Bastard Boys

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.

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28 Responses to Bastard Boys

  1. Tony Healy says:

    I loved the characterisation of Julian Burnside – the toffy silk who invites Combet and co to his wealthy home and pretends not to notice their discomfort at the plush surroundings. “More comfortable than chambers,” as he puts it. Then, after giving the appearance of just watching, he draws Bornstein aside and gives him stern lawyerly advice about not becoming emotional.

    I also agree that the portrayal of Corrigan was a bit simplistic. Although he is a wooden character, and that was played well, he’s also intensely competitive in daily life, and that could have provided good character development. The writers clearly tried to present his point of view over dockyard reform, but probably could have added more nuance. Possibly some material has been cut. The series has the feel of tight editing.

    All in all, this is very good television. It also casts light into how John Howard sees the world, and how he works.

  2. Amanda says:

    I thought the worst part was the “last night you made me fly” line but on reflection I think it was Kelty’s dodgy wig.

  3. vee says:

    I’m still peeved I missed the first part. I forgot about it, because typically there is nothing worth watching on a Sunday.

  4. Guido says:

    There is an interesting post at Larvatus about Micheal Duffy complaining about how left wing bias the whole thing is.

    I must admit that so far from the first episode the sentiment is decidedly on the Union’s side. Of course that’s fine by me because that is where my sentiments lie.

    However the fact is that you see the Union side people having to sacrifice their kids’ time and the heartstring stuff with Combet’s daughter staying up for him etc. Seeing the young lawyer shagging etc. but we don’t see any of this dimension from the other side – as yet – we have to watch tonight I guess to make a final assessemt.

  5. cs says:

    There is an interesting post at Larvatus about Micheal Duffy complaining about how left wing bias the whole thing is.

    This complaint in itself contains substantial political bias. I would not have a problem with a show only depicting the union experience of the thing, or only showing the Corrigan side of the thing, or only the lawyers side, or only the public’s, or whatever ‘side’ it wished to deal with. Judgement should surely turn on how well the progam depicts whatever it attempts to depict, not whether or not your own political side has ‘equal time’. Are all movies on WWII, for example, bound to give equal time to the Nazi side of the story? If someone made a movie of Howard’s government, heaven forbid, must the producers give equal time to the opposition? Where do such political rules about dramatic productions come from?

  6. Pappinbarra Fox says:

    As a piece of drama it was excellent. It had all the ingredients – intrigue, twisted plot, tragically flawed characters, the cusp of times they are changin, above all – verisimilitude. I was working overseas when it happened, so getting filtered versions of what was happening but one thing came through loud and clear – Peter was lying through his teeth. A mate of mine was a wharfy, was put off, had trouble finding other work, eventually suicided. A hard-soft man who had lost his reaon for living – being the breadwinner of the family. He always told me that the wharfies could lift their through rate but that the bottlenecks in delivery were the real problem. Well I discovered that the real problem was the conspiracy, driven by idealogy, to wipe out the unions and the real mateship that went with them.

  7. Alistair Carr says:

    It was stirring drama, but who knows how close to depicting real conversations, real attitudes, etc? Josh Bornstein has objected on several factual points. I think it portrayed Combet as a hero: how accurate is that? Corrigan was wooden, mostly; but I think I recall his tendency to give low-key answers, and sometimes to pause for a long time before answering.

    Were the Dubai boys really that wild? Cartoon characters here.
    And how lucky were the MUA and ACTU to receive detailed and accurate leaks?

    A friend remarked that dodgy work practices (and minor rorts) were referred to very early in the “brew room” scene.

    Nonetheless, it seemed to me like a long, strident, anti-Howard, anti-Reith anecdote.

    I was also astounded at the incessant foul language; you might argue that verisimilitude demanded nothing less, but if you’re aiming for high drama and realism, there are other routes, are there not? It also seemed like a very direct kick-in-the-guts for the Prime Minister, delivered in prime time half a year from an election. (I recognise that some viewers cheer on every such kick.)


