David Wenham's acting roles have taken him from Middle-earth to a leper colony to, most recently, Botany Bay. By Steve Dow.

History beckons for Banished actor David Wenham

David Wenham in Banished.
David Wenham in Banished.

In this story

It’s 1788. By lamplight, Governor Arthur Phillip, played by David Wenham, offers a tot of rum to Reverend Johnson, a character based on a real minister who accompanied the First Fleet to Australia. A convict has earlier slipped into Phillip’s quarters and drunk the rum decanter low, convinced he’s going to be hanged anyway for murdering a food-thieving blacksmith.

Outside Phillip’s quarters, “wank” and “shag” are in common coinage among the 736 convicts, including 188 women, who made shore at Port Jackson with the First Fleet. This is Banished, a window into the colony’s conflicts over scarce women and rations during a two-week period, filmed at Manly Dam and currently airing over seven weekly episodes in Australia on Foxtel’s BBC First. Here, in his 50th year, Phillip is cast as the story’s Enlightenment-informed moral centre. He waxes about equality before the law.

In the imagined scenario between Phillip and Johnson, the governor argues that the convicts are half starved and orders they halt building the first church. The reverend counters: “There is physical strength and there is spiritual strength, and in this case, the men are building a church, so their spiritual strength will sustain them.” Phillip raises his eyebrows at God’s emissary: “There is just strength, reverend.” 

A year after filming Banished, sitting in a cafe in Sydney’s Kings Cross near his home, David Wenham has a theory about Arthur Phillip, who was baptised in the Church of England. “There’s no proof of it,” says Wenham, “but I imagine he was an atheist, which was very unusual. I think he was inspired by his time in South America. What he’d done before would have filled a number of lifetimes.” 

In his 30s, on leave from the Royal Navy, Phillip became a mercenary in the Portuguese navy, detailing Portugal’s dependence on harshly treated African slave labour in Rio de Janeiro. Judge and author Michael Pembroke writes that Phillip took a “humanitarian and pragmatic” approach to his job detail as NSW governor-designate: “He made no mention of religion or church, of which there is no evidence of personal interest …”

Banished, however, has been criticised for whitewashing Indigenous history, with no Aboriginal characters. Writing in New Matilda, Amy McQuire, a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist, called for the show’s boycott. Says Wenham: “I can only tell you Jimmy’s [McGovern] justification for it, because Jimmy created and wrote the series. His point is this: it’s not a historical re-creation. “The draft I read, episode one and two, did have some Indigenous characters in it. Jimmy decided to take them out, because he felt it was tokenism. If it went to season two, he wanted it to be seen completely through Indigenous eyes.”

Should that eventuate, there’s an obvious Indigenous plot: Phillip’s friendship with Wangal man Bennelong, who travelled with him to Britain in 1792. Will there be a season two? “I don’t know. That’s a BBC decision, if they renew. Look, that’s something I would love to be involved in, seen from an Indigenous perspective, especially if Phillip was still there and his incredible relationship with Bennelong. It would be amazing.” 

Wenham is fresh from delving into his own history. He has been with his partner, actor and former ballerina Kate Agnew, for 21 years. They have two daughters, Eliza Jane, 12, and Millie, 6. One of their daughters last year asked him to draw a family tree. He couldn’t. A week later, by serendipity, the producers of the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? asked if he would like to be the subject of an episode.

Born in 1965 in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner-west, Wenham had always known that his late father, Bill, had been fostered from a young age into the Wenham family, but knew nothing about Bill’s biological parents. “I didn’t know much about my lineage,” says David. “My parents were rather secretive.”

Wenham learnt of convict ancestors on both sides of his family. More importantly, how St Vincent de Paul helped Bill’s family “at a really dire point in their lives”, a formative moment that fuelled Bill’s devout Catholicism. 

Coincidentally, in a quite different story about children parted from parents, one of Wenham’s most affecting films in recent years has been the Australian–British co-produced film Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach and released in Australia in 2011. Wenham portrayed one of the thousands of postwar British child “orphans” sent to Australia.

These children were often told lies that their parents were dead or didn’t want them, and significant numbers were physically and sexually abused by the churches and charities that took them in. Wenham’s character, Len, was based on a child migrant sent to Bindoon Boys Town, an institution north of Perth run by the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers. 

Other former Bindoon boys portrayed in the film tell the British social worker who investigated the scandal, Margaret Humphreys, played by Emily Watson, of the abuse they endured and of being forced to lift large rocks in the blazing heat to build the school. 

Does Wenham believe storytelling can raise social consciousness? “Undoubtedly. Any form of art does, I think. I’m attracted to those pieces. It’s a two-way street. A lot of the time, those things find their way to me.”

1 . Catholic upbringing

Bill Wenham voluntarily maintained the gardens of the convent, two streets away from the family home in Marrickville, each Saturday morning. He’d wheel David around the beautiful grounds in a barrow. The nuns would make them cups of tea and serve cakes. For a week each year, a Statue of Mary would be placed atop a lace cloth on the Wenhams’ black-and-white television set. Each night, at 7 o’clock, Bill, who worked in the same accountancy job in the same office for his entire career, and Kath Wenham and their seven children would kneel before the effigy. 

One night, during a mass with the priest and other church members in the lounge room, the youngest child, David, was asked to lead a decade of the rosary. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” he said, “the Lord is with thee…” He froze. Forgot the rest. Had to be prompted by the priest. 

