For Australia Day at The Digital Fix, a warm love story set in the Depression, starring Gary Sweet and Jacqueline McKenzie, based on the novel by Kylie Tennant. This 1994 miniseries is released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment.
Australia, 1934, in the middle of the Depression. Many men and women are homeless, walking or riding the roads looking for work. Dancy (Jacqueline McKenzie) has walked out on her husband. On the road, she meets wandering labourer Snow Grimshaw (Gary Sweet) and they join forces, finding it easier to pretend to be husband and wife, although he has a wife and son back home…
One national image Australians have is the “Aussie battler”, the underdog, usually working-class, either male or female, who perseveres despite all the adversity that could be thrown at him or her. There are countless examples in Australian novels, and also film and television based on those novels or otherwise. How long the phrase has been current is a good question, though it gives its title to the novel by Kylie Tennant, first published in 1941 and winner of the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal the following year, on which this two-part 1994 miniseries (first broadcast on the 7 Network on 13 and 14 July 1984) is based.
Two strangers thrown together and having to pose as a couple when they are not…it sounds like the set-up to a romantic comedy, and there are certainly elements of both in Peter Yeldham’s script and likely Tennant’s novel (which I haven’t read). However, the setting at a time of real hardship gives the proceedings an edge. Much of the storyline involves Snow and Dancy’s wanderings, and the characters they meet on the way – including Snow’s son Jimmy (Peter Stoneham), who rather conveniently has red hair like Dancy, so making it easier for her to pretend he’s her son. They aren’t the only characters in the story having to pretend they’re something they’re not: see also the not-really-priest Apostle (Richard Piper) and his wife Millie (Amanda Cross).
Much of the second part of this two-part miniseries involves a labour dispute between landowner Courtney (Walter Brown) and the workers whose wages he’s just cut. Courtney is very much written and played in Uncaring Capitalist Bastard mode, but it turns out there’s a chink in his armour. However, as with any romantic comedy or rather romantic drama-with-comic-elements, the core of the story isn’t whether its central couple get together, but how they do and how the obstacles in the way (which include Snow’s wife) are overcome. To this end, Yeldham’s script, George Ogilvie’s direction and two strong central performances mean that you do care that these happen, and you may have something in your eye by the end.
Gary Sweet (born 1957) and Jacqueline McKenzie (born 1967) both had established acting careers behind them when this series was made. Sweet began in 1980 with a stint on The Sullivans and made his big-screen debut with John D. Lamond’s sleazy slasher movie Nightmares the same year. Often playing older than he actually is, he’s younger here, partly because he’s more usually bald and has a head of hair here. There may have been a ten-year age gap between the two leads, but on screen it’s convincingly reduced. McKenzie had begun on television and had made an impression two years before this series with her role in Romper Stomper, which she reprised in the 2018 sequel miniseries. She picked up the series’s only nomination in the Australian Film Awards, though it won a Logie Award (Australian television awards) for Most Popular Drama.
Umbrella’s DVD release of The Battlers is encoded for all regions. It’s one of the titles from their deal with the South Australian Film Corporation. It’s packaged in Umbrella’s Classic Australian Stories line, with the author of the source material prominent on the front cover. There is no menu, and the series is presented as one title, running 190:40. However, the closing credits of the first episode and the opening ones for the second are included. If you want to play episode two, you will have to skip forward to chapter eleven, which begins at 99:08.
The Australian rating is PG, for “mild coarse language, mild violence, family breakdown themes”. By UK standards it’s at the top end of that rating and might now receive a 12, with another factor being a verbal reference to suicide by train.
Being made before the widescreen era, The Battlers is in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and the DVD transfer is correct. The series was shot on 16mm film, with noticeable grain, especially in some night scenes. This DVD looks like it’s transferred from a tape source. Given the inevitable limitations, it looks fair enough, with the colours true.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing available and no extras.