When we lined the long-suffering Ferrone family up on December 15 last year to start filming Further Back In Time For Dinner, the main issues were heat and the threat of bushfires.
Christmas was imminent, the continent was already ablaze, and the mercury was at a toasty 32 degrees as we introduced the Ferrones to their 1900s home — a stone residence in Annangrove, about 40km northwest of Sydney, which we had thoughtfully stripped of all electrical supply, cooling, telecommunications infrastructure and indoor ablutions facilities.
The Ferrone men (Peter and 19-year-old Julian, in woollen three-pieces) and women (Carol and 16-year-old Sienna, in corsets and thickly layered gowns to wrist and ankle) coped gamely with the news that 1900s life entailed cooking on a wood stove, while bathing would be a once-a-week affair. Olivia, 12, seemed cautiously pleased with the fact that the family now had a cow.
The Ferrones were already the veterans of one historical ABCTV series, 2018’s Back in Time For Dinner, in which they handed over their own south Sydney home to be remodelled multiple times as they lived for the camera from the 1950s through to the present day.
Now they were preparing to live through some of Australia’s most turbulent decades, encompassing Federation, two world wars, a global depression and more offal than a contemporary diner could possibly consider normal.
But the 1900s were to prove more relevant than any of us imagined on the day we moved them into Annangrove.
A different decade, another pandemic
Some background: In January 1900, Sydney fell victim to the bubonic plague pandemic. It was a new wave of the plague, that had spread from China (sound familiar?)
The first Australian victim — deliveryman Arthur Paine, diagnosed on January 19 of that year, did not die. But hundreds of others did, as the disease crept out of the Sydney wharves, borne by the fleas upon ships’ rats, into the slums of The Rocks, and thence to the inner-city suburbs.
A quarantine station was set up at North Head. Three thousand rat catchers were employed by the NSW Government, and children were reportedly offered sixpence for each dead rat they delivered to the incinerator in Bathurst Street.
Panic was rife. Ads for cleaning products and quack cures infested the newspapers (seriously, is this not sounding familiar yet?).
Some families for whom flight was an option set out for regional areas.
Which is how we relocated our TV family to Annangrove. The historical conceit for Further Back In Time For Dinner was that the Ferrones were fleeing the plague, though really we just wanted them to be on a bigger block so that they could have a cow, and chickens, and grow their own vegetables, and be forced to use a long-drop dunny.
It all seemed like quaint antiquity when we informed the Ferrones. Who could recall that the plague killed 500 Australians, 120 years ago? How quickly history disappears beneath the mire unless doggedly brought to the surface, again and again.
The Ferrones lived for the camera through the 1900s, and in the 1910s confronted the prospect of losing a son to World War I. They enjoyed the brief exhilaration of the 1920s, then sank into the raw-boned deprivation of the 1930s, which ended in another war, this one bringing the unthinkable horror of being considered — as Italian migrants — an enemy of Australia.
We wrapped the shoot on February 9, amid torrential rain. We’d escaped the bushfires (indeed, another property on the location shortlist had been consumed by flame; we thanked the God of television production. Who is that, by the way?) and the biblical downpour that bogged a production vehicle and pole-axed our grand plan of having a huge Ferrone extended family dinner al fresco. We disinvited madly, and jammed the survivors in the dining room, elbow to elbow, as the rain hammered on the tin roof.
Two weeks later, the Prime Minister declared that Covid-19 would become a pandemic. Events spiralled madly from that point on. We came to realise just how freakishly relevant some of the themes we’d already filmed would prove to be.
The parallels mount
The pandemic, obviously.
Also the non-availability of toilet paper, which in 1900 was a reality of life (householders would make do with newspapers, torn into squares) but in 2020 would become a complex phenomenon of apprehended scarcity which will no doubt fuel countless behavioural psychology PhDs well into the future. Viewers will be entertained or triggered, according to experience.
Even the popularity of food deliveries to the door is weirdly relevant. A century ago, it was the rabbitoh, with his furry swag of bunnies, or the milkman providing fresh dairy otherwise unattainable to the fridgeless home.
In the 2020s, delivery to the doorstep elicits a nod of recognition, but these days it’s contactless; a pad thai, or butter chicken, or pho, or burger with the lot.
More arresting — in the early part of the 20th century — is the sheer relentlessness of events.
The 1900s in Australia were a decade you’d call “busy”, in historical terms.
The nation was in a foment of reform. Colonies were becoming a Federation, amid heated debates about how collectively we would deal with everything from pandemics to trade. Protectionism was the hot issue of the day. Along with the racist exclusion of non-white arrivals, formalised by the new Federal Parliament in the White Australia Policy.
Women won the vote and the right to stand for Parliament in 1902, but it was an international triumph with a worm at its core; the same bill that gave white women the right to vote actively stripped that right from Indigenous women and men alike. First Nations people wouldn’t recover this basic entitlement for 60 years — a bald historical emblem of lasting shame.
The 1900s are the only decade in which we ploughed through more prime ministers than the more recent Lodge bloodbath of 2007-2017.
Our inaugural 10 years as a nation go like this, prime ministerially speaking: Barton, Deakin, Watson, Reid, Deakin, Fisher, Deakin, Fisher.
It’s the only decade which makes Howard-Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison look stable.
And the questions we grappled with at Federation share some genomic sequencing (to borrow a red-hot 2020s phrase) with the questions that plague us today.
Who’s in charge of what? How do we balance our historic loyalties with the changing trade winds of our time? What is our place in the world? How do we feel about China? And, most painfully, the question which has throbbed away for a quarter of a millennium now: How are the people who lived here for tens of thousands of years properly reconciled to a nation that in its anthem misleadingly claims to be both “young” and “free”?
Our lessons repeat
The Ferrones have the benefit, unlike average settler families of the 1900s, of regular contextual updates from Indigenous rapporteurs. Their Federation banquet (mock Turtle soup, it’s not nice) is gatecrashed by the brilliant young comedian Steph Tisdell, who would certainly have been banned from the original men-only banquet on grounds of gender and Aboriginality, and very probably on grounds of insurrectionist humour.
Julian’s enmeshment in World War I, in episode 2, is traumatic and frightening for his mother Carol, but she experiences a new texture of grief when Joseph Flick arrives to tell the story of his grandfather Mick, an Indigenous man who evaded a ban on Aboriginal enlistment to go and fight in France, only to be treated like dirt on his return.
So many of the historical events in these formative decades are historically taught only from a white perspective; the 1930s re-enactment of the First Fleet’s sesquicentenary was a blindingly white affair, which makes Aretha Brown’s account in episode 3 all the more revelatory.
The Ferrones live and eat through that concertina of experience that the first half of the 20th century is for this landmass: a great mess of deprivation, advancement, excitement, disappointment, unthinkable brutality, liberation, enslavement, jingoism, originality, prosperity and living on the bones of your arse.
What knocks me off my feet, as I watch the show we made just about six months ago, is how repetitive these lessons are, about the way vast global events change the way we live from day to day, in our own homes, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. The things we buy. The things we value.
The stuff we forget. The stuff we relearn, every time it happens to us. The things we never learn.
The way big events leave their unmistakeable crenulations on the small things. The way world wars sucked men away from the continent like tidal waves, leaving women to find a way to cope on the barren shore. Even when the tide came back, women were different, each time; they knew more things, dressed differently, wanted more.
The way humans survive the worst things. Maybe that’s the thing that surprised me most, about reliving history with a real-life family.
Bad things happen. People adapt. And in the best-case scenario, they learn.
Further Back In Time For Dinner premieres tonight at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iview.