Australia: The Story of Us

Over-produced history suggests a lack of faith in the source material and the audience.

2015-02-15_0147When I first saw the showreel for Australia: The Story of Us at the Seven Upfronts last year, it was very impressive: a rich history, aerial photography, a big landscape.

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.

17 Responses

  1. I actually wanted to watch this however I was happy I didn’t waste too mush time as Tom Foolery’s face filled a quarter of my screen. The decision was easy, switched to Broadchurch immediately. Next time a “warning” came over, I think the TV channels call them “promos” where another leftie fool, Andrew O’keefe was narrating some dribble. What qualifications do either of these Greens supporters have? Advertisers, you have been had! Great reading the comments above, I didn’t miss a thing.

  2. As a professional tour guide I was so looking forward to Our Story being told, however, was disappointed to see all the historic material focussed on the East and the West was totally overlooked. The fact Capt James Stirling first arrived in 1827 as a result of French earlier interest was not mentioned, nor was the fact Capt Stirling returned as WA’s first Governor General in 1829. Perth may be remotely situated, however, our history is a rich combination of colonial, pioneering, indigenous and southern European origins – particularly in the Swan Valley – Australia’s second oldest wine region behind the Hunter Valley. If this program is to be a true “Story of Us” then please don’t forget about US in the West……

  3. I watched this late last night….and quite enjoyed it….did not strain my brain late at night….
    I also did not mind the intermittent commentary…the fact that is was delivered by recognisable persons….did nothing for me really…did not quite get the point of that….voice over would have worked just as well…and cheaper.

  4. One of my friends appears as a Turkish soldier who gets killed in one of the sketches *ahem* segments in an upcoming episode, so I’ll only be watching it for that purpose.

    Under any other circumstance, I wouldn’t be caught dead watching a commercial network’s version of “Australian history”. The fact that they’ve punctuated the series with “celebrities” blabbing on about something they know very little about makes this laughable mess all the more off-putting. I’m curious though as to how much of the commentary is provided by actual historians.

  5. I quite enjoyed the first ep.
    I agree that they’ve maybe dumbed it down a little to make it more accessible, but i see that as a good thing. Get some of those Reality TV watchers into a Doco…

    Pertinax – They didn’t say that all settlers houses were built illegally. They said that some were and said that one particular guy had built his on land he didn’t own or lease. If you’re going to get all ranty, at least pay attention.

  6. The celebrities making bland uncontroversial statements they know nothing about to pad it out where annoying.

    It’s coverage is selective and its accuracy questionable. Claiming the colonial office just restricted coinage is nonsense. Economic problems Europe produced inflation and a shortage of metal for coins. This was an empire wide problems. Rupees were bought from India but used to buy goods from ships coming from India to returned there. Attempts to supply coins from Britain when minting resumed were thwarted by corrosion of the copper coins. Macquarie solved the problem by buying up Spanish Dollars and punching the middle out to make a local currency with no value elsewhere. Once gold was discovered coins were minted here.

    Also claiming that settlers buildings were all illegal is also nonsense. They were mostly built on leases granted by previous governors after Phillip…

    1. Pertinax, it was meant to be anti-Australian, anti-British. The left trying to corrupt history yet again. An obvious lead in to further the Republication issue. Not too hard to work out when you consider the “speakers”.

  7. It was a little better than I was expecting given the review, but if you’re going to feature celebrities on a program like this they better be able to add depth to the show that you couldn’t merely get from the re-enactment – half of them were completely pointless tonight – they shouldn’t regurgitate what the narrator just said a minute ago (Dick Smith), and if they feel the need to offer justification as to their expertise on that particular subject, it sure as hell ought to be better than “I’ve travelled across Bass Strait before” (Dick Smith again).

  8. After watching the first ep, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it to be historically accurate, and very informative. The CGI and re-enactments were well done.

  9. We have had many programs over the years that cover our History.We don’t want shows that stretch the truth or basically lied about.Having celebrites to put their 2c worth in is a poor choice.I’m not surprised by Channel 7’s effort here

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