The Secret River: episode guide

Part 1 | Part 2

Part 1

Sunday, June 14, 2015
729,000 viewers (8th)
Screenplay by Jan Sardi & Mac Gudgeon
Directed by Daina Reid

In 1803 Will Thornhill — Thames waterman turned convict — begins his life sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales. Assigned to his wife Sal, he obtains a job working as an oarsman on Sydney Harbour. Sal establishes a rum stall, eking out a living selling what is the only true currency of the colony.

About six years later Will is pardoned. As 'emancipists', he and Sal can now ply their trade freely and work towards the return to London, which Sal in particular hankers for.

Opportunity comes knocking in the form of Thomas Blackwood, an ex-convict himself. Recognising Thornhill's skills as a boatman, he tempts him with the idea of using those skills to 'make his pile' running a transport boat on the Hawkesbury River up north of the settlement of Sydney. The idea captivates Thornhill.

Will accompanies Blackwood on his regular run up the Hawkesbury, where the wild beauty of the landscape enchants him. It's not just the freedom he feels but the sense that this is a place where a man like him, so used to life on the bottom rung of the social ladder, could be master of his own fate. When he sees an untouched point of land jutting out into the river 'like a man's thumb', seemingly there for the taking, he knows what he wants for his future. He fears a return to London will only subject him once again to the 'convict stain' of his impoverished past. Convincing Sal that the wilderness of New South Wales holds more promise than London is not easy but Will persuades her to put her dream on hold and the family sails north to 'take up land' on the Hawkesbury River.

Isolated in her new home, Sal is only too aware of the dangers that confront them, especially amidst talk and newspaper reports of 'outrages and depredations' on settlers by the 'blacks'. She has agreed to give Will five years to make their pile, but immediately begins counting down the days in notches on a tree stump.

While the family sets about making their new life in true pioneering fashion, clearing, planting and building a small hut, it soon becomes apparent that owning this land, which Will has now named 'Thornhill's Point', is not as easy as he first thought. His attempts to cajole the local Aboriginals into moving on are awkward. There is a simmering hostility between Will and Gumang (Greybeard), the elder of the clan. It's clear they do not understand each other.

He can't quite understand Blackwood's 'give and take' philosophy of living side by side with the Aboriginals But, he is just as uncomfortable with the racist bitterness of other neighbours along the river, like the malevolent Smasher Sullivan. He nevertheless wishes they would go away, but the Aboriginals hover at the edge of the Thornhill's camp, and of Will's unsettled consciousness.

When Sal develops a life-threatening fever, the fragility of this small family in a vast wilderness is all the more apparent and Will prays desperately for her recovery. But as soon as she does recover, he redoubles his efforts to stay on 'his' land, make it prosperous, and to convince Sal that this, and not London, is their true home. Episode 1 concludes with Will leaving his family on a trading trip to Sydney, charging 12 year old Willie with protecting his mother and two younger siblings. Just beyond their camp is a vast and mysterious landscape, and the unknown intentions of both their black and white neighbours.