Seven's new series raises the the question —
Shabbily treated by the law of the day, Ned Kelly
rebelled – and became an Australian legend
On the wall above the desk in
the home of Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns is a board on which are pinned copies of century- old photographs.
Some people would call it a Rogues' Gallery. Others – including Ian and Bronwyn – see the people in the pictures as tragic victims of cir- cumstances and oppression.
The rather blurry faces belong to the key figures in what history calls "The Kelly Outbreak," the 20-month vendetta between Ned Kelly and the police in north-eastern Victoria, spanning the years 1878 to 1880.
It's a fantastic story of rebellion, injustice, corruption, heroism, mur- der, robbery and betrayal that would do justice to the fevered imagination of a Hollywood fiction specialist. But
in this case it's all true.
And the big scene in the scenario, with Ned dressed in armour made out of ploughshares, advancing single- handed against a battery of police- men and defying them to shoot him is so bizarre that nobody in Hollywood would have dared invent it.
Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns have laboured for six months in the field (much longer if you count re- search and writing) to put the defini- tive story of Ned Kelly on film for the Seven Network's eight-hour mini- series The Last Outlaw, which starts in Adelaide and Perth in the week commencing October 12 and the rest of Australia on October 19.
The Kelly gang is a subject that has fascinated Ian Jones since his schooldays, and he has pursued it with a zeal bordering on fanaticism.
He and Bronwyn first teamed pro- fessionally to produce Against The Wind, which was Bronwyn's pet pro- ject, arising as it did out of her curi- osity about the convict origins of the people who settled the Castle Hill dis- trict of NSW, where she once lived.
Now it's Ian's turn to bring his special subject to life, to illustrate his belief that Ned was a natural-born rebel who was driven outside the law by the shabby treatment meted out to the Kellys by the law of the day.
One photograph on Ian's wall cap- tures the eye. It is that of a 19th cen-
tury boxer, bare-knuckled, bushy- bearded and strikingly athletic.
It's Ned Kelly, at the age of 19.
"The photograph was taken in Beechworth in 1874," says Ian. "It commemorates the fight, probably in the backyard of the Imperial Hotel, when Ned became in effect the heavy- weight boxing champion of the north- east by defeating Wild Wright."
"He was a friend of Ned's brother- in-law, and he got Ned into his first big trouble with the law," says Ian.
"Wright lost his horse while visit- ing the Kelly property. They had no fences, and horses sometimes wandered. When Wright was ready to leave, his mount had gone.
"So he arrived at a deal in which Ned was to give him another horse and keep Wright's horse when he found it. The trouble was, the horse was recognized as one reported stolen, and Ned was arrested along with Wright.
"Wright got 18 months for illegally using a horse; Ned got three years' hard labour for receiving. Work that one out," says Ian challengingly.
"Soon after Ned was released, he ran into Wild Wright and it would seem that the two exchanged words. The publican at the Imperial saw good business prospects in arranging a grudge match between the two.
"It was the only time that Wright was ever beaten, and he reckoned that anyone who could beat him fair and square must be a great bloke. He became a staunch friend of Ned's."
Incidents such as this are dramatized in The Last Outlaw as Ian and Bronwyn seek to go beyond what they call "the establishment view" of what Ned Kelly was like.
They realized that so much of the Kelly story is known by most Austra- lians that there was a big danger that it would turn out like a school pageant if they just dramatized what has been recorded and documented about the Kelly outbreak through court tran- scripts and newspaper reports.
"We had to get inside the Kellys and give an account of events from their point of view," says Ian.
"Two very long letters written by
Above: Bronwyn Binns and Ian Jones - Kelly tale a labour of love
Ned are vital sources for obtaining an intimate insight into the Kellys. There's also oral tradition which [in?] many cases, is very reliable, altough it's also true that some stories about the Kellys are totally spurious."
Ian pays tribute to Bronwyn's [dili-?]
gence in researching aspects of the lives of the Kelly family which, he says, throws new light on the story. But Bronwyn defers en[tire-?] ly to Ian's deep knowledge of the sub- ject for the many details which a[dd so?] much to the scripts.
"Our research had come to a [dead?] end on one incident - a fight at Benalla," she explains. "But [Ian?]
knew where to find the son of on[e of?] the characters involved. Ian had [met?] him years ago, and he was ab[le to?] give us a blow-by-blow description of the fight which we've put faithfully [put on?]
"In 1964, Ian spoke to gang mem- ber Joe Byrne's sister, Elly, who was then 93. He had an eight-hour conver- sation with her which was invaluable in re-creating the grotesque, cav[alry?] style raid made by the police on [the?] Byrne homestead looking for [the?] gang. She was only seven at the time, but she remembered it in great detail.
"And she was able to answer [one?]
small question about the raid w[hich?] had gnawed at Ian for years. Contem- porary reports mentioned that Aaron Sherritt was at the farm carrying an axe
Misfit or murderer?
Above: Kelly girls, left, Kate (Sigrid
Thornton), Grace (Kaarin Fairfax),
> Kelly (Elaine Cusick) and Anna, Right: Dan Kelly, left (John Ley),
d (John Jarratt), Steve Hart (Ric rbert) Wild Wright (David
idshaw). Far Right: Ned Kelly.
when the police arrived. Ian could not work this out because he knew Sherritt's home was a long way away. What reason could he have had for being there, and why was he car-
rying an axe?
The old lady made a casual re- mark which gave the clue: 'Whenever he was away from home, Aaron was always dropping by to chop wood or do odd jobs for Mum ...'
"So the script of The Last Outlaw
shows Aaron carrying an armful of wood up to the house and saying: 'That should do you,' just before the police appear on the scene."
Ian has a special reason for want The Last Outlaw to be a success.
A decade ago. he wrote the first script for the Tony Richardson film Ned Kelly, but was bitterly disap- pointed by the script changes made by the director and, particularly, by the casting of Mick Jagger in the key role of Ned Kelly.
Ned was an extraordinary man at a time when Australia abounded in really remarkable men. He stood head and shoulders above the other [and?], as a human being, he embodied
everything that people in that time
and place admired. Jagger was in- capable of conveying this."
Ian is angry at the recent refusal
by the Victorian government to recog- nize the centenary of Ned's hanging on November 11 this year. "We're not spending public money to commemor- ate an execution," said a senior min- ister. "Kelly killed policemen, and that's not at all the image Victoria wants to encourage."
"It's a regrettable attitude," says Ian, "to identify the modern police force in Victoria - which I regard as the best in Australia and one of the best in the world - with the force in Kelly's time. The police in those days were demoralized and corrupt."
But how does Ian answer the fact that Kelly was an outlaw?
"Look," he says, "I'll tell you what happened in 1959 when I met Black Jack Griffiths, Ned's nephew. He was a proud but bitter man. I went to see him about preserving the old Kelly homestead, but he wasn't interested. He turned to me: 'Why do you want to preserve the home of a murderer?' he
"I replied: 'They have a statue of Lord Nelson in London. He pinched another man's wife. But that's not why they commemorate him.'
"It was a tragedy that Ned killed. We all regret that. But that's not why
we remember him."
– JIM MURPHY