Bastard Boys: episode guide

Waterfront war for Docklands

JACK THOMPSON and Colin Friels will lead a line-up of top actors in a new mini-series that will see Melbourne's Docklands stripped of its glamour and returned on screen to its bovver-boy days of the 1990s.

The four-part ABC multi-million-dollar series, Bastard Boys, will recreate the 1998 battle for the waterfront that polarised Australians' opinions as workers and bosses went head to head.

Apparently, it will be a war film, buddy movie, love story and courtroom drama rolled into one.

Also in the cast are Justine Clarke, Rhys Muldoon, Lucy Bell, Geoff Morrell, Daniel Frederiksen, Dan Wyllie, Anthony Hayes, Justin Smith and Helen Thomson.

Amazingly, producer Brett Popplewell managed to persuade real-life participants from both sides to tell their stories for writer Sue Smith.

That includes former Patrick CEO Chris Corrigan and ACTU secretary Greg Combet.

The nine-week shoot will be filmed mostly in Melbourne and partly in Sydney.

"It's a strange one to design because, although it was less than 10 years ago, it looks completely different," an ABC spokesperson said.

"Recreating internal shots is even more difficult than externals -- such as the sets of various TV studios circa 1998."

That will mean big mobiles, heavy TVs, housebrick landlines with cords and video players.

There will be some huge scenes on the docks involving hundreds of extras, recreating massive protests staged by the Maritime Union of Australia.

Perhaps the residents of the newly swish area will get an opportunity to put on their blue shirts and steel-capped boots to join in.

Best if they all watch On the Waterfront, the definitive film of this genre made in 1954 with Marlon Brando.

By Caron James
July 02, 2006
The Herald Sun

Port in a storm

Patrick Terminal at Melbourne's East Swanson Dock is a surreal place. Monstrous red cranes tower over the waterfront like something from H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Walls of containers sit waiting to be handled by the straddles, smaller cranes that move sideways like zippy, motorised crabs. The scale of the machinery dwarfs the humans who operate it. It's cold, windy and noisy and the Patrick logo is everywhere.

Another layer of surreality is added with the presence of a film crew. Shooting here on location is Bastard Boys, the ABC's new miniseries about the 1998 waterfront dispute that shook Australia's working foundations and redrew industrial relations for the 21st century. The fact that Patrick, the company at the heart of the dispute, has allowed the cameras to roll on the very docks where some of the fiercest battles were waged against it seems extraordinary.

In 1998 the fight looked pretty clear-cut. In the blue corner, Patrick CEO Chris Corrigan, aided by the Federal Government, determined to reform the waterfront's entrenched working culture; in the red corner, the Maritime Union of Australia, fighting for the jobs of its members and the union's survival. The stoush included military-trained mercenaries and guard dogs, pickets and protests, mass sackings and court cases. The nation was riveted but, ultimately, no one was quite sure who won.

Bastard Boys scriptwriter Sue Smith says she was never going to write a polemic for either side - business or wharfies, left or right. "That's not interesting drama." What did interest her were the personal details - how the dispute affected those involved and their families. She spoke extensively to people on both sides, even persuading Corrigan, who had refused other interview requests, to give his side of the story. This approach resulted in the surprising level of bipartisan support. Patrick gave onsite access and the unions helped recruit hundreds of members as extras for crowd scenes.

At East Swanson, the union picket line has been recreated, complete with banners, food tent and a horse trailer that one union official lived in for more than three months. Actors wander around wearing beanies and fluorescent safety vests, indistinguishable from film crew and real dock workers. During filming, waterfront business continues as usual, creating nightmares for the sound recordist. "That angle grinder's giving me the shits," he mutters.

A group of bemused Chinese crane mechanics look on as a bus drives up to the gates and is surrounded by a horde of men yelling abuse. "Scabs!" "You prick!" "Wankers!" The language gets more and more colourful with each take, while the men on the bus hide their faces behind cardboard and newspapers.

