Ten Pound Poms review: Michelle Keegan stars in a burst of sun-soaked schmaltz
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t: that’s one way of describing the BBC’s approach to depictions of British colonialism. It could also, as it happens, be used for the corporation’s coverage of economic migration. So BBC One’s Ten Pound Poms, a confluence of these two interests, is in rather a tricky position. “Build a new life in Sunny Australia!” beams a seductive 1950s newspaper advert, handled by discontented Northern housewife Annie (Faye Marsay), and soon enough she’s on a voyage to discover a land even more endemically racist than dear old Blighty.
For the princely sum of ten pounds, a group of English dreamers board a steamer for a new life in the Antipodes. Among them are Annie and her husband Terry (Warren Brown), along with their two kids, and the mysterious Kate (Michelle Keegan), travelling alone after ditching her fiancé back at port. Terry calls the opportunity a “fresh start” after struggling with the post-war cocktail of PTSD, alcoholism and economic deprivation. But no sooner have they arrived in Oz than the vision of an exotic new life is punctured. “It’s like a prisoner of war camp,” comes Terry’s verdict on the primitive encampment where the new arrivals are held. From this little civilisation, the Poms will encounter love and loss, tragedy and farce; all with a healthy dollop of melodrama.
Marsay has long loomed over televisual supporting roles like a pair of spectral blue eyes. From Game of Thrones to Andor, Glue to Fresh Meat, she carries a slightly unnerving sternness. But her usual forbidding presence is subverted here in the form of solid, practical Annie, the warm heart of the show. Brown, meanwhile, continues his dance across British TV screens as the muscular, unpredictable Terry (“Sober, he’s such a lovely man,” says Annie, “but drunk…”). But really, as with Brocklehurst’s previous show, Brassic, Ten Pound Poms belongs to Michelle Keegan. If you can forgive the obviously 21st-century dental work, her slinky, secretive Kate carries all the tension that Ten Pound Poms is otherwise sorely lacking.
Ten Pound Poms is, in its essence, a story about migrants in search of a better life, with the English, for once, cast as the aspirant class. This could’ve been an interesting exercise in reframing the perspective through which immigration debates are held, except for the fact that white Australia represents such a pantomime of regression. Off the boat, the Stockport natives encounter a “white’s only” immigration system, two-tier shopping queues, racial slurs and a divided work environment. The English are, naturally, appalled. “They’re just people,” says Annie of the victimised indigenous Australians. “And they were here long before you were.”
As the story progresses, more autonomy is offered to the few Aboriginal characters, who whisper gnomic but inane things like “you go shooting in the dark, you might find someone shooting right back”. But the show is never able to resolve the complex potential of its set-up – Australia is, after all, a former British colony, and Anzac participation in the Second World War predicated on that fact – with its syrupy sensibility. The show’s threads, which encompass a mother’s reunion with a lost child, a hit-and-run incident in the Outback, and first love among teenage campmates, all feel more suited to a soap opera than a prestige drama.
Which is not a wholly bad thing. Brocklehurst has worked on a number of compulsively watchable British shows, from Shameless to The Stranger, and Ten Pound Poms is no exception. “Come over to the sunny side!” proclaims the Australian immigration board advert, which accompanies the opening credits, and the show embraces that. Lightweight, superficial, and a missed opportunity to interrogate our modern immigration concerns, Ten Pound Poms is, all the same, a burst of sun-soaked schmaltz.