First watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ IT is full of sur­prises, and ad­ven­tures, and in­con­gruities, and con­tra­dic­tions, and in­cred­i­bil­i­ties; but they are all true, they all hap­pened.’’ So wrote Mark Twain of Aus­tralian his­tory. He would have loved Cliff Young, our most un­likely sports hero, a run­ner who trained in gum­boots and pos­sessed a sly farmer’s wit.

And, to para­phrase the great Amer­i­can writer, Young’s story is so im­prob­a­ble it does not read like his­tory but like the most beau­ti­ful of lies.

If you were around in the early 1980s you might re­call Young, or Cliffy as he’s called in this fine, ap­pro­pri­ately mod­est fea­ture pro­duced for the ABC by Clock End Films. Di­rected by Dean Mur­phy ( Char­lie & Boots, Strange Bed­fel­lows) with Nigel Odell ( Strange Bed­fel­lows, Long Week­end) as pro­ducer, Cliffy was writ­ten by Robert B. Tay­lor ( Mug­gers).

And it works a treat, the tale of a bloke his mates call ‘‘ a de­crepit old bas­tard’’ and ‘‘ the world’s worst run­ner’’ who, ac­com­pa­nied by a ram­shackle en­tourage, beats the world’s best while the na­tion watches in­cred­u­lously.

Kevin Har­ring­ton, one of our en­dur­ing vet­eran ac­tors, so mem­o­rable as Kevin Findlay in SeaChange and more re­cently as un­der­world heavy Lewis Mo­ran in Un­der­belly, plays Young. It’s a per­for­mance of ut­ter au­then­tic­ity. Har­ring­ton prac­ti­cally in­hab­its the craggy Cliffy, car­ry­ing him­self with a look of bright as­ton­ish­ment as the world changes around his oddly ethe­real self.

In 1983 Young, a 61-year-old man in over­alls and cheap run­ning shoes — the first he had ever owned — joined the throng of young men pre­par­ing to tackle one of the world’s most gru­elling ul­tra-marathons, the 875km en­durance race from Syd­ney to Melbourne. It was billed as a race be­tween Aus­tralia’s two largest cities. It was, in fact, a race be­tween what were then Aus­tralia’s two largest shop­ping cen­tres: West­field Parramatta, in Syd­ney, and West­field Don­caster, in Melbourne.

To ev­ery­one’s shock, the scruffy old bloke, an im­pe­cu­nious potato farmer from a strug- gling Beech For­est prop­erty out­side Co­lac in ru­ral Vic­to­ria, wasn’t a spec­ta­tor. He picked up his race num­ber and hes­i­tantly joined the other run­ners. Some­how he had in­vei­gled him­self into the com­pe­ti­tion af­ter be­ing told he was crazy and there was no way he could man­age the dis­tance.

When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliffy be­hind. The crowds and tele­vi­sion au­di­ence were en­ter­tained be­cause Cliffy didn’t even run prop­erly; he ap­peared to shuf­fle. He stag­gered for­ward awk­wardly but re­lent­lessly, his back straight, arms dan­gling by his side, his feet cov­er­ing the ground like a metronome’s tick. Many feared for the old farmer’s safety.

All the pro­fes­sional ath­letes knew it took about a week to fin­ish the race. Even then, they had to run about 18 hours a day and sleep the re­main­ing six. But Cliffy kept shuf­fling through the night, even­tu­ally leav­ing the pro­fes­sion­als be­hind. By the third night it was ap­par­ent that some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary was about to hap­pen. He stopped only to eat and for bath­room breaks. Leav­ing Syd­ney as a no­body, he ar­rived in Melbourne a celebrity. The jour­ney took him five days, 15 hours and a few min­utes, cut­ting al­most two days off the record for any pre­vi­ous run be­tween Syd­ney and Melbourne.

Set against the back­drop of the early 80s, Mur­phy’s movie, shot largely around Al­buryWodonga, colour­fully re­traces Young’s jour­ney, from his train­ing in gum­boots in cow pad­docks,to the six-day pe­riod of the ul­tra­ma­rathon, un­til Cliffy emerges as Aus­tralia’s most im­prob­a­ble, if short-lived, national hero.

And Mur­phy wit­tily cov­ers the way Young quickly be­comes a tar­get for ruth­less ad­ver­tis­ing en­trepreneurs when he finds him­self away from his fam­ily and new sweet­heart, Mary, the lo­cal girl many years younger that he is.