Actor Jack Thompson watches from the sidelines. He's been here before, having played a wharf labourer in Ten's 1984 miniseries Waterfront, about a similar dispute in 1927. In Bastard Boys he plays Tony Tully, who represents the older generation of workers. "What he's seeing is the ground open up in front of him," Thompson says.

Though veteran dock workers have told the actor he's the spitting image of a real wharfie called Jackie Green, Tully is an invention. "The scripts are an amalgam of real people and characters I've created," Smith says.

In a cast of more than 100 speaking parts, all the main players are represented. Geoff Morrell is Corrigan, Colin Friels is MUA leader John Coombs, Daniel Frederikson is Greg Combet, now head of the ACTU but then assistant secretary, and Justin Smith is Josh Bornstein, the young IR lawyer who helped the unions fight in court. The entire series is shot on location for the sake of realism, producer Brett Popplewell says.

It was about five years ago that a friend of Popplewell's, director Ray Quint, gave him a copy of Waterfront, a book about the dispute by Herald journalists Helen Trinca and Anne Davies. Gripping as it was, the producer was sceptical about adapting it for television. "I said, 'This is great mate but ... good luck.' And then I thought, 'What the hell, let's give it a go.' "

The head of ABC drama at the time, Scott Meeks, had the predictable response: "A four-hour miniseries about an industrial dispute? I can barely wait." Then he read the first script and rang Smith to demand the second one "because I want to know what happens".

As well as engrossing, he found it unexpectedly moving and complex. "There are no square-jawed, fist-clenched, brave socialist workers and moustache-twirling, evil capitalists. There are just flawed people with different views of the world."

Though the book inspired her, Smith says Bastard Boys is a drama in its own right rather than an adaptation. "I dealt with it by approaching it as a human story and thinking, no one goes into something like this without good reasons that they believe in."

Before Corrigan would speak, he had two questions for the writer. The first was, did she believe waterfront reform was necessary? "And I said, 'Yes, I think everyone believed it was necessary; the union believed it,' " Smith says. "And the second question was, 'Do you believe I had any other choice than the action I took?' And I said, 'I don't know', and I still don't really but I believe he didn't believe he had a choice and that action required immense courage, determination, vision and commitment."

Some of the dialogue is taken from recorded interviews or court transcripts, though most of the script and characters are from Smith "spring-boarding" off what she was told. "I'd say to John Coombs and Greg Combet, 'You had this discussion with Peter Reith. What did you say?' And they said, 'We can't remember but it was a slanging match.' So I wrote a slanging match."

After long discussions with Quint, Smith decided to show the principal players the scripts, though legally she didn't have to. "We both felt it was the right and honourable thing to do." Nevertheless, she couldn't hide that it was nerve-racking. "I remember Greg Combet saying to me, 'Are you really that concerned with what we think?' and I said, 'Of course I am. It's your life.' "

Any change that "damaged the drama" was resisted - the series had to be entertaining and exciting. As it was, no one had a problem with Smith's version of his or her private life but both Corrigan and Coombs wanted more clarity about the outcome of the dispute. "I think both sides thought that I'd muddied the details a bit, and I had, so they wanted all those achievements made very clear." She had no problem with that.

Does this mean, with the benefit of hindsight, we finally see who won the war? "Both sides will argue that they won the dispute with their dying breath," Smith says. "The union because it's still here; Corrigan because he got the reforms he wanted."

Rather than presenting winners and losers, she says, Bastard Boys explores the painful effects of enormous change. "Everyone's lives are affected in one way or another by events like this," she says. "This was such a black and white issue at the time, with people taking sides and the stuff that happened was so extreme. We can now add the shades of grey."

Bastard Boys airs on the ABC on Sunday at 8.30pm.

