Ten Pound Poms on BBC One review: this immigration drama is eye-opening but ultimately unconvincing

 (BBC/Eleven/John Platt)
(BBC/Eleven/John Platt)

Desperate people living in a war-scarred country where food is scarce, employment is limited and society is patriarchal are being lured overseas with the promise of a better life for them and their children – only to be faced with widespread hostility, inadequate housing and back-breaking menial work. Sound familiar?

Yes, it’s Britain in 1956, a grey, bleak, bombed-out nation whose citizens – over a million between the scheme’s start in 1947 and its demise in 1981 – were lured to Australia (and later New Zealand) as part of its post-war “Populate or perish” policy, for the price of a £10 boat ticket.

This has been dramatised in the BBC’s latest Sunday night series, Ten Pound Poms, which opens on Annie and Terry Roberts (Faye Marsay and Warren Brown) and their two children, and Kate (Michelle Keegan), a nurse, all on the cusp of making a life-changing journey.

Disembarking from the boat into a land of sunshine, bouncing kangaroos and unstuffy, first-name-terms Aussie culture is joyous but this moment of optimism is short-lived. The promise of affordable housing and well-paid jobs was a lie. Instead they will be living in a tented immigration camp, which operates according to its own laws and is run by the exploitative, rough and ready JJ.

Michelle Keegan as Kate (BBC/Eleven/John Platt)
Michelle Keegan as Kate (BBC/Eleven/John Platt)

Their reception in the local town is also menacing but as white people (at a time when the ‘White Australia’ policies of the 19th century were still influential) they discover they are better off than the indigenous locals – to their personal discomfort. Annie is horrified when an Aboriginal woman is forced to the back of the queue in the department store she nonetheless ends up working in, while Terry finds a tentative kinship with Ron, an indigenous war veteran who works alongside him on the pipeline digging job he secures.

It’s an eye-opening watch for those who know little about the Ten Pound Pom history, myself included, and the Australian mockery of stiff, uptight Brits will still strike a wry chord with audiences today. The period details and the atmosphere it conjures of a different world and era are charming but I couldn’t help feeling there would be enough drama in the events as they happened – the culture shock, the separation from home, friends and family – without the addition of the big secrets, lies and shocking events forced on the characters, in particular Michelle Keegan’s Kate, who is running from some traumatic event in her past.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand the symbolism of turning to Australia’s notoriously harsh immigration system for content, just as British policy takes a turn for the worse. The programme’s makers seem to have their hearts in the right place and the parallels between the series’ subject matter and our current issues with migration are striking.

Making Brits the mistreated migrants could be a masterstroke, helping foster greater understanding and empathy towards those being treated as threatening ‘invaders’ today. But the way Annie and Terry are portrayed as being appalled by Australian racism – as if they had never encountered such a thing in 1950s Stockport – acts as an undeserved salve to our national consciousness as a supposedly more tolerant and multicultural society that I found seriously unconvincing.

Ten Pound Poms will air on BBC One from May 14