• Surf lifesavers at a carnival in 1954 during the Queen’s visit. (SBS)
And it’ll do it without dismissing the horrors of history.
By
Shane Cubis

13 Mar 2019 - 12:55 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2019 - 3:26 PM

Here’s what strikes you first when you watch Australia In Colour: they haven’t overdone it. The colourisation doesn’t make the footage look like this week’s episode of Neighbours or a Technicolor fantasia of children’s television, with colours to put the Rainbow Flag to shame.

Instead, it looks like… well, it evokes the same feeling as those old-timey photos that began as sepia and were hand-coloured by photographers. Without in any way being an expert in the actual process, it feels like they matched the quality or grade of the footage with appropriate levels of tinting.

It doesn’t take long to get used to seeing these extraordinary visuals – which means it’s constantly surprising when the show cuts to a new segment, and allows the colour to spread across the screen. Even when you’re seeing, say, the world’s first feature-length film, it makes sense that the foliage behind Ned Kelly would be green.

More than the tech

If you’re a member of Facebook groups like Lost Sydney or Lost Wollongong, you’ll know it’s mostly people posting old photos and hundreds of commenters nostalgically longing for the past. (I’ve spent far too much time squinting at a pre-Mall Crown St in the Gong group, so I’m not having a go…)

Colourising footage would be far less affective if it wasn’t for the stories. There’s something magical about watching the crowds gathered in Sydney to celebrate Federation, to see the first-ever footage of an Indigenous dance, to feel closer to the past because one of the alienating barriers has been removed.

We see the world in colour, and here are some of our nation’s seminal moments presented – for the first time – as though they’re within reach. This also has the effect, when they cover topics including the White Australia Policy, Stolen Generations and Changi POW camp, of making those events less “of the time”, and more visceral, even if you’re a callow youth.

The makers of Australia In Colour have done some deep-diving into the national archive, and it shows. Even if you’re an aficionado of our nation’s past, there are plenty of surprises here. No spoilers – aside from this one about how you get to see koala-fur-lined coats and let’s just say there’s a reason they never took off.

Familiar moments revisited

It isn’t just the rare or mostly unseen footage that delights here, though. You never knew you wanted to see Bodyline action in colour before this. The same goes for watching PMs from Scullin through Curtin to Menzies bloviating and politicking from the pulpit. Historical entertainers come to life, sporting matches are refought and the Sydney Harbour Bridge undergoes construction in an explosion of hues. It’s enough to make you stand up and belt out God Save the King. Er… God Save the Queen. Er… Advance Australia Fair.

Why’d they end the story there?

Final note: don’t fall into the idiotic trap that I did, disappointedly asking yourself this question only to realise there’s a very good reason Australia In Colour ends at about the time we started using colour film.

Australia In Colour airs on Wednesday nights at 8:35pm on SBS. Stream the episodes at SBS On Demand after broadcast:

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