By Jacqui Taffel
May 7, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald

On the waterfront

COLIN Friels was working on Sydney Harbour filming Water Rats when all hell broke loose on the docks after Patrick Stevedores sacked its unionised workforce in a bid to remodel Australia's ports. Justine Clarke was aware of the picket lines that formed in the days following the mass sacking, and remembers seeing images of police and frightened children on the evening news, but she didn't know much about the foundations of the conflict.

Now both actors together with a cast that reads like the who's who of the Australian acting fraternity are starring in Bastard Boys, which is the miniseries telling the story of the 1998 battle for the Australian waterfront.

"Bastard Boys is broken up into four chapters but the bulk of our story happens in chapter three, Sean's War, but I knew what was going on in the rest of the story, the high points and the low points, the drama."

Bastard Boys was shot in Melbourne and Sydney during the winter with the scenes that were played out on the Victorian docks and picket lines filmed at the actual locations where the action took place back in 1998.

"We got to work on location and it was amazing to be there, that was the ground where it all happened," Clarke says. "Some of the people who had been there on the night that it happened came down when we were filming, so we were aware that we were creating a moment in time.

Friels was one of the Bastard Boys actors who portrayed a real person but he decided not to meet MUA boss John Coombs before filming began last year

Friels plays Maritime Union of Australia official John Coombs, while Clarke is Janine McSwain, the wife of union organiser Sean McSwain, a fictional character developed to portray the average women involved in the conflict.

"They needed a female character who could represent the everyday person," Clarke says. "There were the politician's wives, and the big business wives, but they needed a character that represented the average mum and Janine was a nurse with two kids and all the pressure of that."

While the men are the core of the story with some well-known faces playing real and fictional parts Clarke says the women were much more than peripheral characters.

"The women became involved when their men were going through a crisis," she says.

"If they would have focused on what the women were going through there would have been a whole other story to tell.

"It is such a tightly woven political thriller that's going with such momentum, that if they would have focused on the full weight of every twist and turn it would have been an eight-hour miniseries you could have got four more hours out of the women.

"The scenes between Greg Combet (Daniel Frederiksen) and his wife, Petra (Lucy Bell) are so intimate. Those scenes show that there is a side of a man that only a woman can bring out that's why the female characters were so important."

"(For the actors) who were playing real people they could meet the people they were playing and, because it didn't happen that long ago, it was so fresh in their memories and they could have such interesting conversations."

"I didn't want to meet Coombs before I did it, because I didn't want to do any silly pseudo-impersonation or anything like that," Friels says.

"I don't know him personally, but I asked a lot of people about him. So it's more how my reading of the whole affair affected me, with the knowledge of how it affected them.

"I can remember seeing him on television but I wasn't there to impersonate him, they just needed an old bloke with grey hair and I was around."

Bastard Boys, ABC, Sunday and Monday 8.30pm

By Sarah Nicholson
May 09, 2007
The Courier-Mail

Bastard Boys: striking back

AN ABC miniseries tells the dramatic story behind the bitter workplace battle that divided the nation.

When it comes to industrial relations the waterfront has long been the stage for some of the most dramatic battles in history, both here and overseas.

In 1998 one of the fiercest in Australian history took place when Patrick Stevedores owner Chris Corrigan launched a war against the Maritime Union Of Australia.

He wanted to change work practices and the entrenched conditions the MUA had fought for, won and exploited. The union had more power than the bosses and its indulgent excesses had long been documented. But Corrigan came at them hard, secretly training a new workforce in Dubai to take over the wharfs and he had the secret backing of the Government and then workplace relations minister Peter Reith. Corrigan eventually sent in security guards with attack dogs and herded the workers out.

Pickets were set up at all Patrick Corporation ports in Australia, and so began an epic and sometimes violent battle which consumed the nation's attention with people taking one side or the other.

The ABC has made a two-part dramatised miniseries about those days called Bastard Boys, which features both real and fictional characters. The title of what is a thriller loaded with political intrigue and personal emotion comes from Corrigan family folklore. The key players were Corrigan (played by Geoff Morrell), MUA national secretary John Coombs (Colin Friels) and ACTU assistant secretary Greg Combet (Daniel Frederiksen). They, their families and others involved were extensively interviewed to seek balance in presenting a highly polarising event.

