A Southern Hemisphere Christmas story, but not much in the way of peace on Earth and goodwill to all folks. First there was a novel, then the 1971 film, now a two-part television miniseries.
“May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright.” (Old curse.)
New South Wales, the present day. John Grant (Sean Keenan) is a teacher in the small outback town of Tiboonda. He loathes the job and dreams of leaving teaching for good. As school breaks up for Christmas, John drives towards Sydney to spend the holidays with his girlfriend Robyn. But an accident – his car hits a kangaroo – forces him to stop in the town of Bundunyabba for repairs. Needing to stay the night, he meets local sergeant Jock Crawford (David Wenham) who introduces him to the town, gets him a bite to eat and a few drinks, and introduces him to the local gambling game of two-up. At first John is winning, seeming enough to buy himself out of his job completely. Then he loses it all, and his stay in “The Yabba” turns into a nightmare.
Kenneth Cook published Wake in Fright in 1961. It was his first novel, and a short one, and it’s the best-known of the seventeen he published. He died of a heart attack in 1987, aged fifty-seven. The film version of Wake in Fright was released in 1971 (originally retitled Outback outside Australia), and stands near the beginning of the revival of the Australian film industry which took place during that decade. The film is, like Walkabout the same year, an overseas coproduction, with the USA this time, with a non-Australian director (Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian) and three Brits in the principal cast: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence and Kotcheff’s then-wife Sylvia Kay. However, it’s Australian to the core, and few films have painted such an unsparing picture of its beer-swilling, gambling, kangaroo-hunting culture, a society where not to have a drink with someone is unacceptable. It’s a very white and male society: women are sidelined and it’s telling that the only time we see an Aboriginal Australian he’s sitting on his own in a train. The film is something of a changing of the guard: the last film of one of Australia’s film stars of the 1940s onwards, Chips Rafferty (as Jock Crawford), and the first for one of the stars of the New Wave which was just about to break, Jack Thompson, from one generation’s icon of Australian masculinity on screen to the next’s. The film follows the novel closely, though there are some differences. In the novel it’s made clear that John is a virgin, which is hinted at in the film but not specified. There’s also a hint that Robyn, his Sydney girlfriend, who we see on beach in brief flashbacks, may actually be imaginary, but in the film she exists at least to the point where John carries a photograph of her. In the miniseries she gives John an entire backstory. One necessary updating is that the characters spend pounds in the novel and dollars in the film, Australian currency having changed in 1966. But little had changed in the ten years between novel and film, to make the story a period piece.
The film was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and was a critical success, but with the odd exception of France, where it played in Paris for several months, it wasn’t a commercial one. Australians clearly didn’t like the picture of aspects of their own society reflected back at them. The story of how the film slipped out of the circulation and almost becoming a lost film, with the negative rediscovered at the last moment, is told in my review of the film, here.
Four and a half decades on, and many of the classics of the Australian Film Revival are ripe for remaking, either as cinema features or as television miniseries. I’m writing this in the year when a six-part version of Picnic at Hanging Rock was broadcast and a new big-screen version of Storm Boy is forthcoming And so, this two-part, two-and-three-quarter-hour miniseries of Wake in Fright, updated to the present day. It was written by Stephen M. Irwin and directed by Kriv Stenders, whose big-screen feature Red Dog was one of the biggest hits of an Australian film at the local box office and remains his best film. (He also directed the less successful prequel.)
If the novel and the 1971 film seem very alike, as they do, they are not so much timeless as of their time, and capturing a particular place and moment. However, there has been a lot of change in forty-six or fifty-six years and if the core of this story can be recaptured in a modern setting, this miniseries doesn’t achieve that.
Some updatings are to be expected, such as the presence of mobile phones, social media and the Internet. There are more roles for women, including some in positions of authority, and for Aboriginal characters. John drives instead of taking a train. But you can quickly hear the gears shriek as the series contrives to strand its protagonist in The Yabba. On the surface, The Yabba (novel and film version) is friendly on the surface, and no one sees anything wrong with a life where men work during the day and drink and gamble by night, even going kangaroo-shooting (pig-shooting in this version). John Grant unravels when he discovers the darkness within himself. However, John (miniseries version) doesn’t do this. He’s actively under threat, particularly from Michaela “Mick” Jaffries (Anna Samson), who doubles as a mixed martial-arts fighter, and her brother Joe (Lee Jones), who produce drugs on the side. Mick lends John some money when he loses all of his, and she wants it back with increasing interest. So John’s actions in the film don’t come from within: he’s acting under duress.
There are some worthwhile things about this series. David Wenham makes a good fist of Jock Crawford, but he doesn’t have the edge of Rafferty, nor his imposing size. Alex Dimitriades gives a gonzo take on Doc Tydon, and the homoerotic overtones between him and John Grant are more overt (they’re hinted at more in the film than in the novel, probably as much as 1971 censorship might have allowed), but rewrites to his character are not to his benefit, not least by reducing his screen time. But it’s soon apparent that this Wake in Fright is misconceived from start to finish.
Wake in Fright was broadcast on the Ten Network in Australia on 8 and 15 October 2017. It did win two AACTA Awards, for Best Sound and for Matteo Zingales and Antony Partos’s music score. It was nominated for Best Telefeature or Miniseries and for Sean Keenan and David Wenham’s performances, Geoffrey Hall’s cinematography and Mariot Kerr’s costume design. So far it has not been broadcast or otherwise commercially released in the UK.
Roadshow have released Wake in Fright on DVD only, a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 4. The two episodes run 78:59 and 80:44 and there is a Play All option. The disc bears the Australian advisory M rating; if it were ever submitted to the BBFC it would almost certainly gain a 15 certificate.
This miniseries is a product of the widescreen TV era and was shot digitally. The DVD transfers are in the intended broadcast ratio of 1.78:1. As the series has existed solely in the digital realm, you’d expect it to look pristine, and it does, bearing in mind that it was available on television in HD and is only released on disc in SD.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1, another sign of the times for small-screen fare. There’s nothing much to comment here either: it’s clear and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. There’s also an audio-descriptive track in Dolby Surround (2.0) and hard-of-hearing English subtitles available.
There’s just one extra, a behind-the-scenes featurette (10:44) and what you would expect: interviews with some of the principals and a glimpse of the filming, and a claim that the story is timeless, though on this evidence clearly it isn’t.