Acropolis Now Cast Photo.jpg
Acropolis Now (Crawford Productions, Australia, 1989-1992).
Stories & Ideas

Thu 08 Oct 2020

The golden era of Australian immigrant stories

AustraliaHistoryPop cultureRepresentationTelevision
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Writer & Editor, ACMI

Maria Lewis talks to award-winning podcaster and comedian Alexei Toliopoulos about the importance of immigrant stories making it onto Australian screens.

Given the sheer number of migrants that make up the Australian population, representation in pop culture didn’t come until surprisingly late. When Crawford Productions sitcom Acropolis Now first debuted on the Seven Network in August of 1989, it felt like a longtime coming. The brainchild of Nick Giannopoulos, George Kapiniaris, Simon Palomares, and based on their play Wogs Out Of Work, for many Greek Australians it was their first experience seeing their world depicted in mainstream Australiana. The series – which had 63 episodes up until the end of 1992 – kick-started a solid decade of storytelling due in part to the children of migrants post-World War II being old enough to tell their own stories. During that period came Melina Marchetta’s best-selling novel, Looking For Alibrandi, in 1992, which had its own successful film adaptation in 2000. Christos Tsiolkas’ acclaimed novel Loaded hit shelves in 1995 about a closeted Greek teenager, with Ana Kokkinos' film version Head On debuting just a few years later in 1998. Giannopoulos hit the mainstream with movie The Wog Boy (2000) and Paul Fenech’s Tropfest-winning concept became a series with Pizza (2000–07) and its own commercially successful film Fat Pizza in 2003.

“With these later Australian migrant texts like Looking for Alibrandi and The Wog Boy, I think it really captures the dysphoria of it all,” said award-winning podcaster and comedian Alexei Toliopoulos (Finding Drago, Total Reboot, Mike Check). “These really close-knit communities of migrants and their immediate circle were still based mainly on other migrants who were coming up against the white colonial Australian as ‘the other’. Even Greek and Italian migrants – you’d consider them white in 2019 – but when I was a kid people used the word ‘wog’ as a term of racism, as an ugly term, as a way to belittle. In The Wog Boy, even then, there was still so much ‘otherness’ about those characters. People can say Nick Giannopoulos is corny now or whatever, but he truly was a groundbreaking comedic voice in Australia.”

As a kid of the 1990s, Toliopoulos grew up during the peak era of Australian migrant stories in pop culture. They were seminal in shaping his world view, none more so than one young adult high school story. “The time it really affected me was Looking For Alibrandi, it’s probably still my number one favourite film,” said Toliopoulos, who estimates he watched the film “probably one hundred times” on VHS at his cousin’s house. “Every time I revisit it I’m like ‘it’s so true, this is so honest’. I think it really spoke to my specific experience: I grew up in the Inner West of Sydney, I grew up with my mum and my grandma who were Greek migrants in the 60s... it just feels super specific and super authentic to that experience.”

He said the “dynamics between the three women” were captivating and true to life, so much so that nearing the film’s 20th anniversary he organised a live reading of the screenplay with author Melina Marchetta in attendance. With an inclusive cast of comedians and actors playing the key roles – including Jordan Raskopoulos as Katia Alibrandi and Aaron Chen as Jacob Coote – the author and screenwriter said it “really moves me” how much people are still attached to her story.

“I don't take it for granted,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. “Sometimes I want to say, 'OK, I don't want to talk about Alibrandi anymore!' but these young people who are passionate about the story, they're not just Italian kids: they're Italian, they're Asian, they're Greek, they're Muslims, they're transgender. And I think of all those kids, like me, sitting in [their] room thinking [they]'re the only person out there with these dreams, and I feel so touched about the solace this story has provided.”

For Toliopoulos, he said “it feels like an honest portrait of how my life used to be”.

“The way that I see it now when I watch it is like I’m looking at a family photo album. It captured the city I grew up in, which is really interesting especially when Sydney has changed so much in a negative way… Being in a backyard in Five Dock, bottling the tomato sauce, this is what my Christmases used to look like when my grandparents were still alive and their friends were still around.”

On the small screen, Acropolis Now became a star vehicle for not just Giannopoulos but Mary Coustas who played the recurring character Effie. So popular was her portrayal, it dawned its own spin-off Greeks On The Roof, which ran on Seven in 2003. “With Effie, it’s interesting because she’s a character: Australia often has these characters that can endure for generations – Norman Gunston, Dame Edna – because it’s this broad characterisation that hits at the right time,” said Toliopoulos. “It’s just so strong from a comedic perspective, to have this really shallow, narcissistic character who’s self-obsessed but there’s also this kindness about them as well. Effie has really touched people, she figured it out.”

Fenech too was touching people in a different way with both airings of Pizza on SBS and his stand-up routines at the time addressing Australian racism and patriotic fronts that sparked the Cronulla riots. “What Paul Fenech did – within months of it happening – was so biting,” said Toliopoulos. “It was a really intense time and to see a Maltese comedian like Paul Fenech make these really funny, bold points about it… Pizza and Fat Pizza were very modern updates of these migrant stories. It was a very ethnically diverse comedy.”

While those versions of Australian migrant stories have become familiar to audiences, shows like The Family Law (2016–19) and even hit animated series Bluey (2018–present) have begun to shine a spotlight on whole new aspects of the ‘Aussie’ experience. Although he said he feels “so lucky to have had something that captures my experience”, Toliopoulos wishes there was more of it for more Australians. “I feel like twenty years later we should have had a Sudanese Looking For Alibrandi by now,” he said. “It’s really strange and disappointing that we haven’t. We have these really interesting migrant communities in Australia - we really are a multicultural country, especially in the capital cities - and I feel like we’ve let them down by not having those films and texts for them.”

– Maria Lewis

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