Morrell believes that balance has been struck.

"It's about the dispute but it's also about the families involved in the dispute," he says. "I spent a day with Chris Corrigan and really think he's a nice bloke, and one of the reasons he wanted to be involved was that he was incredibly demonised at the time and he wanted people to see another side.

"It does humanise him and the script humanises the whole event. It doesn't condone the MUA, but does provide evidence of how important unions are to the fabric of a working-class community.

"But I don't think it hides away from the excesses of the MUA. That's really important because if you are just going to do a left-wing polemic then it's really of no use. So I don't think it comes down on either side."

It was originally made as four one-hour episodes, but the ABC has crunched it into a two-parter of two hours each to air on consecutive nights. The story is told from different viewpoints, starting with the MUA's side. Corrigan's is more deeply explored in the second part.

Morrell's depiction of Corrigan is uncanny and he plays him, as written, as a man governed by his own moral principles, pursuing what he believed was right.

"When you're playing someone and meet them they think you're going to watch their mannerisms and that sort of stuff, but I wasn't that interested in that," Morrell says. "I was more interested in asking how he was feeling at points in the story. For example, when the banks were about to foreclose on him.

"He was very forthcoming with what he and his family went through, and some truly awful things happened to his family. I have different politics to Chris, but he is a witty, intelligent and decent human being.I understood his position very well and I understand why he did what he did."

Corrigan and Coombs were opposing generals in the bitter war. But in the end the two men had to work together to save Patricks. It meant 700 workers, half the workforce, would have to go.

"One of the interesting things he told me, which comes out a bit in the series, is his great friendship with John Coombs," Morrell says. "Out of all the people in that dispute, the one person he maintains a friendship and connection with is the one person he was pitched into battle with.

"Here was someone who was seen as demonised, as the anti-Christ. And the person he came out of it with the most respect for was the leader of the workers, the person he was pitted against. Chris is an old-style man about things like family values and he respected Coombs for sharing them, amongst other things."

A great irony is that what Corrigan and the Government, through Reith, were trying to do eventually manifested as today's WorkChoices laws. Industrial relations is again one of the main focuses of public debate.

"It's interesting that what's happening now is the logical extension of what Peter Reith wanted to do then," Morrell says. "It was only this dispute which got in the way. If Chris Corrigan's plan of using non-union workers had been successful, I think the WorkChoices law we have now would have come in then. So it is ironic it's airing now."

By Marcus Casey
May 09, 2007

Watching the end of an era

The Government will not be happy with its portrayal in the ABC drama, writes Michelle Grattan.

THE 1998 waterfront confrontation, etched in memory by graphic, sometimes frightening images of dogs and balaclavas, was in the tradition of Australia's huge industrial fights. It may well turn out to be the last of them, so much has changed in just a few years.

Industrial relations, however, has sharply revived as an issue after the Howard Government used its Senate numbers to transform the system much more dramatically than its initial changes, which had to be negotiated with the Democrats.

In this new world, the unions are battling politically rather than industrially. In a nice coincidence of timing, Greg Combet, a hero of Bastard Boys, has driven the union campaign against WorkChoices and last weekend was endorsed as Labor candidate for the NSW federal seat of Charlton.

In a scene in the film, after the waterfront dispute is over - the union having won in court, even though the wharves are transformed forever by employer and the Government - ACTU secretary Bill Kelty observes, rightly: "End of an era."

Combet, who is assistant secretary, tells his boss he's ready to take over his job. "It's going to be the toughest time in history for a union leader," Kelty replies, adding, "What if I'm not ready to go?" Combet retorts (in a line that will resonate with Kelly Hoare, the Labor MP he has defeated for preselection): "Power is never conceded willingly. It has to be taken."

