In 2013 Miriam Margolyes was naturalised as Australian.
The star from the Harry Potter franchise, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries & Call the Midwife has a home in the NSW Southern Highlands she shares with her partner, Heather.
But when Southern Pictures approached her with the idea of a documentary, Almost Australian, she jumped at the chance to learn about the contrasts within our nation.
“I don’t know rural Australia”
“We all live in our own little bubble and we rarely have the opportunity to get outside it, and that’s what I wanted to do. I did say to them ‘I want to see the things I don’t know.’ And I don’t know rural Australia. I don’t know Aboriginals. I don’t know farming communities. I don’t know little towns. I don’t know anything about the drought. And I don’t know anything about migrants,” she tells TV Tonight.
“So they took me to the places that were outside my comfort zone.”
In her three part series she embarks on a 10,000 km journey across NSW, Victoria, and Queensland in her fully-equipped motorhome.
From grey nomads, to home ownership, farming, Aussie Rules, car rallies and Aboriginal elders, Margolyes injects her experience with humour, inquisitiveness and a touch of politics.
Amongst those she meets is former Afghanistan refugee Moj, whom she encountered working in a St. Vinnie’s op shop. Sharing his life story turned Miriam to tears…
“His story just broke my heart,” she admits.
“I’m still in touch with him and I just ache for him. I’ve had such an easy life and he has not.
“You know how people try to characterise, migrants saying, ‘They just come for a handout,’ he’s the absolute opposite of that.”
“Who is this little Pommy person, who thinks she can swan in and make judgments?”
But not every meeting went so smoothly when she aired her views.
“Aboriginal farmer Frank didn’t like me. It’s always harder to work with people that don’t like. I mean, he wasn’t nasty. Not very nasty. He was a proud independent man and he obviously thought ‘Who is this little Pommy person, who thinks she can swan in and make judgments?’ And I could completely understand that. I thought he was incredibly impressive.”
Frank also described Australia as the most racist country of all.
“That really shocked me and surprised me,” Margolyes recalls, “so it’s obviously his perception. But then I went to this little town Nhill (in western Victoria) that was dying because the factory was closing and it was saved by a group of immigrants from another world. They love them. The people opened to them, they enjoy their presence. They made friends and it was heartwarming to see that.”
“I have to tell you the way I see it”
Margolyes is also unapologetic for her political views, which is a frequent theme of her documentaries.
“I’m very political, and people take offence. And I think ‘Well stuff it. If you do, you do.’ I have to tell you the way I see it,” she insists.
“I place huge stress on the fact that I only tell the truth. I will not soften anything.
“I would like to just do programs about politics… that’s how strongly I feel about politics. But I try quite deliberately in myself to moderate how I feel about that. Because otherwise I’m interposing myself between the story that people have, and the audience. I hope that I let the people tell their stories. That’s what you have to do.”
So how has the road trip and documentary changed her view of Australia?
“Australia is so much more complicated than I thought. We think we know what it’s like. But we don’t. It’s quite complicated. It’s layered. Lots of things happen. I do think I was right that it’s harsher than it was. Maybe that’s true in the world.
“There’s a there’s a harshness about it, which I didn’t expect. Because when I first came in the 80s it was very surreal. I think that politically it’s hardened up. But the world has.”
“Surfers Paradise, it’s disgusting”
Indeed, she does not hold back on her views of high density living in Queensland.
“There is a brutality there and a greed in Australia, which I don’t like. You know, the developers. Those horrible structures along the coast, that people should be ashamed of living in. Surfers Paradise, it’s disgusting. I think that actually shocked me because I don’t go there. It’s not my world and I don’t want to go there.
“My world is the world of show business, theatre and television and I was really out of my world.”
‘The poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”
But Margolyes hopes her storytelling skills give others a perspective on the country that they too, don’t usually see.
“We who are the artists, as Shelley said, ‘The poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ We have a serious responsibility, a serious job. I don’t think being an actress is a trivial thing. I think it’s a serious thing,” she explains.
“Television can be a serious thing. But sometimes you have to dress it up a bit. I take my work really seriously -not myself- I’m just an old lady. It comes out on the 19th of May and I will be 79 on the 18th of May and I’m very proud of that.
“I love it and I want it to be better. That’s what I say. I love Australia and I want it to be better.”
Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian airs 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.