    It’ll be interesting to see if other central participants shed any light on the public events and the backroom tussles.

    The above is my reaction as a (non-MUA) viewer.
    I’ll go and read Mr Duffy now.


  8. BB will be discussed on LNL tonight.

    From the email. “Bastard Boys in dispute – Bill Kelty, Michael Duffy, Helen Trinca”

  9. Geoff Honnor says:

    Well, I thought it was brilliantly observed and Michael Duffy might have been better advised to have awaited the concluding episode before casting judgment. He sounds about as convincing as the Larvatus Prodeo mob whining about the vicious Fascist bias of Barrie Cassidy’s “Insiders.”

  10. I didn’t see it last night but on the strength of this post had a squiz tonight.

    I’m not particularly enamoured of the warfies but I thought it was bloody good. I rather liked Corrigan.

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  12. Amanda says:

    All pretty disappointing really. That third part was actually really awful in parts. The great potential of the court scenes tossed away. Less nekkid googly eyes and more hot courtroom action, please. Where was the drama? The show put more effort into making me feel tension about whether Greg Combet was going to get back to Melbourne in time to pick up the sprog than in the North decision. Too much ham fisted telling not enough showing. Corrigan was a hoot but seemed dropped in from a completely different show for most of it.

    The strongest emotion I had was in the High Court in the last ep — OMG! Robert Grubb! I had the biggest crush on him when I was 12 and he was in the Flying Doctors. Otherwise, very meh by that stage. Making me not care about this is a big achievment.

    I would however pay good money to see a two hander (a revival in order?) between Morrell and Friels in character. They were both fantastic.

    Bah humbug. 2 stars.

  13. mangoman says:

    The Kelty wig was pretty hopeless and there could have been 3 episodes to allow more of the court room and more on the settlement negotiations, but it was, all considered, a show that kept my attention.

    Chris Corrigan was not so wooden last night and we were given a view of him as a human. Too often we are provided with a strange view of public figures that somehow tries to show that they always talk in sound bites and aren’t worried about getting home before the kids go to bed.

    Easy to criticise it I guess if that is what you like to do, but it was worth watching and that puts it well ahead of the rest of the pack.

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  15. I really think it’s super hard to ‘do’ characters that we know in real life. I mean I agree that Kelty and Combet were miles from their real selves. But what were we after there – Max Gillies? I thought it created some interest and humanised the characters pretty well.

  16. Geoff Honnor says:

    Geoff Morrell is a remarkable actor, in my view. His insightful portrayals of Australian men on the make – notably in “Grass Roots” but also his Chifley in the recent “Curtin” biopic and now Chris Corrigan – are effortlessly superb.

    I give “Bastard Boys” 5 stars.

  17. vee says:

    Having only seen the second half, there is only one conclusion I can draw and that is it was a balanced account.

    First half may not have been, but I cannot say. Anyone on either side that takes offense is politically bias. And refuses to accept anything that does not agree with their political bias.

    And dare I say it UnAustralian.

  18. Graham Bell says:

    There’s been a real flurry of comment everywhere on “Bastard Boys” [much of it in conflict with my memories of the events depicted in the show].

    What really does worry me is the inability [and is it a worsening inability?] of the Australian film industry to cope with historical matter.

    When it comes to straight fiction, Australia still turns out fantastic and sometimes wonderfully quirky films …. “The Man Who Sued God”, “Lantana”, “Better Than Sex”, “Pricilla Queen Of The Desert” and so on …. that’s not surprising given that Australia has terrific actors, writers and production crews.

    Sadly, when it comes to real people and real events, it’s all fumbles.

    The real story behind “Rabbit-proof Fence” had a horrific depth and a timelessness about it that should have won it every international prize from Cannes and Berlin to Ouagadougou and Hollywood. Instead, we were dished up a bland, comfortable, dumbed-down waste of time that merely reinforced the fashionable stereotypes of the moment.

    “Paradise Road”, for all its excellent acting and technical work, floundered on its handling of history.

