Inside Story

Roads to recovery

Television | Behind the stereotypes, ABC TV’s Back Roads reveals a quiet rural revolution

Jane Goodall 11 July 2018 1296 words

Much at stake: Back Roads presenter Heather Ewart on the Oodnadatta Track.

At an ABC Friends dinner in October last year, ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie promised more resources for rural and regional programs through the national broadcaster’s Investing in Audiences strategy. Out of a new $50 million content fund, $15 million would be used to develop rural and regional teams within a new community and regional division. Under its alternative title, The Great Ideas Grant, the fund was mentioned as one of Guthrie’s key achievements in a recent speech challenging calls for privatisation. Puzzlingly, it’s rather hard to establish what exactly has been done with these new resources.

Regardless, a few ABC stalwarts have continued to carry the rural flag in the documentary series Back Roads, which has maintained a strong audience (including over 120,000 on iView) since its premiere in 2015.

Presenter Heather Ewart, a distinguished political reporter and foreign correspondent, exchanged the formalities of the studio for boots and jeans to get in among it with those who live on the land. She was joined by Australian Story producer Brigid Donovan and cameraman Ron Ekkel, and by field producer Karen Michelmore, who had worked on Four Corners. The first series took eight months’ planning, which mainly involved scouting locations for their scenic qualities and human stories. The production team has diversified since then, but Ewart and Donovan remain at the helm in season four, joined by guest presenters Joe O’Brien, Paul West and Brooke Boney.

Resilience has always been the central theme of Back Roads. From the outset, the production team was on a quest for “colourful characters” with “grit and good humour.” On first impression, the result may come across as a stir-fry of hackneyed ingredients: the stories of doing it tough but sticking it out, adapting and innovating, working together and winning through because, as the theme song tells us, the heart will always lead you home. Ewart is certainly not shy about clichés, in both manner and expression. “Life goes on,” “the true heart of a town is always its people,” “everybody helps out,” “we all get together, we have a yarn,” “you love what you do — you keep doing it.” She uses people’s nicknames, banters as if she’s a visiting cousin, and offers to have a go at whatever activity is being demonstrated, whether it’s steering a paddle-steamer up the Murray or playing the ukulele on the veranda.

However different the towns and their stories, each episode is built around staple elements, starting with the trip into town, often driven by one of the local residents, or on horseback, in the school bus, or cruising up river. The visits often coincide with an annual event: a cockroach race, a scarecrow competition, an oyster feast, the convict play at the local pub, a concert performance by the Tongan community. Shots of the landscape under fiery skies at dawn or dusk serve as pauses in the flow of chat. Every place seems to have its landmark funky statue, where we stop for the iconic tourist photo: the Big Bogan in Nyngan, the big Thumbs Up in Scottsdale and, after an anxious moment while it’s winched into position, the new Giant Wombat in Thallon.

What is impressive about Back Roads is how deeper levels of experience are allowed to filter through this apparently bland surface. Certain kinds of wisdom are bred from the relationship between land and community, and they don’t always come across in the words people use. A trite expression like “life goes on” means little or nothing when it slips from its moorings in a place where continuity has been the only reality. The towns in this fourth series are places that have seen different kinds of crisis, from the natural disasters of drought and flood to the economic depression following industrial closures.

“It was tough,” says Shirley, a woman from the northeast Tasmanian town of Scottsdale, whose employment base was gutted by the closure of timber mills in 2008. “People couldn’t even go out and get a cup of coffee.” But penury, especially in a community that still has its place on the land, can generate a new sense of determination. Serving coffee is now part of Shirley’s livelihood in the combined cafe and art-gallery she has set up. Another resident has created a golf course on the sand dunes. Young entrepreneurs have been attracted to the town and started a brewery. Nearby, in the countryside to the west, a massive lavender farm does a booming trade in lavender bears and serves as a major tourist attraction.

Dependence on a single corporate employer has been replaced by a diversity of commercial enterprises, enabling many people to become self-employed. It’s a pattern repeated in other places visited in the series, and suggests an interesting trend in regional economies. High levels of self-sufficiency were a feature of the early growth period of these towns: produce was traded into wider markets, but the business profile was largely one of owner-operators. Butchers and bakers, mechanics, saddlers, brick makers, farmers, vets, wheelwrights… the list goes on, and while some of these trades no longer exist, many can be wrested back from franchisers and big companies to provide local communities with much higher levels of control over their own livelihoods.

American philosopher Wendell Berry, a fifth-generation Kentucky farmer, stresses the importance of maintaining a bond between land communities and land-use economies. To be viable, he says, a land community must be a centre of gravity, a place with cohesive identity, in command of its own energies, resources and traditions. In the minds of the captains of industry, as he says, the people of the land economies have been reduced to human capital factored into investment planning as sets of statistics. This series of Back Roads, perhaps more than the previous three, brings home the force of Berry’s argument, and its currency.

Those interviewed in these programs might not have Berry’s poetic language, but they exhibit something of his wisdom. “There’s a mystique about the river,” says the captain of a paddle-steamer at Cadell on the Murray River. It is the life blood of a string of small townships, connecting them with each other and with the vital tourist trade. When the government threatened to cut the ferry service six years ago, a protest meeting organised at Cadell drew five hundred people. The council backed down, and the service has actually been improved.

In the valleys of the Waterfall Way in New South Wales, Ewart meets Uncle Mark Flanders, an Aboriginal elder and custodian of the land. Close up, the trees of the rainforest offer clusters of hanging berries, different kinds of leaves, and bark. It’s a food store, says Flanders, and a chemist. There are tools here. He takes Ewart out onto a platform bridge offering a staggering panoramic view over the valley and points out the shape of the mountain range on the horizon — a giant sleeping on his back, with one knee raised. In another part of the valley a “tree changer” lives in the house he built himself. He takes Ewart to listen to bird calls, imitating each of them with stunning accuracy.

Binge-watching this series was a refreshing change from the political tensions dominating so much of the ABC’s regular schedule, not because political issues don’t arise, but because they present themselves in entirely different ways, in contexts where it is possible to rethink what is at stake. We need to enlarge our understanding of the questions and problems that beset us as a nation. If that is part of the ABC’s aim in its commitment to regional expansion, there’s not much sign of it yet. Let’s hope the veterans keep up the good work. ●