She’s played by Krew Boylan, a young ac­tress with a luminous pres­ence who some­how man­ages to make her at­trac­tion to the weath­er­beaten, vir­ginal, stut­ter­ing, run­ning hero not only cred­i­ble but mes­meris­ing. She’s a fine tal­ent with a gift for un­der­state­ment. Mary is an out­sider, too, in the ru­ral com­mu­nity. She’s a run­ner her­self, who gets to know Cliffy as he shuf­fles his way along the lonely bush tracks in the harsh Otway Ranges near Co­lac, to the af­fec­tion­ate gibes of the tradies in their utes.

Roy Billing is Wally, Young’s ini­tially re­luc­tant trainer, a tough nut gone to seed and a bit lost to the grog, who hasn’t trained a de­cent run­ner in years. Billing brings his hang­dog lugubri­ous­ness to the role, good as a teller of tall sto­ries, a bit of a trick­ster. And there’s sturdy sup­port from Anne Ten­ney as Eu­nice, Young’s sup­port­ive salt-of-the-earth sis­ter; Joan Syd­ney, as his mum; and Martin Sacks, as his brother Sid. Gy­ton Grant­ley breezes through the fictitious char­ac­ter of Pow­ell, the race or­gan­iser, the least well­writ­ten role, play­ing the al­most cartoon fig­ure with maybe just a bit too much rel­ish.

And the clever Stephen Curry has to bat­tle a lit­tle too with the fram­ing char­ac­ter of a TV jour­nal­ist called Grif­fin, who pro­vides a run­ning — of­ten in the lit­eral sense — com­men­tary of the race. There’s not much to work with, but the re­source­ful Curry edges in telling dou­ble takes and bits of eye­brow act­ing to lighten what in other hands might have been a rather per­func­tory per­for­mance.

Har­ring­ton is bril­liant. He gives

Cliffy a per­sonal style that’s di­rect and la­conic, seem­ingly so home­spun and art­less, but at times vivid, flex­i­ble and imag­i­na­tive. ‘‘ Do you run a bit?’’ a mate asks him at the start of the film. ‘‘ Yeah,’’ he an­swers. ‘‘ Where do you run to?’’ Cliffy pauses, looks at him. where I’m go­ing.’’

What this low-bud­get pro­duc­tion gets right is tex­ture, that den­sity in the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the char­ac­ters, the solid­ness of the set­ting, and a to­pog­ra­phy you can feel in the soles of your feet. In fact, you watch this film with aching feet ev­ery mo­ment Cliffy is on that road. When we are out there with him, the cam­era tracks ahead, pos­si­bly on the back of a truck, cling­ing to that lonely fig­ure, the land­scape flat­tened out around him, seem­ing to bob with him in sym­pa­thy.

Har­ring­ton’s Young is like some­thing out of Henry Law­son and, like the Drover’s Wife Cliffy lives close to the earth, bat­tling drought and flood, a man liv­ing out a life de­ter­mined al­most wholly by the bush, a bat­tler try­ing to adapt him­self to the de­mands of the land. He keeps run­ning, he says at one point, to stop death from catch­ing him. He has vi­tal­ity, pluck and en­durance, which are no help to him at all when the ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies pounce and be­gin to ex­ploit him.

An amus­ing but telling scene oc­curs halfway through the race when an ex­hausted Young, hav­ing been filmed by the news crew along the way eat­ing a cer­tain brand of tinned fruit, is am­bushed by an ex­ec­u­tive in a suit. As the race fin­ishes he looks up to see a large hoard­ing ad­ver­tis­ing the prod­uct.

Mur­phy and his di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Roger Lanser, tell Young’s story sim­ply with wide tableau shots, ef­fec­tive with­out call­ing at­ten­tion to them­selves, and sim­ple track­ing se­quences. They give the ac­tors space and let the per­for­mances de­velop or­gan­i­cally with­out the need for in­ces­sant close-ups of dif­fer­ent size, so of­ten the way dia­logue is filmed th­ese days.

It is a lik­able, amus­ing movie; the comic touches are qui­etly re­alised and Mur­phy re­sists

‘‘ That de­pends

Kevin Har­ring­ton as Cliffy, above and right; far right, Cliff Young in 1983

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