 “Fast forward years later and I’m totally turned against the church, and I’m an atheist,” says Wenham today. “It certainly was a big part of my growing up.”

Wenham’s disruptive behaviour at Christian Brothers’ High School Lewisham, which he attended from years 5 through 12, impacted many. His teachers allowed him to do his impressions in front of the class – Gough Whitlam and TV conservationist Harry Butler – and one teacher suggested to Bill and Kath that 11-year-old David enrol in Saturday morning drama classes, to channel his wayward energy. 

For that career steer, young David gave the teacher a nervous breakdown that prompted him to leave the brotherhood. Another brother forced disruptive David to stand before the class, arms stretched out Christ-like, a pile of books loaded on each palm. The brother timed how long David could hold the books and, when they fell, caned him six of the best. Sadism? “Completely,” Wenham says. “He was obviously enjoying it.”

Did Wenham turn from religion because of the church’s response to clerical abuse? “Not necessarily. But even as a young kid I had far too many questions, and the answers weren’t sufficient. I never felt it was for me.
I was going to church on Sunday to please my parents, not because I was having any great conversations with some invisible being. It doesn’t provide any answers for me.”

In 1999, Wenham filmed a role as the famous 19th-century Belgian priest Father Damien in Molokai, an epic film made by another lapsed Catholic, Dutch-born Australian director Paul Cox. Wenham loved the role because Damien bucked the religious bureaucracy and lived among sufferers of Hansen’s disease – lepers – on a Hawaiian island. The priest died of the disease. 

Filming Molokai was “one of the greatest moments of joy in my life”, says the actor, because Bill and Kath Wenham came to the island during filming and mixed with the locals, too. It was a “profound experience”.

But Cox, as director, was sacked three times. The Belgian producers wanted Robin Williams in the role, not Wenham, and objected to the director casting large numbers of actual lepers. Cox took the producers to court to win back his film, and succeeded in a landmark case. But the company had literally cut some negatives. 

Cox tells me: “That was a war zone … that was a very beautiful film when it was finished. They totally fucked it up. Some sort of evil force set in.” Looking back, Wenham borrows a line from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

Now Wenham is playing a sculptor and liver transplant patient who falls in love with a fellow patient, an Indian woman, in Cox’s next film, Force of Destiny, filmed at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital and in India. The film will open the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 30. The story hews to Cox’s own life-threatening illness and new relationship with another liver recipient, Rosie Raka. 

“There is no one like Cox; he is unique,” says Wenham. But he admits he found it difficult at first working with Cox on Molokai because the director works “poetically”, knowing where an actor should be in a shot, sometimes counter to the actor’s intuition. Was Force of Destiny the same? “Pretty much. We still had little run-ins. But Cox is Cox,” Wenham laughs.

Wenham is an intense listener. His eyes regularly narrow in concentration when asked a question. Early on, he took acting advice from the late John Hargreaves: “Listen, listen real. Think, think real.” These days he rarely deploys the Stanislavski-style method of living as a character that he did as a younger actor. He thinks too many actors are on “auto-pilot”, working out their performance in advance of coming on set, rather than growing the role organically on set. 

Wenham loves the community of raffish Kings Cross and the gentrified adjoining suburb of Potts Point. He handles the weirdness of fame with a wry, self-contained smile: the fainting Japanese teenage devotee; the fan website from Russia called “Wenhamania”; the Lord of the Rings doll in his image; sitting for his 2000 Archibald Prize-winning portrait by the late Adam Cullen, an artist obsessed with Wenham’s dark breakthrough film inspired by the Anita Cobby murder, The Boys

“We would meet regularly and go on drinking sessions, because Adam did like to drink, and he wanted to get to know me as well as he could before he embarked on painting me, which he did very quickly. I had a longstanding invitation to go shooting with him and [late convicted hitman] Chopper Read in Tasmania. I always thought the mix of alcohol, and no doubt drugs, and lots of firearms, with Chopper Read? I never RSVP’d a yes to that one. Adam was always insistent I go.”

Turning 50 in September, a new era awaits. Wenham will direct his first feature film, Love Machine, from a script he has written from Clinton Caward’s 2010 novel of vice set in the Cross. Rob Connolly – who made The Boys – is producing. On the acting side, he’s “desperate” to do a comedy role again after all this seriousness. 

Wenham has taken to tweeting: his tweets decry climate change inaction or express disdain for Tony Abbott’s nose-thumbing at the United Nations and Joe Hockey’s budget inequity. His greatest hit, with 354 retweets: “Checking if Speaker’s office is avail for function anytime from June to raise $ for the poor, disadvantaged or disabled #auspol”. 

He explains: “I do have an unfortunate appetite for news and current affairs, which I’ve got to wean myself off.” He promised he wouldn’t tweet anything political, “but I can’t help myself”. In 2007, Wenham handed out how-to-vote cards for then Labor candidate Maxine McKew, but this was “more a protest vote” against John Howard’s statements on immigration. 

“I would love to be glass half full, but I just despair at politics full stop in this country. Neither of the major parties have a vision. We’re at an all-time nadir.” 

Tongue-in-cheek, he tweets that if Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly started a political party, he’d join. Earnestly now, he says he really would. But Wenham wouldn’t want to run for office. “Maybe,” he says, “in another lifetime.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2015 as "History beckons".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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