The Shiralee (1987) - DVD Review

“There was a man who had a cross, and his name was Macauley. He put Australia at his feet the only way he knew how. His boots spun the dust from its roads. He had two shiralees, two heavy burdens to carry. One was his bed roll. The second had legs and a cabbage-tree hat and the only reason he had it was because he was stuck with it. She was his shiralee.”

That voiceover narration, adapted from D'Arcy Niland's novel, kicks off this two-part television miniseries. It's 1953 in Australia. Macauley (Bryan Brown) is a swagman, spending his time on the open, dusty road, making his living by casual employment. He returns home to Adelaide to find his wife Marge (Lorna Lesley) in bed with another man, and he walks out, taking their young daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart) with him…

The Shiralee was the first novel by D'Arcy Niland (1917-1967), published in 1955. It was partly based on his own experiences of travelling the country in the 1930s during the Depression, working as, amongst other things, a farm labourer, an opal miner, a sheep-shearer and a circus hand. Unlike Macauley, Niland didn't serve in the Forces in World War II due to a chronic heart condition which resulted in his death at age forty-nine. He published six novels and four short-story collections, but of his work The Shiralee is by far the best-known, and the present miniseries is its second adaptation on any size screen.

It was first adapted as a feature film in 1957, directed by Leslie Norman, one of several films made in Australia by Ealing Studios, with locations shot in New South Wales and interiors in the studios back in England. Expatriate Australian Peter Finch played Macauley and six-year-old Dana Wilson played Buster. The cast included a number of other Australian actors, some of whom were then based in the UK for the greater opportunities available at the time, including Charles “Bud” Tingwell, Reg Lye, Ed Devereaux, and, as extras, Bill Hunter and Bill Kerr. The film was a success in the UK and Australia, less so elsewhere. At the world premiere in London, five hundred Australians were let in free, if they could either show their passport or if Peter Finch could verify their accent.

The Shiralee, novel and film, is a simple story, simply told, on the surface. It ties in to several Australian self-myths: of the country versus the city (Sydney in the 1957 film), of mateship between men, with women often secondary. Macauley embodies the Australian larrikin, a young man (usually), ready to fight if needs be, often disrespectful of authority and seeking to avoid the softening influence of city life. At one point in the miniseries, Macauley is referred to as a “battler”, another common Australian persona, one which could apply to either sex.

However, it is through female influence in this story that Macauley changes, and develops a sense of responsibility – through Lily (Noni Hazlehurst), who may be the (platonic) love of his life, and not least through his young daughter. Buster is four in the novel, but practicalities of casting such a young girl meant that her age isn't specified and a rather older girl played the role: six in Dana Wilson's case and for this miniseries, a small-for-her-age ten-year-old in the shape of Rebecca Smart. She had made her film debut two years earlier as Greta Scacchi's daughter in The Coca-Cola Kid and two years after this miniseries gave one of the great Australian performances by a child, in the title role of Celia. While Finch was fine as Macauley, Bryan Brown, who had often played larrikin-type roles up to them, is ideal casting in the role.

With a running time almost twice that of the 1957 film, the miniseries, scripted by Tony Morphett, has the space to dramatise what had been backstory in both the film and the novel, in the process expanding Lily's role to justify Noni Hazlehurst's second billing. Once the opening credits have rolled, we flash back to 1939 to see Macauley arriving in a small country town and finding work with the local butcher Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). Tony is Lily's father, and soon Mac and Lily become close, though she marries another. Flash forward a few years and we see Mac, having returned from war service, more or less marrying Marge on the rebound, though it's clear there isn't much love between them – though they do produce their daughter, and some half an hour in, we are in 1953. The three hours, in two parts, is a little leisurely, but it's a very well made miniseries and a pleasure to watch, inevitably trading in a nostalgia for past times that you'll find a lot of in Australian films and television from the time.

A decade after the local film industry had revived, cinematic talent was also working in television, making several miniseries like this. George Ogilvie (born 1932) was a late developer as a screen director, having worked on stage before the start of the decade. He had begun directing on television due to George Miller, helming episodes of the miniseries The Dismissal and Bodyline for Miller's company. Ogilvie had then made his cinematic debut, co-directing with Miller Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The Shiralee was made for the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC), shot on location in that state in and around Adelaide and Quorn. Oddly, this very Australian series premiered in the UK, on BBC2 on 21 and 28 October 1987, with its first Australian broadcast on the Seven Network the following June. That UK broadcast attracted an audience of 14 million.


The Shiralee is one of several titles, films and television movies and miniseries, from the SAFC catalogue released on disc by Umbrella Entertainment. So far that has meant bare-bones DVDs, and this is no exception. The two episodes, running 95:15 and 93:25, are contained on one dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions, and there is a Play All option. The disc has an Australian PG rating. The Shiralee has never been submitted to the BBFC in the UK, but by today's standards it might well get a 12, for a scene where Macauley is beaten up, and for some moderate language which is in the novel but wouldn't have been allowed in the 1957 film – nothing stronger than “bugger” though.

As you might expect from 1980s television, and therefore before the widescreen era, the DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1 with no anamorphic enhancement. The Shiralee was shot in 16mm, which inevitably looks quite grainy and a little soft compared to today's HD-shot material. Shadow detail in some of the darker scenes isn't great, but we should bear in mind that we are watching this on larger and less forgiving screens than those who saw it on broadcast at the time would have done.

The miniseries also predates the widespread use of stereo soundtracks on television productions, so this disc is in the original mono. There's nothing untoward about that: it's clear and well-balanced. There are no subtitles available, so the deaf and hard-of-hearing and possibly non-native English speakers may well lose out. The accents on screen are not especially broad, though.

As mentioned above, there are no extras.

(With thanks to Stephen Morgan.)

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