A lookback on Heartland (Burned Bridge)

It has been 30 years since HEARTLAND (or BURNED BRIDGE in other countries) aired on ABC Television in Australia. The miniseries led by Ernie Dingo and Cate Blanchett ran from March to June 1994. This is Blanchett’s first major TV role after graduating from NIDA in 1992 and winning both Best Newcomer (Kafka Dances) and Best Actress (Oleanna) in 1993 from Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle.

The series was considered groundbreaking at the time since it was the first major TV series written by Aboriginal Australians and with a cast that consist of mainly Aboriginal people.

Heartland is well named. It comes from the heart. Ernie’s heart. Much of it is his story. Sequences like… being pulled over because you’re black, happened to him in real life.


Heartland deals with the mystery surrounding the death of an Aboriginal girl and the doubts concerning the guilt of her boyfriend, who is arrested for her murder. It is also a love story between two of the people convinced of his innocence. Their growing relationship must survive hostility from both the white and black communities and the obstacles of their different backgrounds, attitudes and cultures.

Set in a small coastal town against the turmoil of murder, mystery and romance, Heartland follows the people from this seaside community and their battle to restructure their own way of life. Their struggle to restore their self-esteem towards a positive future, despite the obstacles in their path.

Ernie Dingo as Vincent Burunga is a man walking the razor’s edge between two worlds. Born in Western Australia, he became estranged from his people when caught between the demands of traditional law and white law. Finally the conflicting demands of his job and his society led to him travelling to the East Coast. Working in Brooklyn Waters as an Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer, he’s an outsider to the local Aboriginal people and an outsider to the town. The expectations of both sides are enormous, particularly when a local boy is accused of murder, and he is charged by the community at Binbilla with the seemingly impossible mission of freeing him from the white justice system. But this struggle and his relationship with Beth Ashton (Cate Blanchett) lead him to a deeper understanding of the worlds he is attempting to bridge… to axe his own demons, and find a way forward in his own life.

Ernie has been closely involved as a consultant on all aspects of BURNED BRIDGE. His character Vincent is based on Ernie’s own origins and background. His extensive input includes the naming of both his own and Cate Blanchett’s character.

Cate Blanchett as Beth Ashton arrives in Brooklyn Waters to settle her grandfather’s estate, and take “time out” from a life in the city that has fallen apart around her. The breakup of her marriage to Garth Maddern has left her bruised and vulnerable. Her involvement with Vincent and her growing contact with the people form Binbilla, is the last thing she expected when she came, but as she learns more about their world and their way of looking at life, she finds herself changing in unexpected ways.

She arrives an outsider, but as she discovers more about her grandfather’s life and the people he was linked to more closely than she imagined, she comes to find a sense of belonging, and a deeper understanding of herself.

Cate notes the difference in Beth’s character from her own “I am more of a watcher where Beth feels she has to participate and bravely goes where a lot of people wouldn’t. I believe in giving people space to reveal themselves and not always tackling things head on as she does, although she displays a great honesty in doing so. She is so challenged culturally and confronted by the privacy of the Aboriginal society and doesn’t like being shut out.”

Cate Blanchett (Beth Ashton) with Ernie Dingo (Vincent Burunga) and Bob Maza (Alf Dyer)

Bob Maza as Alf Dyer is an elder of the Birpai people, and the lynch-pin of the Aboriginal community at Binbilla. Growing up there when it was a government reserve, he’s spent time out in the white world, learning what makes it tick.

Justine Saunders as Millie Carmichael is the matriarch of the Carmichael family, and the wellspring of its strength. Fiercely proud of her people, she is a tireless worker for their advancement, which leads her to clash with Alf about the best way forward for the Binbella Community.

Steven Vidler as Phil McCarthy is the young Sergeant in charge of the Police station at Brooklyn Waters. Easy going, fair, he’s part of the new generation of the Police Service, determined to do his best for the entire community, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal

More information on supporting cast here.

Blanchett with Justine Saunders (Millie Carmichael) and Steven Vidler (Phil McCarthy)

The star of Heartland and the person without whom, those involved say, the series could not have been made, is less concerned about the effects of prejudice. In his speech to the almost exclusively white media representatives, Ernie Dingo amuses us by referring to the “couple of token whites in the series”. And while he thanks black and white cast and production team members for their efforts in bringing the series to fruition, it seems there is a real sense in which Heartland is something for Aborigines to cherish; if white viewers derive enjoyment as well, it’s a bonus.

