"Barons puts an imagined microscope to the nefarious origins of Australia’s biggest surfing dynasties. It’s a story that in many ways is still yet to be told, especially to a mainstream audience."
With all the hullabaloo ‘round the release of Make or Break, another mainstream surf offering here in Australia has slipped under the radar. One that might prove more incisive, more explosive than the Woz’s docu-drama could ever hope.
Barons, premiering tonight on the Australian taxpayer-funded ABC, is the fictionalised story of two warring surf brands developed by close friends out of the same small town in the early 1970s.
Billed as an authentic recount of the birth of surf culture – and the surf industry – in Australia, Barons has it all. Ridiculously good looking characters with names like Trotter and Snapper dressed in impeccably stylised recreations of ‘70s fashion. The soul surfer v consumer dichotomy. Spiritual connections with the ocean. Drug smuggling. Sex. Panel vans. Single fins. Copious amounts of incense and woollen turtlenecks. It’s all fucken there.
But most importantly it puts an imagined microscope to the nefarious origins of Australia’s biggest surfing dynasties. It’s a story that in many ways is still yet to be told, especially to a mainstream audience.
We want the truth. But can Barons handle it?
In my recent review of Lines to the Horizon, I talked about how easy it is for surf storytellers to drift into cliche.
Call it the Bodhi complex.
If the competent writers in that collection of essays were sometimes guilty of dipping their toe in those waters, Barons looks like it has jumped head first. Judging by the preview it’s Tim Winton meets Party of 5. But then again, this was the birth of the surf guru epoch. Cliches are born from truth.
Early reviews have been kind without being effusive. Sydney Morning Herald described it as a sexy, stoner period soapie but a slow burn.
“Selling out a counterculture isn’t inherently interesting on its own.”
It does come with some bonafides. Taylor Steele was in charge of the surf cinematography as well as being involved in the script. Producers include Michael Lawrence (Bra Boys, Fighting Fear).
Check the preview here.
I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the damn thing. But some observations:
Anybody with even a passing knowledge of the early days of the surf industry in Australia knows that an M-rated soap opera isn’t gonna tell half the story. Truth will always be wilder than fiction, if a producer even had the gumption to try. Plus it’s still living history. Too soon, for many that were there.
The fictionalised story is a good way of sidestepping any legal snafus. But is a TV soap really the right vehicle? A more apt setting might be Wake in Fright by the beach. A hedonistic, all-consuming world of inescapable vice. All the little devils, proud of their hell.
Or maybe something like Rashomon. One event told from five different perspectives.
After all, we’re all so hungry for surf history. The culture is quickly swallowing itself. Eager to turn history into lore.
But who should be telling the story?
A little while back WSL commissioned a profile on Surfline of the founding of G Land. Proudly talking of the early Boyum, Lopez, McCabe days and the lifestyle that funded it. To see the WSL effectively coat tailing off the Sea of Darkness crew was jarring. The industry’s once dirty little secret now, seemingly, being worn as a badge of pride. Barons looks like it will lean into the same territory.
Who are they to claim ownership?
The real story is still out there. Still living and breathing. There’s narratives. Counter-narratives. Bitter rivalries. Legal disputes. Some of the players have done well for themselves. Now in boardrooms and beachside mansions. Others, not so much. They’re in outer suburb living rooms. Or tiny backyard shaping bays. Or retirement homes.
All with their own perspectives. Their own stories to tell.
What would they make of it all? This sudden mythologisation of their lives?
Must be weird.
Anyway, tune in tonight at 830pm Australian EST. If you’re outside Australia, y’might need to get a VPN to get over country restrictions etc.