British actors don’t find themselves sharing the set with kangaroos very often, but that became the daily norm for Michelle Keegan and Faye Marsay on new BBC1 drama Ten Pound Poms.
‘There was always a mob of them in the background,’ recalls Game Of Thrones star Faye.
‘We wouldn’t get right up close because they might give you a punch, apparently. But it was kind of amazing. I’d never been to Australia. I was slightly terrified about the fact that if you get bitten by anything you’re probably going to die. Michelle and I would be Googling shark attacks.’
Along with Luther actor Warren Brown the pair were down under for the six-part series from Brassic creator Danny Brocklehurst. Set in 1956, Ten Pound Poms follows a bunch of fictional Brits who took advantage of the Australian government’s offer to transport them to Oz and provide subsidised housing and jobs for them for £10 per person.
The Assisted Passage Migration Scheme ran in various forms from 1945 to 1972 and enticed more than a million and a half Brits, who could apply for Australian citizenship after a year. If they decided to return to Britain within two years, they had to pay back their £10 and fund their own passage back (about £120 then, £6,000 in today’s money).
Set in 1956, Ten Pound Poms follows a bunch of fictional Brits who took advantage of the Australian government’s offer to transport them to Oz and provide subsidised housing and jobs for them for £10 per person
The scheme saw the families of many famous people relocate to Australia, including the parents of Hugh Jackman, Kylie Minogue, the Bee Gees and AC/DC founders Malcolm and Angus Young and Bon Scott. Former prime minister Julia Gillard migrated with her family from Barry in South Wales when she was four.
Danny, best known for creating spiky northern dramas and adapting Harlan Coben thrillers such as The Stranger and Stay Close, had up to now shunned period pieces.
But he was persuaded to tell the Ten Pound Poms story after researching the historic scheme.
‘I was fascinated by the themes that were potentially there to do with escape, with starting over, with prejudice,’ he says. ‘And I got quite excited about doing a show that didn’t have the internet and mobile phones in it.’
The drama sees working-class northerners emigrate to what was heavily advertised as the Australian idyll, only to find themselves stuck in remote, grim hostels scrabbling to find work.
Some of the locations in the show are historically authentic – replica hostels were erected to scale in locations that had housed the original Ten Pound Poms, including in Scheyville National Park north of Sydney.
Filming also took place in the frozen-in-time frontier village of Carcour in New South Wales.
Faye and Warren play Annie and Terry Roberts, a British couple attempting a new start with their children after Terry’s drinking and brawling back home got out of hand.
Michelle Keegan, 35, plays Kate Thorne, a nurse whose secret agenda takes her to Australia largely under false pretenses
‘The Roberts family is going wrong because of Terry’s alcoholism and the state of post-war Britain, which was grim,’ explains Faye.
‘But as we’ll see, your problems can follow you.’
Middlesbrough-born Faye, 36, says she based Annie on her own family matriarchs.
There was always a mob of kangaroos in the background while we were filming. It was amazing
‘I stole a lot from my grandmothers and my great-grandma,’ she says. ‘One grandma was such a strong and outspoken person who stood up against things like racism back in the 50s. She was a real strong working-class lady and you wouldn’t mess with her, or my other granny either. It was easy for me to mine things from my own life.’
Michelle, 35, plays Kate Thorne, a nurse whose secret agenda takes her to Australia largely under false pretences.
‘Kate’s storyline is to rewrite her past in a way,’ explains Michelle cagily, keen to avoid any spoilers.
‘Her storyline is a lot more emotionally led. She’s a very strong character, very feisty. She’s fighting for what she believes is right.’
Ten Pound Poms marks a rare period piece for Michelle too. She played Coronation Street’s Tina McIntyre for seven years before starring in Our Girl and Brassic, and this drama will be her fourth project with Danny.
‘I’ve always wanted to do a period drama, but I’m quite choosy about what I do,’ she says. ‘I spoke to Danny about this a few years ago and I just loved the story.’
Danny also weaves the story of indigenous Australians into the drama, showing how the Brits come to realise that Aboriginal people face more discrimination than they do.
The scheme saw the families of Hugh Jackman, Kylie Minogue and the Bee Gees relocate to Australia
‘That was really important from the start,’ he says. ‘In episode two there’s a big racist rant by one of the characters, and there was a bit of discomfort about that being allowed in the show because they thought it might be a trigger for people. But I fought quite hard to keep it in because it’s representative of what was going on in 1956 in Australia; that’s how some people viewed the indigenous community at the time.’
On a lighter note, while the British actors found Australians very welcoming, the weather was less so.
‘We got on an aeroplane, we were promised sunshine,’ laughs Faye. ‘I brought flip-flops and nice shorts and we got to Sydney and it rained for two months non-stop. Warren was filming his work site scenes in really cold weather, bless him.’
The cast did manage a few days of sightseeing, however, during the four-month shoot – Michelle headed to Cairns in northern Queensland and Faye and Warren enjoyed a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
For Warren, 44, making Ten Pound Poms was like looking at an alternative family history, because the Warrington-born actor’s grandparents very nearly signed up.
‘I learned that at one point my mum’s family were all packed up to go,’ he says.
‘She’s one of seven. My grandparents were living in Manchester and were all set to go but at the very last minute my nan bottled it, for want of a better phrase. So, yeah, I could have been a 6ft handsome surf dude!’
Ten Pound Poms, tomorrow, 9pm, BBC1 and BBC iPlayer.
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