History and Empire on Screen: Writing the Indigenous character

Absent characters in Banished and Our Country’s Good

This month the Cultural Institute at King’s in partnership with the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies launches History and Empire on Screen, a series of exploratory workshops I have designed for screenwriters to look at how to tell stories from the imperial era with Indigenous characters as the protagonists and antagonists. In other words, how to write the untold stories from colonial history for the screen.

As a doctoral research student in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, my project explores how history becomes fiction, and I am particularly interested in feature films and television drama about (and made in) Australia. How do these powerful, big budget screen depictions of our past become part of the national narrative, and how does the fiction end up being perceived as history?

There are two recent examples of drama based on the Imperial era in Australia that have received a wide, mass audience. Banished, the television drama written by Jimmy McGovern for the BBC, and the National Theatre production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker that ended last week. Ok, so the latter is not film or television, but it is the National theatre, and it is on right now, and national narratives are a major part of my research. The play was written in the 1980s and this is a revival.

Banished and Our Country’s Good are both set in the first months of the settlement in New South Wales. They are not the first plays or the first television dramas to be set in this milieu (aka ‘dramatic world’). But since the 1980s, when Our Country’s Good was written, there has been considerable research around the First Fleet’s interactions with the Indigenous inhabitants of Sydney. Henry Reynold’s’ Why Weren’t We Told and Inga Clendinnen’s award-winning Dancing With Strangers are leading books in this area; more recently Grace Karskens’ The Colony has charted new terrain. Even David Hunt’s satirical Girt delves into some untold stories.

So eyebrows were raised when Banished had not a single Indigenous Australian, as Dr Ian Henderson, Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, discusses here.

I enjoyed Banished. I loved the way it showed the two relationships and character storylines taking place within the separate worlds of the soldiers and the convicts.

And yes, I wondered how a drama this big could avoid the Indigenous Australian side of the story, especially given recent claims from Australian film industry policy makers that Indigenous stories are now the mainstream. Not only does this imply that audiences might expect to see these stories included, it also suggests that by omitting Indigenous narratives the film may exclude a potentially lucrative audience – something the former director of the Australian Film Television and Radio School stated in 2013.

Our Country’s Good has a solitary Indigenous Australian man observing the new arrivals from afar. There is no interaction between the British and the Australians. The Australians’ scenes are painted in a wash straight out of the film Walkabout, complete with imposing silhouette of the man in warrior pose.

IMAGE 1 walkabout5

(Iconic film still from Walkabout 1971)

 

 

 

 

jpeg1 Our Country's Good gary wood

(Image to represent a First Australian at the National Theatre in 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

 

He also appears in the background of scenes of cruelty to women, suggesting some sort of noble savage empathy with the feminine. Yet the diaries of the officers of the First Fleet express shock at the violence against women amongst the First Australians they encountered. What’s interesting here is that the National Theatre has deliberately chosen not to reinterpret the play according to shifts in historical and political understandings of settlement that have taken place in the two decades since the play was first performed.

I enjoyed Our Country’s Good. I loved its Old Sydney Town red coats (Old Sydney Town was a theme park near Sydney that we grew up on, with no Indigenous presence naturally, and it closed about 20 years ago), and a fantastic set that rose from the floor to reveal the bowels of a ship. The show has new music by Cerys Matthews that gives it the intimacy of a folk musical. If they can do new music, why not new historical research? I didn’t like that the play perpetuated a false national narrative about Indigenous Australians, when it had the budget and the resources to do the opposite. I worried that my son might start to confuse it with the real history of Australia. National critics did: “power, magic and historical accuracy” to quote just one of them (but the critics all took a similar line, apart from The Times.)

Let’s next address the casting of the play. Our Country’s Good has a slightly diverse cast (two out of six of the officers are played by non-white actors). I may be watching a multi-racial cast playing the officers of the First Fleet, but ultimately I am still watching a story about a bunch of white dudes, with some pretty outrageous racial depictions of First Australians. Diversity on screen and on stage is one of the most important issues for the British film, television and theatre industries, but it also needs to come from the stories we tell, it’s not simply a matter of colour-blind casting. The problem is not with all-white casts, I argue that the real problem is with all-white stories.

jpeg2 our country's good

(2015 well known actor playing a real person from 1788)

 

 

 

 

 

 

bungaree

 

(The real person from 1820s who no one has heard of and who would make a great character in a play about the settler colonial period)

 

 

 

 

  • Earle, Augustus, 1793-1838.
  • Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales, with Fort Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, in background [picture]
  • [ca. 1826]
  • http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2256865

The Indigenous stories of the settler colonial era are rarely, if ever, seen on stage or screen. Contemporary stories, yes we have them, a few of them. But historical dramas with non-white characters, that’s a rare thing. And in the leading roles of protagonist and antagonist? I can hardly think of any.

It is important that we are not afraid to find the stories about non-white characters in Britain’s Imperial past. Even if those characters come from a culture that does not have a written history, it is still possible to research their worlds and to create heroes and heroines with agency, protagonists that see the world differently. Only then will we be watching stories that aren’t just about white dudes.

I’m new to academia. I spent many years working in theatre and then studied screenwriting. It surprises me and excites me that it is in academia that I am meeting the people who know where these forgotten histories can be accessed, for example in the departments of English, History, Art History and Information Studies. Writers, this is where the ideas come from! In this series of workshops, the screenwriters will be meeting academics from these disciplines. Let’s see where this journey of exploration takes us and what stories we can tell.

Words by Sheridan Humphreys, PhD Candidate, English Language and Literature, Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. 

Pictures from National Theatre press office
Production Photographer: Simon Annand
Jpegs from Left to Right
Jpeg 1 Gary Wood – The Aborigine
Jpeg 22 Jodie McNee – Liz Morden, Cyril Nri – Captain Arthur Phillip
Bungaree 

Bennelong picture alongside Jpeg 1 Gary Wood
(other copies can be found on Google images of Bennelong)