More than a million assisted migrants arrived in Australia from Britain as so-called Ten Pound Poms, guaranteeing the BBC drama series Ten Pound Poms (showing here on Stan) a ready-made and enthusiastic audience. Reviews have been mixed, but the writers of Ten Pound Poms were never going to be able to please everyone. After all, a million or so British immigrants have a million or so different stories to tell.
My family, for example, arrived in 1955 when I was four years old. My father had been recruited by Victoria’s State Electricity Commission and our introduction to life in Australia could not have been more different than that depicted in Ten Pound Poms.
There was no dilapidated migrant hostel ‘out in the sticks’ waiting for us. Instead, on arrival we were welcomed into a new three-bedroom house, complete with basic furniture and a refrigerator fully stocked with food. Our town, North Newborough, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, had been created solely to accommodate employees of the Yallourn Power Station. My parents were delighted.
The first time I saw the distinctive Nissan Huts featured in Ten Pound Poms was in the Swinging Sixties after we had left Victoria to live in New South Wales. The Villawood Migrant Hostel (now rebuilt and repurposed as the Villawood Detention Centre) with its row upon row of Nissan Huts was situated opposite the high school I attended.
It was an exciting time to be Pom because Beatlemania and Carnaby Street had given everything British a certain cachet. All the lads living in the hostel wanted to be in a band, including my Scottish boyfriend, and all the hopefuls practised in the cavernous hostel wash sheds, including, as some may recall, a couple of the young men who went on to form the Easybeats, one of the most popular bands of the time.
Ten Pound Poms follows the story of Terry (Warren Brown) and Annie Roberts (Fay Marsay) their two children (Hattie Hook and Fin Treacy), and nurse, Kate Thorne (Michelle Keegan) in the months following their arrival in Australia from England. By comparison, my family’s experience at Ten Pound Poms was an easy ride compared to the extraordinarily bumpy road that awaits them.
Complications and challenges are the engines that drive the narrative, but in Ten Pound Poms, there are simply too many. The central themes of culture shock and adjustment, to which all Ten Pound Poms can relate, should dominate, but the viewer is quickly distracted by multiple extraneous issues.
Over the course of a mere six episodes, the five new arrivals (the Roberts family and Nurse Thorne) grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol abuse, drunk driving, a hit-and-run car accident, discrimination against First Nations people (including Indigenous war veterans), the forced removal of Aboriginal children, British child migrants, adoption, teenage pregnancy, abortion, worker exploitation, and corporal punishment.
The viewer also gets a glimpse of robbery, mental illness and domestic violence affecting the lives of those around them. Unfortunately, in the case of Ten Pound Poms the abundance of complications serves to fragment the narrative rather than to anchor it.
In the main, members of the ensemble cast look and sound authentic. The laissez-fair site manager played by Stephen Curry and the Ocker workmate played by David Field are the exceptions, their characters better described as caricatures. It is worth noting here, too, the other cliched Australian characters: the cane-swinging schoolmaster, the bullying boss and the creepy priest (Bruce Spence). Ten Pound Poms certainly offers an unflattering snapshot of Australians.
From a statistical point of view, coincidences are inevitable, which is just as well because they are a mainstay in Ten Pound Poms where they are clumsily used to progress the narrative.
In a country as vast as Australia, for example, what are the chances that Nurse Thorn (Michelle Keegan), a mother searching for her child migrant son, would quickly locate and be able to break into the exact government office that holds her son’s record card (one amongst tens of thousands) and that, within minutes, she would find it stored there in a small filing cabinet?
Then again, what are the chances that she would also find herself staying in a migrant hostel that just happens to be in the same locality as her lost son’s adoptive home? War veteran Terry Roberts (Warren Brown) might stand a slightly better chance of finding himself working alongside Ron (Rob Collins), an Indigenous Australian, who just happens to be a war veteran, but still, the odds would be extraordinarily slim.
While Ten Pound Poms succeeds in conjuring up a section of Australia in the decade following WWII, it doesn’t always get it right. The ease with which Nurse Thorn (Michelle Keegan), for example, is able to make a covert international call from an office telephone does not ring true. Apart from being prohibitively expensive, connecting international calls took time and generally needed to be booked in advance. For Nurse Thorn (Michelle Keegan) to make an unauthorised international call, instantaneously and without alerting her boss who is standing nearby is, it must be said, laughable.
The early chapter of my life spent in North Newborough ended a long time ago. The town where my family and I lived when we first came to Australia was demolished soon after work ran down at the Yallourn Coal-fired Power Station. The pages are still turning for the characters of Ten Pound Poms. At the conclusion of season one, none is anywhere near settling in or adjusting to a new life in Australia. Their journeys are just beginning, which may, of course, leave scope for a second season. None has yet been announced.
I am not sure if I would bother to watch a second season of Ten Pound Poms, but that’s just me. What about you?