Wild Boys: articles

Daniel MacPherson as the charismatic Jack Keenan in Wild Boys

Real wild child

"SOARING over them all is the larrikin; almost archly self-conscious -- too smart for his own good, witty rather than humorous, exceeding limits, bending rules and sailing close to the wind, avoiding rather than evading responsibility, playing to an audience, mocking pomposity and smugness, taking the piss out of people, cutting down tall poppies, born of a Wednesday, looking both ways for a Sunday, larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian yet suffering fools badly and, above all, defiant."

Manning Clark's wonderful definition of the larrikin also could have been the pitching point for this new Seven Network series that celebrates our history of bushrangers and social bandits, though the show's producers, Southern Star's Julie McGauran and Sarah Smith, didn't need quite so many words to successfully sell their idea to the network.

Wild Boys follows the duo's success with co-creating and co-producing Rescue Special Ops for Nine, which showed elite paramedics abseiling, rock-climbing, parachuting and evacuating people from natural or man-made disasters. It has received a decent run, the show's narrative scope focused on the machinery of the police world, presenting a form of heightened realism that sublimates character depth to institutional logic.

Whenever I watched, however, it seemed to suffer from a slight confusion about the time involved in bringing its situations to conclusion. Unlike Ten's more pleasing Rush, where the action is played out in real time, Rescue seemed to fudge the sequence of events, overlapping incidents and telescoping events that logically would take longer to unfold. But Rescue Special Ops always looks great, possessing a highly cinematic tone established by originating director Peter Andrikidis, and largely gets the vernacular of action movies just right. So does the new series, as it turns out. It's directed by the brilliant Jeffrey Walker, who was responsible for the stunning pay-TV series Small Time Gangster earlier this year.

Considering what to do next, something a little different from the cops and hospital settings so prevalent in TV drama, they looked at the post-gold rush period of Australian history as a setting for a different kind of crime drama.

It's a time hardly touched since the wonderful days of that other Rush, the series produced by the ABC in 1974 and filmed initially in black and white. Set on the Victorian goldfields in 1852 in the fictitious settlement of Crockers Gully, Rush starred John Waters as police sergeant Robert McKellar. Memories of his appearances still bring a blush to the plumpish cheeks of many an erstwhile young gel while mock fainting in time-honoured tradition, eyes rolling to the back of their memories. So debonair, so sweetly vulnerable he was, Waters had them purring and eating out of his hand. But McKellar was a lawman and McGauran and Smith wanted to celebrate the insouciant outlaws of the time. "I had a book of bushrangers since childhood and the middle chapters were on wild colonial boys," Smith says. "Everyone knows of Ned Kelly and Ben Hall, and the tragic endings at the end of a rope, but there were hundreds of them and we thought: wouldn't it be fun to have a gang of bushrangers and tell their story in a different, lighter way?"

They came up with the characters and set it in the mid-1800s, that time of transition when new land created conditions of colonial life that tended to dissolve old colonial inequalities. Class barriers were broken down by social fluidity caused by the vicissitudes of fortune on the land and the goldfields. There was a large admixture of Irish and Scottish immigrants, a strain of radicalism started to develop and there was no longer an unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy, especially in the bush.

"There were a lot of inventions coming out around that period and so it was a time of change and hustle and bustle, and a lot of the traps, or colonial cops, were ex-convicts which is where our healthy disrespect of the law comes from," Smith says.

"And there were a lot of people assuming authority over towns, so if you're going to have a gang of bushrangers and be on their side, you have to have people worse than them, more corrupt."

When they took their idea to Seven, a simple concept maybe, but also highly ambitious in production terms, the degree of difficulty proved no barrier.

"The deal was done in about two minutes," McGauran says. Asked what their idea was, they simply told the network, "Wild boys". The Seven people asked, "What's that?" They said, "A gang of bushrangers in the mid-1860s, we're on their side, and think: Australian western."

