In the calamitous wake of World War II, the Australian government felt compelled to rapidly populate the nation. Reaching out to the United Kingdom in the search for willing migrants – though under the villainous spectre of the White Australia policy – the Ten Pound Pom scheme was born.
If you were in one of the Blitz-shattered centres of Britain, chances are that newspaper ads promising new homes, secure jobs and abundant sunshine seemed like a spectacular deal, if only you could scrape the shillings together. Of course, reality isn’t always exactly as advertised …
That’s the intriguing premise for Ten Pound Poms, the second major co-production between local streaming service Stan and UK public broadcaster the BBC following Jamie Dornan-led hit The Tourist. Created by BAFTA-winning writer Danny Brocklehurst of Brassic renown, he’s joined in the writing room by Brassic colleague Ava Pickett, Cleverman scribe Ryan Griffen and Smita Bhide (The Indian Detective).
Directing duties are divided equally between Australian Ana Kokkinos (Head On) and her Scottish counterpart Jamie Magnus Stone (Doctor Who).
The idea holds plenty of potential, perhaps too much so for the six-episode run. Luther lead and former two-time World Thai Boxing Champion Warren Brown is easily the most charismatic character in the first half of the series we received for review, standing head and shoulders above an overly cluttered ensemble as cor blimey bricklayer Terry Roberts.
An effective opening scene establishes Terry as a troubled man who’s increasingly turned to drink since returning from Germany. He’s haunted by PTSD flashes of his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden, a city brutally firebombed by the Allies at the horrific cost of countless civilian lives. Like many men of his era (and still today) he’s bottled it all up.
Terry’s erratic behaviour and propensity to blow his meagre pay packet down the pub has his wife Annie at her wit’s end. As played by Faye Marsay (Mon Mothma’s more underhanded rebel cousin in Andor), she’s the one who spots the too-good-to-be-true ad in the paper as she uses it to mop up his spew. ‘Filthy bugger,’ she exclaims. ‘Bloody ‘ell.’
Pretty soon they’re all packed and down by the docks with the kids, Terry promising to turn over a new leaf in this brave new world after six weeks at sea aboard the on-the-nose-named good ship Fairmore. On the bus to a supposedly idyllic country town just outside of Sydney, the sight of kangaroos has their young son wide-eyed, even if his teenage sister (Hattie Hook, Of An Age) is a little less enthusiastic about the move.
But when Terry spies the field of corrugated tin, one-bedroom sheds migrants are to be squished into, he grimly notes that it looks just like a prisoner of war camp.
It’s interesting to see how Terry goes from being a skilled breadwinner back home to the subject of bigoted abuse as a ‘whinging pom’ when deployed to backbreaking work digging holes in the baking sun. Bullied by always impeccably menacing unsavoury character actor David Field as fellow labourer Dean, he insists the dunny is for Aussies only. ‘Over here, you’re the Black,’ he snarls.
The only thing worse than being the subject of Dean’s fury is when he takes Terry under his liability wing and flies him straight into a terrible situation that threatens to derail the Brit’s budding friendship with First Nations man Ron, a fellow veteran (Limbo star Rob Collins, sorely underused so far).
Intriguingly, a shocked Annie quickly drops her outrage at an Aboriginal woman being sent to the back of a department store queue when she’s offered a job there.
Ten Pound Poms would probably have been a much stronger if there had been a tighter focus on this family unit. Unfortunately, there’s just a little too much going on, with an awful lot of characters and not enough time to flesh them all out, leaving most as near strangers three episodes in.
Beyond the Roberts, Brassic star Michelle Keegan has the most to do as Kate, a nurse and unmarried woman who ditches her fiancé at the docks and befriends Annie on the voyage. Unable to escape a terrible secret in her past, her Philomena-reminiscent subplot confronts misogynistic moralising by the church.
It should be powerful stuff, but the writers bizarrely couch it in a ridiculously OTT melodrama that would be more at home in Days of Our Lives.
Also very silly is a painfully uninteresting business fraud plotline involving The Letdown’s Leon Ford as Bill, a stuck-up Brit who’s more established in the camp, but struggling to cover up his debts. Stephen Curry is ill-cast as lazy camp boss JJ, who has his eyes on Bill’s wife Sheila (Emma Hamilton). He has no qualms about cutting down Maria – Sarah Furnari wasted in a cringeworthily stereotypical depiction of a loudly gesticulating Italian woman – with the mean aside, ‘It’s revenge for you siding with Hitler’.
There are also German migrants present in the camp, though that obvious tension hasn’t been fully explored as yet.
This wrap doesn’t even begin to cover off the entire roster crowbarred into the first three eps. If only it had been streamlined in the writers’ room, rather than playing out like a decades-long soap opera crammed into five minutes.
As with much streaming TV, the hour-long episodes are overlong, sagging in the middle, yet still don’t do justice to the over-extended cast and convoluted plotlines. Hopefully the final three episodes will give more space to its First Nations characters, allowing the gifted Collins to flex his acting muscles more.
Ten Pound Poms doesn’t make the most of its location work, shot in Scheyville National Park, rural town Carcoar in the Central West region of New South Wales and bits filmed in Sydney, where at least the timeless spectacle of the Harbour Bridge adds pizzaz. The tone’s a bit wonky, too, with the dramedy missing the mark at both ends, neither funny nor compelling enough to stick around.
A bit like that newspaper ad, you can’t help but feel like you’ve been fleeced, with the promise of a brighter show remaining just out of reach.
Ten Pound Poms premieres on Stan on 15 May.