Monday, May 14, 2007

Bastard Boys reviewed

The Australian ABC-TV mini-series Bastard Boys, depicting the 1998 ‘battle for the waterfront’, was given its debut screening over the last couple of nights. By virtue of its subject matter, the program has been guaranteed a pivotal place in the Australian ‘culture wars’.

Even before the series hit our screens, it was denounced for its political bias. Notably, Michael Duffy writes that “simple mathematics suggests the scale of bias.”

The miniseries is divided into four equal segments, each told from the viewpoint of one participant. Two are union officials (the then Maritime Union of Australia national secretary John Coombs and the ACTU’s Greg Combet), one is a Labor lawyer, and one is Chris Corrigan, the head of Patrick Stevedores. The Corrigan segment contains far more from the union perspective than from his. So about 80 per cent of the story is told from the union point of view.

Thus, according to Mr Duffy’s linear artistic calculus, the formula for the artistic merit of Bastard Boys could be expressed as follows, where biases B are summed to produce an overall index of artistic merit M:

M = B1 + B2 + ... Bn

I would submit, however, that the merit of this production might better be expressed as follows, where biases B are modulated by nuances N to produce perhaps a less straightforward result:

M = (B1N3 + N5B5) / (B4N2 — N5B12) + ... ∞

Well, forgive my silly illustration, but my own viewing of the program simply does not correspond with Mr Duffy’s exegesis. For instance, in the opening minutes of the show, Duffy explains that, while workers were being thrown off the Patrick Stevedores docks, CEO Chris Corrigan “was asleep” ...

Indeed, he was dreaming “about this mad old Hungarian refugee I worked for as a kid. He employed a lot of local kids — well, we were cheap, of course — and he’d get us out in his market garden at 3am in the Mittagong winter, freezing our balls off, cutting celery. He used to say, ‘Work a little harder, bastard boys.’”

Clearly, given the show’s title, this is meant to compare Corrigan with the mad market gardener and the wharfies with the wretched Mittagong child labourers, with all the irony implied by such a comparison. But this is madness.

Indeed, this is madness, and I want some of what Mr Duffy must have been smoking while he watched the preview. I seriously cannot make the connection that Duffy makes between Corrigan and his childhood work-master.

To me, Corrigan’s reminiscence of the old man haranguing those ‘bastard boys’ perhaps gives an inkling of something in his experience that may — or may not — have driven him in his epic battle with the wharfies. Perhaps we’ll never know what that ‘something’ was, however, because our insight, via Bastard Boys, into Corrigan the man is somewhat limited.

Duffy attributes this to the ‘bias’ of the producers. He complains that “Corrigan is portrayed as a gawky and ridiculous loner without friends, or even associates.” This simply is not true, as a cursory viewing of the program will attest. The Chris Corrigan I saw in the program was certainly a quirky, self-absorbed and perhaps eccentric, but supremely self-assured individual. Whether this was the result of ‘bias’ on the part of the producers, or of his own reticence in collaborating with the production, who can say?

What does come across in the program is that Corrigan found himself isolated, as his ‘friends’ deserted him when he hit the rough. “He is a man without context,” Duffy inexhaustibly continues, “implausible as both a human being and a successful entrepreneur.” Whether this was a consequence of Corrigan’s reticence — his respect for his own privacy — or the producers’ ‘bias’, perhaps only time will tell.

Duffy goes on to suggest what he’d apparently like to see as ‘improvements’ to the plot and structure of the show. These are very interesting ideas, and I'd strongly encourage Mr Duffy to submit such story outlines to the ABC. It could be the start of a whole new lucrative career for Duffy, and quite stimulating for television audiences. Judging, however, by Duffy’s negative attitude towards the ABC, he probably won’t even try.

By the way, I have my own objections to certain details in the portrayal of the events depicted in Bastard Boys. These are informed by personal experience, because I was there on East Swanston Dock on the night of 18 April 1998, being the night of the epic confrontation between the unions and the forces of ‘the establishment’, represented by the Victoria Police. I won’t disclose in what capacity I was there, but...

For one thing, the ‘cavalry’ scene, in which the column of CFMEU members arrived to break the impasse between police and ‘picketers’, took place not in the dead of night, but in the brilliance of a magnificent dawn. I clearly remember them marching two- or three-abreast in orderly fashion from out of the rising sun.

The CFMEU secretary, Martin Kingham, was not at the head of the column, as might be construed in the film, but rather among the ‘picketers’ where he’d been all through that long night. I glanced over to see him positively beaming with pride at the discipline of his members (whose relationship with the Victoria Police has historically been ‘uneasy’).

Another detail missed by Bastard Boys occurred somewhat halfway through that long night, when a lone voice burst into song with, “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free...” The crowd took up the song with gusto — to the confusion of the police line — then petered out after the first few bars ... because hardly anyone then over thirty knew the words of the Australian National Anthem.

Lastly, Bastard Boys faithfully depicted the buzzing of the police helicopter as it flashed its searchlight over the crowd, but the show missed entirely the collective response of the ‘picketers’. I can only imagine the helicopter crews must have chuckled irreverently to themselves at the sea of one-fingered salutes below.

It was, perhaps, a spontaneous expression of faith by the crowd in the persistence of civility in Australian cultural and political life.


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