McGauran says the immediate response was that they were nuts. "And then they said, 'We love it; go and do it.' " And according to the producers the idea has stayed as simple and linear as when they began thinking about it with little modifying or re-jigging: rare in any independent producer's dealings with free-to-air managements. "It's simply a show where we are unashamedly out in the bush with our boys," Smith says.

The series follows four blokes on the outside of the law in the bush around Hopetoun, where moral codes are muddied by circumstance and opportunity, gold is for the king and power is wielded ruthlessly. Bushranging is so widespread and so strongly supported by public sympathy that it amounts to a leading national institution.

Charismatic Jack Keenan (Daniel MacPherson) wants enough gold to head west, buy land and settle down with Mary Barrett (Zoe Ventoura), the town's publican, butcher and brothel owner. Mischievous Dan Sinclair (Michael Dorman), a bit of a trickster, son of an earl and raised on an estate in Staffordshire, wants gold too so he can head west and buy women. Conrad Fischer (Alex England) is the youngest, a tree of a man, a horse whisperer and farrier, trying to clear his name and ensure a happy future for himself and the woman he loves. Fred Northwood (David Field) is the oldest, aka Captain Gunpowder, determined to pursue his passions in peace: technology, armoury, explosives and a little taxidermy.

Hunting them down is glowering Superintendent Francis Fuller (Jeremy Sims), Hopetoun's new lawman brought to the town by its mayor and commissioner of crown lands, James Fife (Christopher Stollery), a man as charming and debonair as he is arrogant and short-tempered. Fuller is a man to be feared, one of Australia's first detectives, determined to maintain order, regardless of the cost, in charge of a body of local coppers irredeemably venal, craven, lazy, incompetent and tyrannical.

The outlaws are men choked by the trivialities of daily existence, forced by circumstance to discover themselves in a life on the run, discarding the inessential and attempting the infinite. These accomplished actors -- they are very, very good -- get just right the sense of bush life in the period, that charm of absolute independence that runs through the literature of the time and that became a powerful national tradition. Our wild boys wear it like a flourish, a panache, with just the right touch of the "flashness" and jauntiness of the emancipated English and Irish convicts riding their own horses wildly through the bush.

The great aspiration of the immigrant workers was to be their own bosses and this fine new series celebrates this sensation of absolute freedom and the independence of the untamed. And there's a nice sense of the double camaraderie of hard work and individual independence that tended to offset the class barrier following the gold rushes of the 1850s.

The series also picks up on all those classic Hollywood heroic gunfighter movies, its characters recognisably Aussie blokes on horseback carrying some pretty lethal weaponry. And while the style of the show is hardly grimly realistic but nicely romanticised, it's still easy to believe that these kinds of men with their utter, yet not discourteous, nonchalance gained such a strong hold on so many minds in the period and became the subject of those wonderful bush ballads.

It's really a lovely idea and the producers are right not to dress too much else into their essential scenario, the prevailing idea of which is the celebration of that distinct stream of rebelliousness contained within the ordered stability of life at that time. It's simply a marvellous platform from which to tell an exciting story on commercial TV.

A series that was a revisionist exercise in demythologising that national anthem of killer as hero would never have got the green light at Seven. We don't really want to watch a show whose central characters are not knights but mean and squalid psychopaths, unfazed by moral qualm, or a series that judges the past by the standards of the present, only to find it wanting.

The scripting is a little anodyne at times and the young women sound as if they are taking a holiday from the perfume counters at Myer or David Jones, but the series has style to burn. Walker and director of photography Joseph Pickering (East West 101, Underbelly) enjoy themselves immensely, their work a kind of pick-the-hit-bits of great movies from westerns, full of trademark moments of visual bravura and those totemic, formalised shots of horses' flaring nostrils, hard men silhouetted by flames, close-ups of weapons and slow-motion shots of boots scuffling in the dust.

By Graeme Blundell
September 03, 2011
The Australian