Bastard Boys shows how the Howard Government was willing to do whatever it took to transform Australia's workplace landscape. How much impact the film will have on politics now is another matter. It doesn't show Government or the boss, Chris Corrigan, in a good light. But many people will think - at least in retrospect - that the benefit of the reforms outweighs the degree of bastardry to get them, while others will conclude the union was its own worst enemy.

And some will say, that was then and everybody has moved on, just as the players themselves did after the conflict.

The Government won't be happy with its portrayal and the near-romanticisation of the union leadership. This will likely mean that it, and some others, will be critical of the ABC. That's quite apart from the matter of the language, which will be highly controversial.

The IR experts and historians will debate the accuracy of the portrayals of what happened and how the players behaved. For the individuals, even those who get the more favourable treatment, it must surely be a bizarre experience to be watching a sort of This Is Your Life that is larger than life. Oh to be a fly on their walls. Michelle Grattan is The Age's political editor.

By Michelle Grattan
May 10, 2007

Chills and Friels

COLIN Friels talks of his latest role with Darren Devlyn and has a passing whack at John Howard.

Colin Friels has been likened to an undetonated explosive.

Some in the media see him as unpredictable -- the type who, without warning, can go off if asked what he considers an inappropriate question.

In a break from shooting a scene as Maritime Union of Australia secretary John Coombs in the ABC mini-series Bastard Boys, Friels' body language suggests he's true to his interview-shy reputation.

It's 7am on a bone-chilling winter morning and Friels, standing in the shadow of a giant, orange-and-yellow-striped crane on a West Melbourne wharf, has his shoulders hunched and hands clasped around a foam coffee cup in a futile bid to beat the cold.

But the actor, renowned for dominating the screen with tightly coiled performances in High Tide, Water Rats, Blackjack and a string of theatrical productions, is surprisingly receptive to a request to talk about life on and off the set of the much-awaited ABC drama.

It transpires that Friels, who fidgets constantly as he talks, was desperate to play Coombs from the moment he read the script.

"There was this huge challenge of playing a man who wanted the best for his workers but was in an extremely difficult situation with a new regime of government and the rise of globalisation," Friels says.

"The thing conservatives attack first is workers' rights and conditions and this story is so compelling because it digs into that.

"I have to be honest. I'm feeling very shaky and I've been racking my brain trying to find my place on this set. I'm wrongly cast if what they (producers) want is someone to impersonate John Coombs.

"The easiest tool in your kitbag as an actor is to try to impersonate someone.

"The hard part is not doing an impersonation, but to bring your own interpretation to the piece. That's what I'm trying to do."

Bastard Boys is billed as the mini-series about the fight that stopped the nation -- the 1998 battle for Australia's waterfront.

It re-lives what happened when Chris Corrigan, managing director of Patrick Corporation, took on the Maritime Union of Australia in a bitter, emotionally scarring battle to revolutionise waterfront practices.

The six-month stoush was characterised by security guards in balaclavas, guard dogs and secret plans to replace union members on the wharves.

"This is very special, one of the best scripts I've seen in a long time," Friels says.

"You have to jump at projects like this, because there's not that much work around. (Prime Minister) John Howard and the boys have squeezed the bloody life out of it (film and TV industry) . . . which I find ludicrous.

"We need a vibrant arts community because it fosters thought and discussion. It creates public debate without fear of having to be politically correct.

"The arts industry is all I know and I know we need the arts like we do food -- it's a crucial part of our identity in terms of illustrating who we are and where we've come from.

"Without conversation, expression and debate, we'll never know or understand what we're doing here as a society.

"All I hear people talking about are interest rates, petrol prices and mortgages, but mortgages don't mean that much to me because I could never afford to buy an expensive house and get into debt."

Friels (right), married to actor Judy Davis, adds: "This is a very uncertain time for me.

"Zilch (future work projects) is being offered, but I'll survive one way or another."

By Darren Devlyn
May 09, 2007