This article by David Dale appeared Australia’s WAtoday.
Before we get to Richard Roxburgh’s shocking discovery about his great-great-grandfather – to be revealed in Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS this week – we must deal with two questions: Will there be another series of Rake? And did the US version of Rake fail because Americans can’t cope with a flawed hero, while Australians are happy to embrace Ned Kelly types?
Roxburgh offers an enthusiastic yes to No. 1. “We thought it might have been done and dusted, but there’s so much love for the thing that it felt unseemly to abandon it.”
There was just one obstacle to starting the new series. As well as a tale of one man’s self-destruction, Rake functions as a satire on Australian politics, and since the last series ended, real life has become more absurd than any Rake script.
Roxburgh: “So much of Rake might seem high concept, but then you watch the news. A premier resigns over a bottle of wine. The Clive Palmer factor in parliament. A former detective allegedly involved in shooting somebody trying to negotiate a settlement whereby the cops could come and arrest him in a dignified fashion. We are hilarious. We don’t realise how funny we are.”
So how to top reality? “We thought if we could find something that was stimulating enough, some idea that we could attach ourselves to, then we were going to do it. I think we have found that idea.” Watch this space.
Roxburgh has trouble answering the second question because he could not bring himself to watch the US version. “I had a credit on it, and I was very happy to have the odd trip to the letter box for a cheque. To not have to deal with rooms full of American TV executives to get that was fabulous.
“There was a part of me that would have been intrigued to watch it, but it might have done more damage than good. I feel it was never going to be my Rake. I didn’t want to get cranky if I saw things where I thought, ‘That was my invention, how dare they?’ I didn’t want to go through that.”
In any case, he’s been too busy this year to watch much television. He’s been overseas finding his roots, courtesy of SBS. Which leads us to our next item.
The shock and the awe
For the first time in his 30-year acting career, Richard Roxburgh found himself actively trying to avoid the camera. He’d promised his friends and family he was not going to “go all sooky” when he found out about his family background, and now it was happening. He’s slightly embarrassed to admit that’s what viewers will see on Tuesday night.
Last year SBS asked if he’d like to be involved in Who Do You Think You Are?, in which a term of expert researchers go looking for a story in a celebrity’s ancestry. Roxburgh gave them what little information he had, then waited nervously to find out if his family tree would pass the audition.
“They follow up all these different limbs and branches and twigs and see if there’s a narrative anywhere in there; anything that’s kind of juicy,” he says. “There have been famous instances where they’ve had to come back to the victim/suspect and say, ‘It’s ringbarked, they never did anything interesting, the family just plodded round in potato patches for thousands of years’.”
Eventually the researchers told him to pack his bags. “They don’t tell you till you arrive at the airport; it’s this little game. I said just give me a temperature range, and they said 7 to 30. With my mother having a completely Scottish heritage, and my father Scottish-Irish, I just assumed I would be off to Edinburgh in the spring. I packed woolly scarves and coats. We landed in Trinidad and stayed in the Caribbean the entire time.”
That was the first shock. The next shock was bigger: “My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Roxburgh, had a really quite large holding of slaves. Just before emancipation happened, there was a brief window in which slaves were basically very cheap. You could buy up a lot of them and use them very thoroughly until they were sort of wrung out.
“I started out on the thing saying, ‘I am not my forebears’, but you do hope your forebears in some way reflected your own moral currency, that they didn’t disgrace themselves. There was a disgrace in that because by the time he was buying up all of those slaves, there was a very powerful anti-slavery lobby in Britain. It’s not like he was going in blind.”
Roxburgh doesn’t want to say his great-great-grandfather was evil. “It’s too simple and dangerous to paint people as a villain. What I do for a living is about precisely that. If you go in to play Richard the Third or Iago or any of those wonderful villains, the more elements you can find that illuminate other parts of that life, the more interesting the portrayal, the more lifelike the portrayal.
“You read a letter he wrote to his wife while he was at sea and it’s full of tenderness and all the longing for his family and his children that makes so much sense to me. He may well have been the most delightful, charming slave owner in the entire Caribbean. He might have been wonderful to all of his slaves. But obviously that’s a grubby, grubby world and he was a part of it.”
But then came the good news. There was another ancestor who balanced the damage done by Thomas Roxburgh. “Another great-great-grandfather, James Watson, was a minister who was setting up congregations of entirely black people and schools for ex-slaves. He was one of the strong voices against the slave trade. I don’t know how the drawing-room meetings between the two played out but I don’t imagine it would have been pleasant.”
And this was when the emotional dam burst. “I was under strict instructions from my family and friends to not get all sooky. But we were in James Watson’s church in Kingston with the current congregation. There was a pianist there who launched into The Redemption Song. He’s playing and singing and there are Rastafarian drummers and a chorus of angels start singing in honour of my great-great-grandfather.
“No matter how hard you try, it’s a profoundly moving thing. I’ve never done this before in my life but I was actually hiding from the camera. This poor wonderful photographer was waving at me trying to stop me from turning away, because I didn’t want to be seen being the big sook.”