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Five trail-blazing indigenous TV shows that paved the way for Cleverman

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ABC’s indigenous sci-fi thriller Cleverman has become the most talked about scripted Australian TV series this year and has attracted plenty of international attention. While it hasn’t achieved the strongest ratings result, it’s received plenty of rave reviews and been praised as a game-changer for Australian TV.

But there’s been a steady build towards a major, innovative indigenous drama like Cleverman over the last few years with the ABC providing more space for indigenous people to tell their own stories on TV than ever before. Here are five of the best precursors to Cleverman.

Basically Black (1973)

Basically Black was Australia’s first ever all-indigenous TV show, based on the revue of the same name from the 1970s National Black Theatre. The biting, politically-charged satirical live show premiered at the Nimrod Theatre Company’s Stables Theatre and went on to tour.

The ABC eventually commissioned a pilot of an indigenous sketch show created by the artists behind Basically Black, and while it was well-received it didn’t go on to have a full series. It emerged in the years following its premiere that some elements of the script had been censored by the ABC.

Basically Black had the seed of an idea that the creators of the wildly successful Black Comedy ran with, but it also put an unlikely indigenous superhero on the small screen long before Clevermanin “Super Boong“.

In the years immediately before and following Basically Black, there were few TV shows with indigenous characters and even fewer created by indigenous people. Even the ’70s TV series Boney, about an Aboriginal detective, featured a non-Aboriginal actor in the leading role.

But in the 2010s, there has been a significant surge in TV shows not just with a strong indigenous contribution (The Straits, RAN Remote Area Nurse, The Circuit etc.), but shows led by indigenous creatives.

REDFERN Now (2012)

Founder Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films has been a huge force in putting indigenous stories on screen since it formed in the ’90s, but their first scripted TV series didn’t come until 2012 with Redfern Now (the same year they produced the Mabo telemovie). The drama series, crafted by a group of indigenous writers and UK screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, told a series of interlinked stories from the Sydney suburb of Redfern.

Redfern Now’s cast was a who’s who of veteran indigenous actors, including Leah Purcell, Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Ursula Yovich and Ernie Dingo, as well as some younger talents. The two seasons and one telemovie have all been met with great acclaim and have picked up AACTA and Logie Awards.

Black Comedy (2014)

Following in the footsteps of Basically Black, the ABC’s Black Comedy has now had two successful seasons. Some critics argued that the first season was a little hit and miss but, with the second, the writing team had found all of their targets and their focus with some brilliantly produced sketches, like the pitch-perfect Godfather parody The Elders and the Law & Order spoof Special Coconut Unit.

Black Comedy offered an indigenous perspective on Australian society while being self-deprecating, incisive and brilliantly funny. And any comedy which spawns characters like the Tiddas and a catch phrase like “what’s this then slut?” has got to be culturally significant.

The Gods of Wheat Street (2014)

The Gods of Wheat Street was a beloved indigenous take on the classic family drama but only given one six-part season despite exceeding ratings expectations. Created by Jon Bell, it told the story of the Freeburn clan, who lived in Northern NSW and had to deal with a broad variety of family crises. The series was directed by three Aboriginal directors, Wayne Blair (The Sapphires), Catriona McKenzie and Adrian Russell Wills.


Produced by Blackfella Films and Werner Film Productions, Ready for This was Australia’s first indigenous teen drama. The 14-part series premiered in late 2015 on ABC3 and picked up the Most Outstanding Children’s Program at this year’s Logie Awards.

The series follows a bunch of indigenous teens who move to Sydney from different areas across the country to live in a boarding house and follow their dreams. They all have wildly different experiences of the city and come from diverse indigenous backgrounds, but the show follows very strongly in the Australian tradition of tense, funny and incident-packed teen drama.

[box]Featured image: Ready for This[/box]

2 responses to “Five trail-blazing indigenous TV shows that paved the way for Cleverman

  1. You didn’t mention Burned Bridge, also called Heartland from ABC TV in 1994 with Ernie Dingo and Cate Blanchett. I don’t know how I missed it when it was first shown and only discovered it by accident when it was repeated very early in the morning. I searched out a boxed set on the internet and have watched it several times: it’s excellent!

  2. The real trailblazer was ‘Women of the Sun’ by Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg (1981). And ‘The Circuit’ (2007 ) was fabulous.

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