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