Secret River a colonial adventure with a conscience

"I hope it gives the racists of the world a good kick up the arse," says Lachy Hulme.


One one level Lachy Hulme was happy to join ABC miniseries The Secret River for its sense of adventure.

“The appeal for me is that it is an adventure story. It’s a bit of a Jack London adventure tale. That’s what really drew me to it, plus the script by Jan Sardi and Mac Gudgeon, Daina Reid directing and Bruce Young shooting it,” he says.

“Ye olde convict day pieces I’d never done before!”

But on another level he recognises the deep social themes of the work, based on Kate Grenville’s acclaimed novel. And some commentators should take note of its Indigenous messages.

“If we’ve done our job properly, there are certain people in the media who will have a good f***ing hard look at themselves,” he continues.

“Hopefully something like this will make them perhaps reconsider their rather trenchant anti-Indigenous philosophies. I hope it gives the racists of the world a good kick up the arse.”

The two-part miniseries is set in colonial Australia as ex-convict Will Thornhill (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and wife Sal (Sarah Snook) settle on a piece of land on the Hawkesbury River. But making no attempt to live alongside the Dharug people, his story is a microcosm of a vast experience.

Hulme says while the characters are not factual, it is a dramatised version of Greville’s own ancestors.

“For all intents and purposes the characters are fictional but the events are very close to the truth,” he says.

“It’s the story of conflict between the white fellas and blackfellas and the attempted genocide of the Indigenous population.”

Hulme plays Thomas Blackwood, who befriends Thornhill, but whose 5 years as a local land-owner also imbues him with local knowledge.

“In a lot of ways he is the conscience of the story. He’s a former riverman on the Thames in London, and a smuggler, scoundrel and thief. He’s been sent out in shackles to Terra Australis,” he explains.

“My approach to nutting out his thought processes, is that he’s a guy who’s had a lot of trouble in his past and now he’s been given a second chance because he’s an emancipated convict. So he’s determined not to have any more troubles in the immediate future.

“His philosophy is that ‘you take a little, you give a little’ and everybody should get along fine. So he doesn’t want trouble visited upon anyone nor trouble visit.”

The miniseries, which also features Tim Minchin, Trevor Jamieson, Sam Johnson, Rhys Muldoon and Genevieve Lemon, was evocatively filmed on the Hawkesbury. But that brought its own set of challenges, Hulme insists.

“When you’re shooting on the water it takes ten times as long to get anything done. You don’t just do a take and go again. You have to turn five boats around, head up river and start again,” he says.

“We were shooting in winter as well, so it all adds up. It wasn’t so bad for me because I had a wonderful coat for my costume, but poor old Oliver Jackson-Cohen was running around with his shirt off half the time. So it was cold, wet and miserable –but we knew we were getting what we set out to do, so it was worth it.”

At least he was amongst good company with longtime friend Daina Reed, who has previously directed him in Offspring and Howzat!: Kerry Packer’s War.

“We really enjoy working with each other. And not just Daina, but Bruce Young our cinematographer I’ve done a lot of stuff with, too. He’s a force of nature as a cinematographer,” he adds.

Secret River is amazing to look at. So Bruce, Daina and I are very sympatico.”

The Secret River airs 8:30pm Sunday June 14 and 21 on ABC.

6 Responses

  1. Greenville became interested in the interactions between early settlers and aborigines. So she started a non-fiction book on her ancestor Solomon Wiseman. However, he ran boats up the East Coast and didn’t get his first land grant on the river until 1817 at Wilberforce, and the landholding he’s famous for till 1823. The first lands grants on the The Hawkesbury were in 1794 and successfully farmed by James Ruse and 21 others.

    So she used Wiseman’s backstory for a fictional tale about Thornhill, who ended up on the river in the first decade of the 19th Century. Its a fictional story exploring interactions between a hunter-gather culture and settlers, set in a geography she had researched.

    Hulme assuming it will get back at media he disagrees with, “is very close to the truth” and proves an attempted genocide, says more about Hulme’s motives for appearing in it.

    1. Of course they do. How else are they to know about the ‘black armband’ view of history being ‘forced’ on ‘real Australians’ by ‘left-wing ivory-tower latte-sipping academics’?

      Oh, hang on, I’m forgetting about talkback radio and Ltd News…

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