia won the America’s Cup and the media were desperate for Aussie success stories. As each year went by, certain journalists broke ranks and said what an increasing number of people were thinking. That Cliff Young had become a pathetic self parody. When he caught pleurisy on the Sydney-Melbourne marathon a few years after his 1983 victory the public felt pity for him, not sympathy or support. When he married a girl 40 years younger than him I called him a paedophile, not a national hero.

    We like to think that the media has improved over the years. Let’s hope it has and we are never again subjected to garbage like the Cliff Young saga.

  4. Watching the boringly same promos for Paper Wars and Cliffy at every programme break I feel I’ve seen them both already, many times over. I’m completely fed up and will definitely not watch the full versions. Hasn’t the ABC ever hear of a teaser or the phrase ‘less is more’? Good Cop is a compelling series that’s little advertised – but it’s imported.

  5. Without any effort whatsoever, I can think of 20 Australians more worthy of a biopic than “Cliffy”. Come to think of it, I can probably think of ten sportsmen or women more worthy – and I’m not remotely interested in sport. When projects as dubious as this hit the airwaves I often think it’s a pity we don’t get to see some of the pitches that were rejected. I wouldn’t mind betting there’d be one or two that were a whole lot more interesting.

  6. Maybe it needed to be told because it was a good story. To me, this country has so many different stories, because there are so many different kinds of people living/born here.
    And, to me, this is just another we should celebrate.
    I look at this as more about the heart of the man & what he did than just about the run.
    But, maybe, that’s just me 🙂

  7. The trouble with Australian dramas like this for me is judging by the synopsis and the trailers, I feel that I can picture exactly how it’s going to be. There is a laconic Australian style that for me, has been done to death.

    Still, Babs McMillan, what’s she been up to since being Cass Parker all those years ago?

  8. I agree with Lizzie May – it’s not personal – there should just be a policy whereby a Head of Drama, (and all the genres for that matter) do a “tour of duty” and it is assumed they will move on – most agencies are implementing the 5 year rule. The ABC needs to defend itself against criticisms of laziness and cronyism. It’s very clear the same few people are being re-commissioned by the current drama department on a regular basis.

  9. The Head of Drama at ABC has been kicking around the industry for many years and l would suggest there’s a bit of battle weariness creeping in. There’s no way anyone can stay fresh having to process that volume. I think all those ABC folks should be turned over after three or so years.

  10. @ronnie

    At least wait until the new Paper Giants before writing off ABC drama efforts. This Cliff biodrama is probably a misfire, but compare it to some of the network offerings. Zelebrity Apprentice, Zelebrity Splash, House Fools, c’mon- at the very least ABC is trying to drag some of the dire Aussie television out of the mire we find it in now.

  11. @ Ronnie

    I am one of the older generation who are often claimed to be resistant to change, but ironically it is our generation who has experienced and hopefully ethically survived some of the most dramatic changes encompassing transition from the so called “Dark Ages” to today’s ” Technological Booby Trapped Environment”.

    But whilst the ABC and SBS have also experienced and adapted to the same transitional changes, I think that there has been one constant aspect that has always been a pre-requisite of viewing ABC’s and SBS’s offerings, whilst catering to a wide variation of viewer expectations and with even wider personal skills/knowledge/preferences/location and languages etc.

    So even in my so called change resistant transition, I have quickly and most appreciatively graduated from the dark ages of restricted ELP video tape recording( and its quality sacrifices), to today’s USB recording to TB’s of data storage( with No quality sacrifices), so that one can do what has always been the pre-exquisite of ABC’s hit and miss programme lottery, and that is to record nearly everything at least once, to sort the Dud’s from the Delights that suit my viewing preferences.

  12. @ David Knox

    David to prove that I appreciate and read your blogs in their entirety, and in my usual style of never letting a chance go by, even if it it got down to virtually the last two lines, thus being able to avoid another possibly deserved polite request/warning to “Stay On Topic ” as it was yourself who introduced Gough Whitlam into this mix.

    In regards to the main context of your review, I ask if it is not done deceptively or maliciously, is there anything greatly wrong, if fine the line between ’embellishment’ and ‘ interesting’ is slightly blurred on occasions?.

    Unlike when history(conflicts, fraud and politically) can seemingly sometimes(mostly?) be rewritten in some of the current affairs items of the day or documentary’s that seem to surface(resurface) around election times?

  13. Can the ABC please appoint a Head of Drama who make good choices of material in the first place and then actually bring some expertise to the Executive Producing credit they take? It’s one thing to recommission other people’s hits – it’s quite another to put your personal curatorial stamp on the slate. There is no reason the ABC cannot commission great drama (Foxtel have been showing the way for years) – all it will take is a visionary department head – we have all the skills and we prove it all the time. These people are hard to find – but if you don’t have one – keeping looking! The shuffling potato farmer was always going to be a low point.

  14. “Imagine what we might have gotten if they’d been done the other way around.”

    Exactly! I think I would’ve watched an hour doco on Cliff, or even 30 mins on Australian Story. I’m not interested in seeing a dramatisation of such a dull subject matter with corny dialogue and where liberty is taken with the facts. The ads certainly left me unimpressed. I think “hokey” captures it perfectly.

  15. Have seen promos for this. Cliffy is the decent battler and the baddie is the promoter with an evil black moustache. Excuse the pun but it does look pretty pedestrian. You’re right David there are lots of more interesting and more demanding pieces of Aussie history which could have been told. ABC drama could be a lot more interesting than this one seems to be. Perhaps it should look at what the Ten Network did in the 80s with its wonderful rendering of Whitlam’s demise with The Dismissal.

  16. David, thanks for your honest review. You’re the only Melbourne-based reviewer I totally trust when reviewing a Melbourne made program. The others, IMO, tend to get a little biased, which often clouds their judgement.

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