One of the most exciting things for bushranger enthusiasts in 2017 was Foxtel’s original documentary series Lawless: the Real Bushrangers, the first time in years that a documentary about the bushrangers had been attempted. Several documentaries about Ned Kelly were made in the early 2000s riding on the success of Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang but the last time any attempts had been made to do anything about the other bushrangers was the abandoned docu-drama mini-series Bushranger Country in the early 1990s (read about that here). Lawless had a clear mission statement too – to extract the truth from the myths and solve some of the most enduring mysteries in bushranging history – no mean feat. The series focused on four mysteries: did Ned Kelly kill in cold blood at Stringybark Creek? ; who shot Constable Webb-Bowen during the Wantabadgery siege? ; Was Ben Hall murdered in his sleep? ; and did Paddy and Jim Kenniff really commit the murders they were convicted for?
Episode one was very controversial upon its release for its anti-Kelly leanings as much as for the revelations pertaining to the actual location of the shootings at Stringybark Creek. The re-enactments are visually glorious but woefully inaccurate – a trend that is consistent throughout the series. The effort made to utilise modern technology to ascertain the correct location of the shootings is impressive but definitely ruffles feathers if you prescribe to any of the alternative site theories. The inclusion of descendants to drive home the point that these were real people who were involved in the incident, not abstract ideas of good and evil, is potent. We also see well known bushranger historian and general enthusiast Steve Jager getting a brilliant Ned Kelly tattoo to raise the issue of men with Ned Kelly tattoos having a statistically higher chance of dying young from violent means, a study that Lawless team member Roger Byard entered the public spotlight over a few years back. Overall the conclusions of this episode are compelling but will not be enough to persuade Kelly buffs. The star of this installment is Adam Ford whose archaeological approach is the most significant element in terms of its findings.
The Captain Moonlite episode is more of the same, using a mix of high tech and forensics to work out the layout of McGlede’s farm and the nature of Gus Wernicke’s wounds, however this episode hinges more on the work of historian Kiera Lindsey. Lindsey creates a profile of Andrew Scott based on available documents and highlights the questionable approach to his trial. This profile of Scott makes him more accessible to the viewer and begins to make sense of his decisions. Lindsey also refers to Scott’s letters, written in his last days, to confirm the relationship between him and James Nesbitt. Adam Ford does brilliant work on the site of the McGlede’s farm, but the conclusion doesn’t quite gel with existing information. Once more there are descendants, though the people selected are a little on the tenuous side.
Episode three is all about Ben Hall and it is Byard’s chance to shine. Using forensic testing he establishes a greater understanding of how Hall died and in conjunction with the research from Kiera Lindsey reveals a chilling fact about the conduct of the police on the day Hall was killed. Adam Ford meanwhile goes on a wild goose chase in a field of lupin because he didn’t do his research correctly and is determined to find what he considers to be the true location of Hall’s death based on a deliberately incorrect map. Unfortunately this episode is probably the weakest of the bunch based solely on the fact that there’s considerably less of it to work with.
The final episode is Mike Munro’s crowning moment, putting the spotlight on his ancestors – the Kenniff brothers. This is the episode that really makes the series as Munro’s passion for the story helps to draw out more detail than in the previous three installments. Munro has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching the story and for many this is their introduction to it. Munro demonstrates the wild Carnarvon Ranges and some of the spots utilised by the Kenniffs – secrets handed down through his family. Kiera Lindsey’s research complements Munro’s brilliantly and we see Adam Ford and Roger Byard in top form too, uncovering archaeological evidence of the incident as well as solving a big unknown about the manner in which the victims were disposed of. The revelations about who may have been the real culprits is a huge bombshell unveiled by a local indigenous elder. As the episode concludes it drives home the importance of this history on Munro’s family as the effects are echoing into a sixth generation of the family.
Overall the series is a slick, stylish and engaging foray into the world of bushrangers. The episodes are somewhat frustrating in their limited scope, focused on one aspect of a single story each, yet this will appeal to the casual viewer or people who know very little about bushrangers. The revelations in each episode are definitely worth further scrutiny and open up possibilities for future investigations. The relationships between the team members is one of the keys to the success of the series, especially the blossoming bromance between Adam Ford and Mike Munro. This is clearly a well chosen group of experts who are both very good at what they do and are also engaging to watch, regardless of whether you agree with their opinions. The DVD itself is light on features, only offering the four episodes and subtitles as well as scene selection, which is somewhat disappointing as there was a wealth of supplementary material featured on the website and social media for the show including interviews and interactive scenes that could have been added as special features. Hopefully if sales are strong Umbrella will be able to produce a Blu-Ray edition with the extras down the line (as long as demand for it exists). There are also rumoured plans for a second series that would be absolutely fantastic as there are a great many more mysteries to uncover. It would be amazing to see the team tackle mysteries such as the murder of the Special Constables at Jinden to establish if the Clarke Gang were responsible; where and when Frank Gardiner died; what happened to the skulls of Ned Kelly and Dan Morgan; or whether Captain Thunderbolt really did cheat death and so many more. There’s definitely plenty of material to mine for future installments but until then we have this wonderful quartet to keep our tastes satiated.
Lawless: The Real Bushrangers is available on DVD from most retailers of fine audio-visual produce or online through Umbrella Entertainment.