In 1942, when many Australian men were off fighting the Second World War, agricultural labour was severely depleted, prompting the formation of the Australian Women’s Land Army.
Women aged between 18 and 50, mostly from the cities and unskilled in rural work, became recruits on the land until 1945. Enrolment numbers peaked in December 1943, with 2,382 fulltime members and 1,039 auxiliary members, with an average working week of 48 hours.
This oft-overlooked chapter in Australian history is now the subject of a new 8×30 min Australian drama, While the Men Are Away on SBS.
“The vast majority of them are about the diggers and the men that enlist”
For writer Kim Wilson (Deadloch, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart), who penned the first two and last two episodes, the period offers all kinds of stories to explore, in a genre frequently dominated by the perspective of soldiers in action.
“We’ve got a lot of TV and films about the Second World War, but the vast majority of them are about the diggers and the men that enlist, the battles that were close to us like Papua Guinea and rightly so… But I guess what is revisionist is we’re focusing on characters and stories that give a different prism for seeing the second world war,” she says.
Filmed as a dramedy, the series follows Frankie (Michela De Rossi), who’s left in charge of her suffering apple farm after her husband is sent to war -or was he? She enlists Gwen (Max McKenna) and Esther (Jana Zvedeniuk), the freshly enlisted naïve city-recruits of the Women’s Land Army, to join herself, local Indigenous farmhand Kathleen (Phoebe Grainer) and certified coward Robert (Matt Testro).
“(Frankie) calls on the Women’s Land Army to help with the harvesting, otherwise the farm won’t survive. It’s about people who are not used to having power, suddenly running things. They find like-minded souls, so these marginalised people have a voice. Not everyone likes what they say. But once they’ve experienced that, it’s really hard for them to go back to how it was,” she explains.
“It’s almost absurdist in parts”
“I think it’s technically called a dramedy, which is a funny word but I guess that pretty neatly sums it up. It’s almost absurdist in parts, but we also don’t shy away from the feels.
“One of the rules we hit upon was that the characters can discuss concepts that can feel modern, like things that we as humans now in society are trying to grapple with, but they can only use the words that were available to them at the time.”
Wilson was drawn to the changes that were happening quickly in Australia as society adjusted to a shift in stocks on the ground. Her research uncovered some surprising insights.
“There were two women who met as part of the Land Army and fell in love. After the war finished they didn’t want to go back to their normal lives so they bought a farm together, and named it after their two surnames. They took all these photos and kept this archive about their experience,” Wilson observes.
“Children were used for delivering telegrams and things like …constantly watching adults breaking down with traumatic news of the deaths of their sons and their husbands and then riding off on their bicycles to deliver the next one -it was such an extraordinary time.”
“They didn’t know who was going to win the war, or what time it would end”
The storyline also coincides with the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin with huge world events seen through the eyes of the characters in the fictional town of ‘Bush.’
“We kept forgetting that they didn’t know who was going to win the war, or what time it would end.
“At the time the people living that life had no idea. There was a time when they were making preparations to be taken over by the Japanese. That’s one of the events that we use in our show as well.”
Directed by Elissa Down & Monica Zanetti, the series by Arcadia productions was shot in and around Orange and Millthorpe, including with locals as extras. Production designer Alicia Clements and cinematographer Meg White bring a particularly colourful world to screen.
“Amélie was one of our touchstones as we were working on it…just slightly existing outside of time. I love that feel and the comedy in it is slightly heightened as well,” she continues.
“A lot of the cast came from a musical theatre background”
“A lot of the cast came from a musical theatre background so they tended to pitch it slightly heightened anyway, which was absolutely perfect. Nina Edwards did an amazing job with the costumes too, they’re really bright colours.”
Sometimes wildly historically inaccurate, the series is about people who don’t normally hold the reins of power suddenly having them shoved in their hands and told to giddy the hell up.
“I’m always interested in stories about people who have been crushed into a little box that has been given to them by society. They’re hiding their true selves, essentially, for all sorts of reasons. Suddenly, the box is removed, and they’ve got to find out what shape (they’re in) and what to do with this newfound power,” Wilson explains.
“Do you just create power in the same way that you learned from the normal social structures that are there from the patriarchy? Or do you try and do something different? What is possible?
“The essence of the show is that and it happens to be set in the Second World War.”
While the Men Are Away screens in double episodes 8:30pm Wednesdays on SBS.