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February 2010

Whiplash

cast: Peter Graves, Anthony Wickert, and Robert Tudawali

creator: Michael Noonan

1200 minutes (PG) 1960-1
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Richard Bowden

Whiplash

This is a little known and largely forgotten ITC television series, a co-production from the 1960s. It features Peter Graves - more famous through his later association with the original Mission: Impossible - as hero Christopher Cobb. He's an American immigrant in 1840-50's Australia who owns and manages a stage line - a life apparently very loosely based on an actual business which ran between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields. Each 30 minute episode of Whiplash deals with the travails and tribulations surrounding his endeavour, in which Cobb frequently has to fight for his business and his life.

Whiplash was a result of ITC seeking new entertainment fields to conquer after the success of such earlier programmes as William Tell, The Buccaneers, and The Adventures Of Robin Hood, all of which had fared well in the important American market. No doubt this was allied to encouraging familiarity with successful 1950s stateside western shows, such as Wagon Train. Shot at Australia's Atransa Studios as well as on location, Whiplash tried the interesting step of appealing to the transatlantic audience in particular by setting what, in effect, is a western scenario in the Antipodes. This was not the first time it had been tried, in The Sundowners (1960) for instance, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr starred as sheep drovers down under, perhaps was another inspiration for the 1961 TV show.

Interestingly, the stories making up the 34 episodes of Whiplash steer clear of what would seem an obvious choice of subject: that of Cobb's initial arrival and earliest attempts at making his way in the country. Instead we join the hero with his enterprise already fairly well established. In the first episode for instance, Convict Town we see Cobb first encounter the young friend Dan (Anthony Wickert) who was to make a regular appearance in support on the show. Dan - who wears for the first and only time a distracting hick-style straw hat - after some initial doubts proves himself, and is offered regular employment with a company that's already opening roads, and with more than one office and employees.

The effect of this 'pre-establishment' of Cobb & Co is to remove the main source of drama away from the birth pangs of a fledgling, civilising business and place it elsewhere, noticeably in the free-ranging Cobb's various encounters which may, or may not prove closely connected with his stagecoach line. But throughout such latitudes Cobb himself is always beyond reproach, remaining a strong and reliable outsider in a small community. He's someone who, although an outsider, has the ability to see things afresh and offer a unique input.

Watching Whiplash today one is reminded sometimes of another, highly successful series from just a couple of years before: The Rifleman. That too featured a strong man fighting for his right to settle, and then make his way, in a small (western) community, and one who had a trademark weapon at his skilful disposal. But Cobb's whip makes fewer appearances than The Rifleman's famous, modified, firearm and it has to be said that Graves brings to his central role none of the dangerous rectitude so ably demonstrated by The Rifleman's Chuck Connors. In one story, Episode In Bathurst (aired very early on and one of four written by Gene Roddenberry) Cobb even goes out of way to deny the mystique and allure of firearms, calling them "ugly stupid and vicious."

That's Whiplash attempting to have its prairie oyster and eat it, and points up the serial's central creative dilemma. In attempting to be a western and yet on such occasions overtly denying some of the genre's key pleasures, there's a danger of it being neither fish nor fowl. This is a problem exacerbated by the American scriptwriters' treatment of early Australian society, with pace and drama but often no real research behind each episode. This, allied to the difficulties in finding suitable stock footage, admitted at the time, meant the creators found things awkward.

One week revelling in those familiar elements expected out west, or its equivalent, next time the programmes will deny many of those some pleasures, featuring story lines that take matters far away from the traditional American frontier. (A degree of this uncertainty is shown at the start of each show when the episode is put into context for the audience by a few words on screen.) In Sarong for instance, a storyline about pearl divers and their exploitation - a show incidentally including some mild titillation which the more morally austere Rifleman might have blanched at, or that of The Adelaide Arabs. Aimed squarely at a younger audience, and lacking the irony or sophistication found in other series of the time, Whiplash may have struggled to find its way amidst competing shows with less confusing inspirations, one reason why its run was relatively short.

Today, with hardly any westerns airing on TV, and with the pleasant ring of nostalgia surrounding it, Whiplash poses fewer problems for viewers. Indeed, its original aspects have much more going for it. Fresh from the now equally overlooked series Fury (1955-60), Graves makes for a very watchable hero and, if in the event he seems slightly wary of giving his all to dramatic, violent action, ultimately this fits in nicely with the thoughtful character he portrays as Cobb. Other elements have dated less well: noticeably the treatment of the aboriginal peoples, highlighted in the striking episode Dutchman's Reef (another Roddenberry effort) where, playing a missing heir 'gone native'; an actor wears blackface.

Taken as a group, though, the episodes make for consistently entertaining viewing and, as an overlooked track of early 1960s' British-Australian television juvenilia, are certainly worth a look, even if not of the top rank. Network should be congratulated for continuing a fine series of re-issues, with excellent picture quality throughout. The boxset includes few extras, but there's a French version of the memorable opening song - rendered in both cases by Frank Ifield.



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