Down under and dirty
Ten Pound Poms dramatises the true story of the Britons who paid for the chance to start a new life down under in the 1950s. Writer Danny Brocklehurst and executive producer Joel Wilson tell DQ about creating this characterful drama and taking the polish off the period genre.
For just £10, people living in post-war Britain in 1956 were told they could start a new life in the sunshine by moving to Australia. It was an opportunity more than one million people seized by paying the fee (equivalent to £200 or US$250 today) and setting sail for six weeks to reach their new home.
It is this real story that forms the foundations of six-part BBC and Stan drama Ten Pound Poms, which introduces a bunch of Brits hoping to swap their troubles for better homes, improved job prospects and a higher quality of life by the sea.
Yet on their arrival, it’s clear things aren’t exactly as they hoped, with the Brits being processed through immigration and shown to temporary accommodation that one character, Terry, compares to a prisoner of war camp.
Terry (played by Warren Brown), his wife Annie (Faye Marsay) and young nurse Kate (Michelle Keegan) are at the centre of a story in which each character finds struggles to leave their past behind.
Terry and Annie head to Australia with their two children after Annie grows tired of her husband’s inclination to drink and gamble their money away as a result of suffering post-traumatic stress from his experiences at war. But when they arrive in their new home, they aren’t best pleased with their new lodgings, and are shocked to discover elements of discrimination and prejudice – against them and others – among the locals.
Meanwhile, Kate mysteriously walks off the ship without the fiancé she was supposed to be travelling with, holding a secret emotional connection to her new homeland.
Another British family, Bill (Leon Ford), Sheila (Emma Hamilton) and their twin daughters, have already been living in Australia for some time. While Bill is striving to live the Australian dream, Sheila has become desperately homesick and longs to return to Britain.
Produced by Eleven (Sex Education) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, the series comes from writer and creator Danny Brockenhurst. He was originally pitched the idea by executive producer Joel Wilson, who suggested a series based on the real relocation scheme that was also the subject of a documentary in the 1980s.
Brocklehurst was immediately drawn to the concept, and though the Brassic, Ordinary Lies and No Return writer had never penned a period drama, he dived into researching the stories and experiences of the real people who became Ten Pound Poms.
“I’d never done anything that could be called a period piece in 20 odd years of working in this business. A lot of the time, they just feel like actors dressing up to me,” he tells DQ. “I’d tended to do contemporary work, but there was something about this idea that I thought was an interesting part of our reasonably recent history.
“It speaks to a lot of interesting themes – there’s also some loose parallels with current immigration, although I wouldn’t want to lean too heavily on that. It’s just about the question of can you start again? What is it like to start again? It struck me as a really interesting premise for the show. And then of course there was a lot of real-life stuff to look at.”
In creating Terry, Annie, Kate and the other British characters who head to Australia, Brocklehurst focused on the “hidden” theme of the show, which is that while you can start your life again, your problems come with you.
“A lot of our stories are really about people who are trying to start again,” he rsays, “but how do you start again when some of the things you’re trying to escape from come with you? Does a new country allow you to escape those things?”
But whatever the reasons that swept them onto the ship to Australia, it’s clear things aren’t quite what the characters expected when they arrive.
“That’s the whole story, and that’s the true story of many people who were Ten Pound Poms,” Brocklehurst continues. “They went to Australia House and were sold propaganda of this amazing new life – whitewashed houses with picket fences overlooking the beach, an abundance of work… and when they got there, many of them were placed in these really quite poor-standard camps that were very crowded, with poor conditions and poor food.
“[Opportunities weren’t] necessarily in abundance for Australians either, so unless you had a skill like being a nurse that they needed, you were put to the back of the queue. So they were sold a mistruth and they then had to assess whether they were going to go home, whether they were going to sink or swim. Many people did thrive and prosper, but a quarter of them did return home.”
While the series was in development, Wilson, creative director of production company Eleven, found people would often volunteer their own stories of bring Ten Pound Poms, or being related to someone who took part in the assisted migration scheme. In fact, Brown discovered his mother’s family were at one point all set to move to Australia until his grandmother cancelled their trip at the last minute.
But considering the era in which the series is set, the magnitude and consequences of people’s decisions to move more than 9,000 miles around the globe was not lost on either Brocklehurst or Wilson.
“The relationships they had with people at home were pretty much over when you went over there,” Wilson says. “There was a huge delay in phone conversations – which we had to make anachronistic in the show because otherwise it would have been dull to watch – and it became very hard to communicate anything truthful or emotional in those calls. People really did say goodbye to their entire families and move to Australia. It was very brave.”
It was Eleven’s Olivia Trench, who is also an executive producer on the series, who first suggested Brocklehurst would be “perfect” to dramatise the Ten Pound Poms story. Then, in an effort to persuade him to sign on, the prodco sent a large travelling trunk filled with Australian literature and treats to his house.
