THE FUGITIVE UNIVERSE
History and the box are a perfect match: both of them taking us into a dream world of imagination first watch
THESE days many of us get our history from TV. After all, it’s the ideal medium for presenting what British historian Simon Schama calls ‘‘ the business of representing something that’s no longer there’’. There’s no better means, surely, to find ways to persuade us to suspend our disbelief, to spend a while imagining, to paraphrase Schama, ‘‘ we are indeed in a world akin to dreams or memories, a fugitive universe’’. Which is a lovely way to describe not only history but TV, too.
A new ABC series, Australia on Trial, presented by historian Michael Cathcart, takes us imaginatively into the Australia of colonial times, examining three historic trials that raise shifting and confronting issues of national identity. It is the time in our history, spanning decades, that Manning Clark called ‘‘ the period in which the shape of things to come is first formed’’. This is not the young Australia of the free and happy land of eternal sunshine, but a desolate place full of the atmosphere of Greek tragedies.
Each of three episodes covers a separate legal controversy, all turning on the question of what it means to be Australian. In the first episode, The Mount Rennie Outrage, we witness the trial of 11 young Sydney ‘‘ larrikins’’ charged with the terrible gang rape of 16-year-old orphan Mary Jane Hicks. The trial took place in late 1886, little more than 12 months before Sydney was to commemorate the centenary landing of the First Fleet. This case raised questions that reverberate still. Was the blood of the convicts still flowing in the veins of Australia’s young men? Had rape replaced bushranging as the authentic Australian crime? And was the suffering of Hicks a curse from the past? That’s followed by Cathcart’s investigation of the case of the 13 diggers detained six weeks after the 1854 Eureka Stockade uprising and prosecuted for treason in 1855, the thrilling story of a rebellion brought about by an inept and militaristic government.
The final episode looks at the fate, in 1838, of seven European settlers involved in the killing of about 30 unarmed Aborigines at Myall Creek in northern NSW. Australia on Trial is a persuasive, and surprisingly entertaining, co-production between Sydney’s Essential Media and Melbourne’s December Media, with December’s George Adams handling the shoot in his home city and Essential’s Penny Robins looking after scripting and post production in Sydney.
Australia on Trial explores the nature of Australian identity — and it doesn’t come from a sunny, happy place, but one bearing the desolate tone of a Greek tragedy