This action-packed BBC drama depicts the grim lives of Brits who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s. Its look at the ‘issues’ is a bit broad, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the truth
'Zips along nicely’ … L-R: Peter (Finn Treacy), Pattie (Hattie Hook), Annie (Faye Marsay), Terry (Warren Brown) in Ten Pound Poms. Photograph: John Platt/BBC/Eleven
Danny Brocklehurst is perhaps best known as a writer on Shameless and Brassic, series with big mouths, big hearts and anarchic spirits, so you might wonder how the big BBC One Sunday night slot would suit him. Is Ten Pound Poms more Call the Midwife than call the police, or can it still keep a bit of that spark and pluck?
Ten Pound Poms tries to have it both ways, and mostly succeeds. It tells the story of the British people who responded to newspaper adverts in the 1950s inviting them to move to Australia to build a new life, all for the princely sum of £10. In the real world, about 1 million people signed up for the scheme. Here, we see it through the eyes of Terry (Warren Brown), a man with an impressive moustache and crippling post-traumatic stress disorder, left to languish in postwar Stockport, still suffering flashbacks to his time as a prisoner of war.
Terry is a drinker, a gambler and a fighter, and his wife Annie (Faye Marsay) has had enough of him spending his wage packet at the pub and the track. In what might be one of the only recorded cases of people moving to Australia to avoid beer – just kidding, please don’t write in – the entire family undertakes the six-week voyage, on the promise of a better life.
What they find is very much not the picture-perfect white-picket-fence Australia the brochure said would greet them. After an unfriendly experience at immigration, where we are shown the strict “whites only” rules and how these were brutally enforced, they are shipped to their new home. This turns out to be a hostel that resembles a “prisoner of war camp”, as Terry notes with fear in his eyes. The Australians are no-nonsense semi-sadists, sick to death of the “whingeing poms” who seem surprised that they will be living in tin shacks rather than cosy suburban bungalows. Just wait until they see the communal dunnies.
This version of Australia, unglamorous and tough, won’t be appearing in any tourist board campaigns soon. Having given up their passports for two years, a requirement of the scheme, they roll up their sleeves and try to get stuck in. Qualified builder Terry finds a job digging ditches, but only after it has been confirmed that no Australians want to do it. At work, he meets a Begbie-type hair-trigger maniac who despises anyone who isn’t Australian and is happy enough to try to kill them, just to make his point. There is sexism, racism and xenophobia at every turn, coming from officials and shop assistants and labourers, though the fact that this comes as a shock to Annie and Terry seems a little more 2023 than 1956 to me.
There is a lot going on and it zips along nicely, barely pausing for breath. The kids, Pattie and Peter, are trying to fit in, but Pattie still seems attached to her old life in Stockport (something involving boys, of which Terry does not approve), while Peter is told he must “try to be normal”, when being like everyone else appears to be particularly difficult for him. Meanwhile, Brassic alum Michelle Keegan is Kate, a nurse and enigmatic femme fatale type who made the voyage over with her “fiance”, though the poor chap does not make it as far as the arrivals gate. Where did he go, and why is she so keen to protect her identity? What was she leaving behind, and what is she so desperate to find?
This is a juicy mystery to sit alongside the more practical domestic details, and it shows its hand just enough to maintain a decent amount of intrigue. But there are more secrets and more lies. Annie is so unhappy that she fibs and tells a potential employer that Terry is dead. Even JJ, the hostel’s manager, guard, or some hybrid of the two, has something going on with one of the “whingeing poms” who has applied to be released from the scheme early. Towards the end of the first episode, yet another secret is thrown on to the heap, as Terry’s attempts to bond with his new colleagues go horribly wrong.
This is not quite the Sunday night period drama that you might expect, then. It has a bit more bite than that. It doesn’t sugarcoat the nastier side of the experience, but it does allow the idealism to peek through. It has been a bit BBC One-ed, in the sense that it takes wide aim at the “issues” then tackles them with broad brushstrokes, but this is enjoyable enough, nicely compelling, and a real education for those not familiar with the Ten Pound Poms story.