It ended up being a “massive pain,” however, as Brocklehurst wasn’t home to receive the delivery. Then when he cycled to the Post Office to collect the mystery package, he discovered it was too big to carry on his bike and he had to return a second time with his car.
“So it probably had the opposite effect to the one we intended,” Wilson jokes, “but we’ve been desperate to work with Danny for a while. He’s obviously brilliant, and this is his absolute sweet spot. It tells a truthful emotional story and gets to the heart of relationships and, in particular, family, but at the same time it’s got something important to say about the world we live in. It’s funny and heartwarming and all the things you’d want from a show that’s on at 21.00 on BBC One on Sunday.”
Yet Brocklehurst admits writing the series was “tricker than a lot of shows” owing to the large ensemble cast and the need to give each one a fully rounded backstory – not to mention the task of introducing a large number of Australian characters. Dean (David Field) is Terry’s bullying co-worker, JJ Walker (Stephen Curry) is a local liaison and Ron (Rob Collins) is an Indigenous Australian war veteran who feels like an outsider in his own country.
“We’re trying to do a few different things here,” Brocklehurst notes. “There are very emotional, characterful journeys. But you have to have thriller moments, with plots that are propulsive and forward-moving. You’re trying to spin quite a few different plates.
“It did take us a little while to work out the rhythm of the show. First of all, we started telling stuff a bit too fast, and then we slowed it down a bit. You’re feeling your way through in a first season to try to see what works and how you balance all those different characters, because it is an ensemble; it’s not about one person. It took us a little while but we found our way through it in the end.”
Brown, Marsay and Keegan were then the only three British actors who made the journey to Australia, as all the other characters – including Terry and Annie’s ‘Pom’ children Pattie (Hattie Hook) and Peter (Finn Treacy) – were played by Australians.
But much like the characters they play, the British stars also found filming in Australia – led by block-one director Jamie Stone – didn’t quite live up to their expectations, with Wilson revealing that the production was beset by “the most appalling and dangerous weather.” In one instance, a shoot scheduled to take place in Carcoar – the town four-hour drive east of Sydney that doubled for the Poms’ new home – had to be abandoned due to torrential rain and hail. Temperatures also fell below freezing on some occasions.
“We joked when we got there that we wanted it to look like New South Wales, not actual South Wales, because it was so wet and rainy,” the producer says. “Danny left Manchester in the blazing sunshine and landed in the rain, as did I. I landed in the heaviest rain I’ve ever been in, and that didn’t let up. It was very severe weather indeed.
“That was a shame, but really that was the only issue we faced. Jamie was very keen to get proper rural Australia because that’s what everyone thinks of when they think of the land outside Sydney. But actually, even at the time, you had to drive for a considerable amount of time to get out of the urban area, and certainly now it’s a very sprawling city. It’s so rare in the UK to be in London shooting something and then to drive north of Edinburgh to pick up a little location, but there it seemed less mad to do it, and I’m so glad we did because it really does lift the show and give it the cinematic scope it demands.”
But despite the “bonkers” weather, Wilson was impressed by how “everyone really pulled together,” while the lack of sunshine was then altered in post-production. “There are so many scenes where I know the actors have got eight layers on under their summer dresses, but they were such troopers,” he says. “We replaced the sun, put some lights in and, Bob’s your uncle, it’s 32 degrees.”
Coming to period drama for the first time, Brocklehurst was keen for the series to look convincingly like it was set in 1956, and says he challenged every department to ensure the drama “had dirt under its fingernails.”
“To me, a lot of period dramas look like they’re shot now, but with people walking around in funny costumes and then the odd period car appears. But you see really good films where they do look period, like Brooklyn, and I thought, ‘How did they do that?’”
It was left to Wilson to help out by literally spreading dust and dirt across the set. “I was there with a gun that puffs out mud and dust and pumping it over these vintage cars that had been shined up to within an inch of their life,” he says. “My daughter actually thought that was my job when she came to visit the set.
“But you look at photos of your grandparents, even the smart ones, and their clothes don’t quite fit properly and they were dirty because people didn’t wash their clothes as often as we do now. We really fought hard to enact that vision Danny had been the champion of.”
The overall result is a series that offers a glimpse into a true event that happened in the not-too-distant past.
“As with everything I do, my goal always is that it’s a very entertaining watch, that people like the characters and find it dramatic,” Brocklehurst says. “That’s always the main hope. But it’s quite surprising what happened. We really did look hard into the 50s at what was going on in the world and particularly Australia at that time. It’s a fascinating look into our recent history, but hopefully people will be engaged by the characters.”
tagged in: Annie, Bill, Danny Brocklehurst, David Field, Dean, Eleven, Emma Hamilton, Faye Marsay, Finn Treacy, Hattie Hook, JJ Walker, Joel Wilson, Kate, Leon Ford, Michelle Keegan, Olivia Trench, Pattie, Peter, Rob Collins, Ron, Sheila, Sony Pictures Television, Stephen Curry, Ten Pound Poms, Terry, Warren Brown