Around a million Britons took the gamble of emigration, accepting the offer of a pounds 10 passage underwritten by an Australian government desperate for fresh blood, provided that it was of the right complexion ("Teeming millions are on our doorstep," noted a contemporary propaganda film, "while we Australians are so very few.") From this country, the odds looked good - against the bitter cold of post-war winters and the grim restriction of rationing, potential emigrants could set the blandishments of the information films, which presented Australia as a continent with natural central heating and limitless possibilities. All this utopia lacked, it was implied, was the pent-up ambitions of those missing citizens.
The reality was much harsher. The voyage out blended promise and disillusion in equal parts, giving the first intimation of plenty in the food served and the first intimation of hardship in the sexual segregation imposed by the shipping companies. Even this early, those who would do well began to show themselves. John Mathwin suggested to his wife that they rent out the walk-in wardrobe in their family cabin as a kind of short-let honeymoon suite, to ease shipboard frustration. She wouldn't let him but clearly this brand of opportunistic adaptability was going to equip him for life in the new country. He ended up as an MP and now deploys an accent burdened with Strine vowels.
Tellingly, those who had found it harder to adapt retained their native tongues, even 50 years on; voices spoke of the pain of unaesthetised extraction, having been wrenched from a dense network of family and friends to a place where the nearest neighbour might be 50 miles away. Even in towns you could be lonely; one woman, revisiting the corrugated iron shed which had been her family's home for two years, recalled pretending to be lost - to have a conversation with someone. Another man spoke of the sense of geographical isolation at a time when everyone travelled by sea and international calls were an undreamed-of luxury; he only found out that his mother had died when he received a photograph of her grave from his father. The wave of desolated disappointment that hit many emigrants shortly after arrival was presumably what give rise to the Australian racial category of "the whinging Pom".
There are dreams of leaving that don't require foreign travel. Those seen auditioning at the beginning of The Entertainers (C4) wanted to get away too, into a world of celebrity and good money, but they were booking their tickets on the Northern club circuit, seen by many as a hard passage to a better life. The audition had been arranged by the Beverley Artistes' Agency, and the compere introduced the performers with an unnerving health warning - we weren't to expect a finished act, just potential. The first thought that struck you was that karaoke must have made the agents' lives a misery, encouraging thousands of people with strangulated melismas and fractured top notes to think of themselves as just one short step away from chart success. The second thought was that they must know something that we don't, given that the girl who had you chewing cushions in sympathetic embarrassment was promptly offered a contract. It will be worth watching to see how they bring her on but the most enjoyable element of the series, if this first episode was typical, will be the contractual wranglings between the agents and the hard men of the Entertainment Committees, dour figures who don't allow themselves to feel pleasure unless they're absolutely sure they got a good price on it.Reuse content