    The TV series “Changi” also on the subject of Australian prisoners of the Imperial Japanese, was absolutely brilliant in concept and the acting of it was terrific ….. however, despite the obvious consultation with former prisoners-of-war for some of the finer details; overall, the story fell flat.

    Sorry but “Bastard Boys” seemed to be more of the same.

    It seems to me that Australian film makers are incapable of taking people and events just as they are, leaving them unchanged in themselves but weaving them into an absorbing story. They seem to have confused fictionalizing and fabricating with being creative.

    A true artist can take what is right in front of us and, without hacking it around, make us see it in a completely new light.

  19. Graham,

    I don’t have as low an opinion of BB as you. I thougth it was very good. But I agree with you about the criterion by which it might be judged. I thought it was well acted and compellingly done, but I have to admit that the basic ‘human stories’ were rather lame.

    e.g. Man who is commie gets girl when she sees what a leader he is in avoiding the violence of the mob – she wants her kids brought up by one such.

    Well – a bit cliche I think.

  20. cs says:

    It seems to me that Australian film makers are incapable of taking people and events just as they are, leaving them unchanged in themselves but weaving them into an absorbing story. They seem to have confused fictionalizing and fabricating with being creative. A true artist can take what is right in front of us and, without hacking it around, make us see it in a completely new light.

    Maybe. My take was that the show attempted to contextualise the main actors as people. Many more possibilities remain available. Katherine Thompson’s Harbour was a surprising take, tracing intergenerational class and gender issues through the dispute in a Sydney Theatre Company season, which sold out. The National Maritime Museum has featured a superb photographic exhibition. And there are many other representations …

    My point is that it was a shot at engaging personal drama in recent history, which is an interesting puzzle. Yeah, there were hits and misses, and various degrees between, in the personalising, which necessarily frequently had to be fictionalised by definition of the form. The most superflous character, it seemed to me, was the young guy. Still, there was a real organiser who lived in a horse float at the Melbourne docks during the conflict, so stuff was still coming through with actual correspondences to the event. Equally, judged by more high-brow standards, it will fall over.

    All up, I reckon it would have been a full blown cracker with two more hours and triple the budget.

  21. James Farrell says:

    e.g. Man who is commie gets girl…etc., etc.

    Sentimental and a bit contrived, but well acted for all that. All the non-human-interest scenes were, by contrast, very believable.

  22. Life’s a bit cliche, at times, though isn’t it?

    I found those aspects of the show very persuasive and moving, and I think it added a lot to the show as a whole.

    I think Michael Duffy also shows how out of touch the accusations of bias are by imagining that men only pick up their daughters from daycare to win votes.

  23. Yes James I agree with you. I found the cliche pretty moving. A point I’ve made elsewhere is that these things are often up to the actors. The actors in the cliched scene both did a very compelling job and so the cliche was a minor problem.

    All I would say about it is that it would have been even better if it was a bit less cliched. What she said to him about wanting her kids brought up by that guy on the megaphone was a tad much for me to take – but it was a small blemish.

    And then taking up Mark’s points, if you’re cliched and you really pull it off, well then that’s a bullseye I guess – hello Casablanca.

  24. Amanda says:

    Well the problems I think there were with Bastard Boys have nowt to do with budget, really. They’re script things so they’re about about time mostly they have had years. If you know you only have four hours, then write for four hours. And of course there are cliches that work and cliches that don’t (and I have noticed I’m usually out of step on what doesn’t work but anyway).

    “Contextualise the players as people” is great but having that motivation doesn’t give you a free pass. You have to justify that artistic choice like any other and they have to add to the whole.

    I already know they are people. They are walking upright and breathing, for a start. Let’s take it as read they are people. Greg Combet is not contextualised as a person by seeing him struggle to pick up his kid more than by watching him in a negotiation or dealing with the media. These are things people do too, and they reveal themselves in the process. “In the process” is the key. I prefer my character exposition incidental and intergrated, not as contrived bullet points. Take out the scenes of Combet rushing to pick up the kid, and how does the show change? Not at all, I would say. Therefore, why not replace it with something more useful. Something about the waterfront dispute, perhaps? Just a suggestion.