Dingo is excited because the program is on the ABC. It means that his people in far-flung places will be able to watch the series. “Wherever they are, they are gonna watch this production and look at it in a very favorable way,” he says. “More so because the kids can now relate their traditional culture from their area to what is brought up in this production. That’s important.” It is clear that Dingo has taken on an almost frightening level of responsibility with Heartland. As the major cultural consultant (with Bob Maza), it has been his role to ensure that nothing in the series offends Aborigines or breaks tribal laws. The awesome nature of this task only becomes obvious as insights into the spiritual and cultural complexity of the Aboriginal people emerge.

“We had (tribal) law people on set; we had cultural advisers advising me. If anything negative is portrayed, I am to blame from the traditional point of view, and I kinda like the way my face is enough (not) to have it rearranged,” he smiles, briefly, the import of the occasion quickly closing in again.

To those whose prejudice may blind them to a good thing, the tall, personable actor has a simple response: “They have the options of three or four other channels. I don’t defend people’s ignorance; I won’t allow myself to speak for someone else. If somebody does not feel kindly towards Aboriginal people, that is their option.” “I can’t tell people ‘don’t be a racist bastard all your life’ because then I’m being negative. There are too many good things in life to worry about the negative.”

Episode 7 of Heartland won Best Episode in TV Drama at 1994 AFI (AACTA) Awards

It would be be understandable if Cate Blanchett felt she was caught in a fairytale. Just a year out of drama college (NIDA), she is co-starring with one of Australia’s best-recognised male actors in a major television drama.

Far from being rattled, she is calm, thoughtful – and yes, grateful. “The way I work is (to) move from moment to moment. So this has just crept up on me. And like an opening night in theatre, I’m beginning to get nervous because it’s about to go to air,” she says. She laughs as she discusses her selection for the role. “I thought I must have been chosen for the color of my skin,” she quips, referring to her milky complexion. She has, she says, at times felt alienated from her black colleagues, but only because their sense of community is so strong, not because she has been excluded. “It’s the close links they have, even if they don’t know each other, because of the culture,” she says.

This contrast is reinforced in her on-screen life, too, where in her role as Beth Ashton — a city slicker who comes to Brooklyn Waters to sell a house inherited from her grandfather — she plays a loner with no family ties or sense of belonging. Blanchett says her experience on Heartland has greatly expanded her primary school images of Aboriginality. “What has been fantastic for me has been learning how alive those beliefs are, even among urban Aboriginals. And, of course, they differ from language group to language group. And that’s been fantastic too; learning not to generalise about the Aboriginal community, and that I’m not a spokesperson for them, either.”

Full interview here. The Age Melbourne – 17, March 1994

Shane O’Connor, Blanchett, and Aaron Pedersen at the launch of Heartland in Sydney on 1, March 1994

In ABC-TV’s much-heralded new drama series Heartland, she plays Beth Ashton, a young city radio producer who, fleeing a failed marriage, moves to the fictional country town of Brooklyn Waters, where she sides with the town’s Aboriginal police liaison officer (Ernie Dingo) to prove the innocence of an Aboriginal murder suspect.

Like ingenue Beth (who falls for Dingo), Blanchett had little contact with urban Aborigines before the show’s shoot, which included a month in the soaring temperatures of Western Australia’s Mount Augustus, 1,353km from Perth. “I knew climactically and emotionally there would be huge highs and lows, but it’s kind of been greater and huger than I could ever have imagined,” says Blanchett, whose knowledge of the Dreaming was hitherto limited to “textbook university”. Three months on, and with help from a largely Aboriginal cast, “there’s been a lot of subconscious learning,” she says.

Such was the case at Mount Augustus in February, when Blanchett was tempted to take home one of the local, red rocks in her suitcase. Discouraged by a crew member, who said it could bring her had luck, Blanchett bought a lime-wash couch instead, “I mean if someone took a stone from the place where the burning bush was on Mount Sinai: sacrilege,” she says. “But yet we can souvenir red dirt and rocks and know nothing about the spirit place.. I’m just beginning to scratch the surface.”

From Who Australia profile on Cate, 18, April 1994.

Behind the scenes in Western Australia (1993)

The first kiss between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal actors that aired in Australia is in this series, between the characters played by Ernie Dingo (Vincent Burunga) and Cate Blanchett (Beth Ashton). Below they talked about it on separate interviews.

Here is the earliest interview with Blanchett that is available on the internet — she talks about filming Heartland.


Sources: IMDb, Alan McKee