Now I have seen the first episode I confess to being disappointed.
Based on a US format, this feels decidedly over-produced to me. The tone and editing upstage the history in a constant ploy to bring it closer to primetime drama.
Branded as ‘Docu-drama’ it includes re-enactments, CGI and experts to depict 5 chapters in our history every week.
It begins in 1790, not with the First Fleet, but the Second, when 800 British convicts and their guards arrive in Sydney. Instead of relief with supplies, there were ill men who had barely survived the sea journey. In this first story the series punctuates its drama sequences with rapid-fire edit points, FX and overt direction. Pow! Bam! Flash! Despite the efforts to recreate a period scene, it feels tabloid.
Paeleontologist Professor Tim Flannery tells us how the Second Fleet was a catastrophe. As farmer James Ruse develops early farming crops, Rebecca Gibney talks about the reinvention by early settlers. I’m a bit confused about her expertise in this area, unless it’s the “drama” in the “docu-drama.”
Another sequence travels back in time using CGI to depict a prehistoric age. Narrator Richard Roxburgh, who surely has been hired for gravitas, tells us there were “Goannas the size of buses…two tonne wombats… a bird with football size eggs.” Even in the ‘burbs they will understand this kind of analogy, which presumably is the point.
There’s an 1804 trade war with sealers, with seal pelts as our first global export. It zeroes in on its most violent elements. The music and the action reach a crescendo. Dick Smith and Greg Norman comment on the feud with Americans.
The first episode also includes aboriginal “freedom fighter” Pemulwuy’s war for land in Parramatta. Leading his attacks against colonials, he is described as “a clever man, a warrior with mystical powers… a rebel …a terrorist.” Seriously? While he is still throwing spears, he also has apparently mastered English. Adam Goodes comments on this occasion, about what it means to be a warrior.
Also commenting in the first episode are Malcolm Turnbull, Tim Costello and Andrew O’Keefe. Other history experts and academics are helpful in putting context on the stories chosen by producers but there is not enough discernment when it comes to celebrities giving us their insights. It’s as if the two are on equal footing here. Foxtel’s The People Speak: Australia achieved this with more success by having notable actors recite letters and diary entries as Live performance.
It is the over-produced drama -or even melodrama- that is most distracting here, which is a shame given the source material is so rich. Colonial sequences are not too far removed from Seven’s former Sunday offering, Wild Boys, with action scenes whipping up a frenzy that leave the viewer exhausted.
While I commend Seven for attempting to put History into primetime, a little more faith in the audience might have matched the showreel.
Australia: The Story of Us premieres 8:30pm Sunday on Seven.