Sue Smith has done a good job in picking out the dramatic values from the 1998 waterfront dispute, based on the first episode of the ABC mini-series. The strength of dramatic representation, done well, is its capacity to contextualise individuals and convey a sense of them as real people in a way that academic historians simply don’t have a licence to do, even if they had the talent. At some point, script writers and actors cross over from verifiable sources to imaginative recreation, a form more akin to the novel than the history book.
There are some quibbles that one could raise at the factual level about the first episode, but none of much consequence. The story line was consistent with the well known contours of the event as it happened. Nothing was explored in depth, but everything had some flesh put on the bones. There were some clever asides and ad libs, and no outright howlers. The only really silly boast I saw was the credit that said that this was the “battle that changed Australia”. The dispute was a big public event, yet defining the consequences is a slippery game.
The ABC takes on contemporary history.
Taking it as read that good drama rather than academic history was the first order of the day, what of the discretionary aspects? John Coombs was a great character, played pretty true to the man, yet also played with a little more comfort than the man actually plays himself, which makes him even more likeable. Josh Bornstein is another terrific character. The emotional connection to the dispute of the middle class lawyer who is a descendent of Harry Bridges was palpable. On the other hand, Greg Combet was played too green for me – off the top of my head, he had been with the MUA for at least a decade by that stage. Christopher Corrigan also struck me as being played more like Mr Magoo than he really was.
On the first episode, I doubt that the show will alter the entrenched positions of the combatants and their respective supporters, which have barely moved a jot in the nine years since the conflict itself. Still, all up, this was a rare engaging reflection on an aspect of Australia’s recent past. I’m looking forward to the second part, which appears to take up the story just as it goes public, big time.
Update: More good television in part two, but also more quibbles. The shame was that part two was too compacted. The court cases flitted by when there was so much more. Court room drama also makes good tv. Nor did the police drama at Fremantle get a look in. The settlement, too, went by in a flash. By my reckoning there were another two hours of top drama that went begging. On the factual front, the biggest strain was seeing Chris Corrigan become a member of the MUA in confronting the banks. I don’t think there is any independent evidence going to that scene. From an academic perspective, perhaps the biggest fault of the whole show was a failure to figure in the media, which was both a strategic and defining site of the dispute. Still, tv budgets are not what they once were and thematically and emotionally the show satisfied in ending as a tribute to John Coombs. Are there any Australians like Coombsy left in this country? Overall, 4 stars.