    Interestingly, they did not use this heavy handed Look, He’s A Human Being! Seriously! technique wth John Coombs and would we say he was not fully contextualised as a person? We got everyday interaction his wife — who utterly rocked — and glimpses of his son, but that story was never elaborated on. No wedding anniversary dinners, say, as Coombs wordily exposited on his own character. Was he less a fully realised character than Combet or poor dear Sean? I would say not.

    And they spent way to much time on Sean’s Story which was at once ham fisted and confusing. There was a nice bit in the first or second episode when he dealt with the scab on telly who was afraid of losing his kids. We knew Sean’s situation and the parallel was moving, you could see it in his face. Well acted. Well played, show. But then OF COURSE they had to go and get one of the characters to explicitly point it out in the next scene. Jesus, show.

    Meanwhile, the real drama — real human drama, mind not just that boring old political stuff they obviously thought could not hold our interest — inherent in the story got short shrift in parts and the events in the last two eps especially were rushed.

    There were good bits too but maybe because I have been following the project for ages and looking forward to it so much … overall I was disappointed.

  25. cs says:

    Greg Combet is not contextualised as a person by seeing him struggle to pick up his kid more than by watching him in a negotiation or dealing with the media. These are things people do too, and they reveal themselves in the process. In the process is the key. I prefer my character exposition incidental and intergrated, not as contrived bullet points. Take out the scenes of Combet rushing to pick up the kid, and how does the show change?

    I don’t necessarily disagree with most of your comments Amanda, except this one. It seems to me that the fact that Combet had to constantly play his part in managing his blended family while he was also managing a headline dispute is precisely the kind of contextualising that adds a fuller sense of the person’s reality, which drama can convey much better than scholarly history.

  26. Amanda says:

    You know, actually, when I compare

    a) Bastard Boys

    b) a hypothetical book of scholarly history which includes a version of the one sentence, “Combet had to constantly play his part in managing his blended family while he was also managing a headline dispute.”

    I honestly find I think it to be a dead heat in terms of my sense of the drama of the situation. If the hypothetical book of academic history could do it without making my eyes tumble around in my head, it romps home.

    Corrigan’s personal colour worked better probably because there were unexpected touches but who doesn’t have trouble balancing a demanding job with familiy responsibilities? Not to say it isn’t an important issue (in fact its probably a generation-defining one) but hardly revelatory about a person. There was no narrative pay off … it was just there and did nothing. (To/For me.)

    I don’t object to the principle of “humanising” the players. In fact I’m all for it, although I don’t think the filmmakers get special credit for the idea either. They are not the first people to ever have thought of it. After thousands years of humans explicitly sharing narratives about each other, they don’t get points for trying at this stage. I just didn’t think alot of it worked in this case.

  27. I’m with Amanda.

    If you want to humanise people if you’re really good you should be doing it with the material that’s central – the dispute. Plenty of room to show what Combet’s or Corrigan’s or anyone else’s humanity meant in the dispute. That would give you a really dramatic opportunity – to show how the dispute is built up from human beings behaviour in the various situations in which they find themselves and must act, and how their own behaviour and others then feeds back on itself and on it goes.

    Many of the domestic scenes worked largely because they were well acted (they weren’t particularly well written! They were – like I said – cliched). But humanising people with domestic scenes is on the cliched side itself. A bit like a polly’s press secretary deciding that Julia or Alexander or Peter or Kevin need to be ‘humanised’ so we get them on Australian story and show them chatting with their Mum and partner or kids or whatever.

    In other words a ‘humanising module’ is applied.

  28. Amanda says:

    I saw the excellent movie Zodiac yesterday and I think it showed how you can tell a complex fact-and-character-filled true story and blend it with the characters’ personal lives in a way that is rich and narratively important, but doesn’t seem forced to make a Point.

    Of course it was terribly biased so it does have that in common with BB. Where were the sympathetic serial killer characters?

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