Riot act

Portraying the ‘Godfather’ of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras carries responsibilities for actor Damon Herriman, on the eve of the 40th Anniversary.

ABC’s Riot telemovie dramatises the events that led to civil action in Sydney in 1978 ahead of decriminalisation of homosexuality in New South Wales. Lance Gowland (Herriman) was an experienced unionist and seasoned activist, having heard the words of Martin Luther King in the March on Washington D.C. in 1963.

Yet while he rallied oppressed members of his community, he was only one of the activists in the Campaign Against Moral Persecution -and he wasn’t the man who suggested a street protest, which was a suggestion by Ron Austin (Josh Quong Tart). So why is Gowland the central character?

“I asked the same thing and somebody said, ‘What about Robyn & Marg because she suggested to call it a Mardi Gras?’ The truth of the matter is it’s impossible to include every important member of the Gay & Lesbian right movement in this story. So they have had to choose a selection and someone to follow,” Herriman explains.

“It’s so important Ron gets credit for coming up with the idea.

“The real Ron who is about 87 now is an extra in the scene where Ron says ‘Why don’t we have a street party?’ So for those looking out for a very old man sitting at the bar, that’s the real Ron!”

“I am usually a stickler for that stuff”

While some events have been changed for dramatic purposes, Herriman maintains the bulk of it sticks close to archival evidence, thanks to writer Greg Waters and researchers.

“Most of the people that you meet by name are all based on real people,” says Herriman.

“I am usually a stickler for that stuff asking ‘Did this actually happen?’ And most of the time it did. Or it’s a version that is close enough.

“There may be cases where something happened on 2 days and they make it happen in the same scene, for purposes of storytelling. But the majority of the stuff is based on the research that Greg Waters and the producers did, by talking to people who were there.

“Jim Walker (Xavier Samuel) was his boyfriend. That was his name and he was a doctor. He was more conservative and less of an activist. So they were kind of chalk and cheese in many ways.”

In bringing Lance Gowland to the screen, Herriman was able to draw upon considerable audio and video recordings and he met Gowland’s own children from an earlier marriage.

“When you are playing someone real you are conscious that while he has sadly passed away, he has children and grandchildren, an ex-wife, family and friends. So you want to try and capture enough of the person so they can see something familiar, on screen,” he says.

“I met all of his kids. He has two sons and a daughter, who has Down Syndrome, and they all came to set on the night when we shot the beginning the Mardi Gras and we first pull out into Oxford Street.

“The two sons were extras too, which was really cool.”

“He didn’t do things by the book”

Herriman, who acknowledges the production included a large contingent of LGBTI cast & crew, says while Mardi Gras was a communal civil action, the telemovie focuses on Gowland with good reason.

“There was something about the fact he was so different from everyone else. He would go to a drag show and say ‘Why aren’t we out on the streets protesting?’

“The fact that he didn’t do things by the book, and was not afraid of stepping on toes or putting noses out of joint…”

Riot screens 8:30pm Sunday February 25 on ABC.

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