At first, I thought I was watching a parody, something like an Irish Australian version of Horrible Histories. But, far from being an Antipodean 1066 And All That, it seems the makers of this television show, set sometime between the 1780s and the 1850s, genuinely believe they had a story of righteous rebellion by the oppressed working classes to tell.
Crikey! Here before our eyes, in suitably gloomy scenes, every old shibboleth about the convict system was casually trotted out, completely untouched by the any of the revisionism of the last thirty or so years. Along with the familiar trinity of rum, sodomy and the lash there was the equation with slavery, poor Canadians/Americans/Irish/Welsh oppressed by the British, anachronistic maps and clothing, an obsession with the Crown, and the fascinating depiction of the “British” as some sort of alien class of oligarchs parasitically living off the innocent, folksy, oppressed Irish, Welsh, Scots and English (none of whom, apparently, ever thought of themselves as “British”). The moody scenes were inevitably accompanied by the ever-present clank of the chains and terror of the flogger. The unquestioning acceptance of the claims and campaigns by evangelistic anti-transportationists of the mid-nineteenth century was truly remarkable.
There are far too many issues to unpick. The invasion of the continent and islands, which lasted for well over a century and still affects every aspect of Australian life today, was despatched with in a sentence or two. The subtext was “Goodbye, now let real history begin”. The false synonymity with Nelson Mandela, as if 6 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was equivalent to 26 years in apartheid Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster, was breathtaking. All this and much more is, apparently, part of Australia’s history that has been forgotten or suppressed. There’s no need to go on.
These will all be familiar tropes to anyone with a passing knowledge of “Australian history” as written throughout the twentieth century by nationalists of various hues, from the radical to the liberal. And, perhaps, that is the real value of this show. It could be shown to that small band of students in this visual age who actually study Australian history as an example of its type, a historiographical relic, to give them a sense of what once passed for ‘history’ in the schools and universities of this country. No need for critical inquiry, or questioning of magisterial historians, just passive acceptance of nationalist dogma.
Of course, there were some good points. Some of the landscapes were beautifully filmed. The ruins of Port Arthur were picturesque. The font used in the titles was pleasantly ‘antique’ looking. The grimly heroic faces of the oppressed and the arrogant hauteur of the oligarchs was a perfect representation of the monotone world of this fantastic past, no shades of grey allowed. Everyone, actor and viewer, has to be on one side or the other. Redcoat or yellow jacket. All so simple, just like real life.
Death or Liberty was a wonderful example of twentieth century nationalist agitprop, and a perfect illustration of the sort of histories that supported the extremes of State and State-sponsored violence that wracked the twentieth century. Perhaps it provides the perfect visual background for the musicians who erupt every now and then throughout the show. Like the heroic oppressed, they’re suitably po-faced and folksy. But was it history, or drama, or musical visualisation, or something else?
The Sydney Morning Herald TV Guide hailed Death or Liberty as ‘Show of the Week’ (11 January 2016, page 6). The may well accord with the Fairfax narrative of Britishness as foreignness, and thwarting of Australia’s essential destiny of republican independence, that apparently appeals to its bourgeois baby boomer readership. But the question for me is whether we really need to continue promoting such separating, myopic, nationalistic narratives? I don’t think so.