His­tory and the box are a per­fect match: both of them tak­ing us into a dream world of imag­i­na­tion first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

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

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