If you thought the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras was all feathers, sequins and well-oiled abs, Riot will change all that.
The ABC telemovie is an honest and moving civil rights drama. Unlike the glam of Carlotta or Priscilla, this is Australia’s own Stonewall where anger underlines its central characters -but with a touch of romance.
In 1972 unionist Lance Gowland (Damon Herriman) was entrenched amongst an inner-Sydney queer commune that called itself CAMP: the Campaign Against Moral Persecution. It’s a smoky, post-hippy hangout full of “anarchists and agitators” but for the previously-married Gowland, who attended Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, it is a place of refuge and hope.
Marg McCann (Kate Box) and girlfriend Robyn Plaister (Jessica De Gouw) share Lance’s dream to decriminalise homosexuality but writer Greg Waters fittingly captures the internal politics of gays and lesbians, constantly tossing insults at one another and struggling to find unity. The women want action committees, the men want street protests.
“There is way too much to do without educating poofs about womens rights,” declares one woman.
Amid his ‘comrade’ activism, Lance meets handsome young doctor Dr. Jim Walker (Xavier Samuel) whose closeted, privileged life gets an awakening through Lance’s very liberal world.
Early scenes include the very first gay kiss on Australian TV on Chequerboard, protests against a local church, misogyny, police raids, inner city bars, and beats.
But there is also the personal touch, including scenes with Lance caring for his daughter with down syndrome, and growing intimacy between Lance and Jim.
On-going oppression under the NSW government for those who dare to express their sexuality leads to job losses, bashings and suicide attempts. For the defiant, obstinate Lance the urgency to confront laws becomes too much. It is exacerbated by Marg facing a custody struggle to prevent her children being taken away from her.
The idea for a street march, suggested by Ron Austin (Josh Quong Tart) takes them “out of the bars and onto the streets.” One night’s action will unknowingly give rise to an Australian social institution -but the price the CAMP community (now known as the 78-ers) pay is bloody and violent.
Under director Jeffrey Walker’s hand, Riot never detours into self-indulgence. Recreated scenes, with woollen fashions, denim and unkempt hairstyles, perfectly capture King’s Cross and Darlinghurst in the mid 1970s. Director of Photography Martin McGrath filters out the gaudy colours to focus on story.
Not a performance is out of place here. The ageless Damon Herriman is outstanding as Lance, warmly matched by the naivety of Xavier Samuel’s Jim. Kate Box never shrinks from the cause and a difficult, supporting role from Max Cullen is first-rate. Wait until you see who has a red-hot go at depicting Premier Neville Wran….
Greg Waters infuses his script with emotion, humour and truth, amply complemented by music from David Hirschfelder. Expect a swag of nominations to surround this project.
In truth any one of these central characters could have been the entry point to dramatising the group’s mission, but the meticulous research indicates Lance Gowland is “Godfather of the Revolution.” He was the driver of the lead float and the first person arrested.
40 years later his legacy survives, brought to life with conviction by Damon Herriman and a very dedicated bunch of creatives.
Riot airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.