Shunned, Abused and Tortured: David Berry Portrays What Many Gay Men Endured in 1950s Australia
By Shannon Molloy, News Corp Australia Network
ACTOR David Berry would be so traumatised by his television character some days that he’d break down in hysterics on set.
The 31-year-old star of A Place To Call Home would be totally inconsolable — a sobbing mess. And he began to take the heavy experiences of James Bligh with him at the end of a day’s filming.
It wasn’t just the heavy storylines from the Foxtel period drama, set in 1950s Australia — it was that so much truth was woven in to the fictional heir to a farming fortune.
James is married but gay and, in the previous two seasons, has experienced everything from forbidden love to family disapproval and even horrific “treatments” including electroshock.
“In the beginning, I did a lot of research about what it meant to be a gay man in this era,” Berry said.
“But I also interviewed men who lived through this time, as well as those ordeals — including the so-called therapies. I looked at real stories so I could tell an honest one with these characters.
“That’s why I feel an enormous burden. I have a very real possibility to do James well because there are so many people who can relate to him.”
Heavy role ... Actor David Berry’s experience of playing James in A Place To Call Home has taken a sometimes significant toll.
Berry has heard from many of those men, who say seeing a familiar battle waged on the small screen has had a profound impact.
For many, it helped them to come to terms with the often barbaric events they lived through. A few said they felt closure — an inner peace.
“That’s humbling,” Berry said. “It’s also very scary. I owe these people — they’re invested in the character.”
Those investments include very vivid recollections of being held against their will in hospitals, electrocuted, pumped full of drugs and mentally abused.
Things have certainly changed in 60 years. It’s no longer illegal to be a homosexual, society is far more accepting and horrific medical torture like that no longer takes place.
Shameful treatment ... Some doctors in that era tried to “cure” homosexuality with barbaric practices like electroshock and drug aversion. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
“You only need to look at the gay marriage debate to see that,” he said.
“There’s still a certain amount of prejudice in society. I think if James was a character set in present day he’d still have his own battles.”
In fact, he’s heard from young gay men who say James has helped them to accept who they are.
“He’s relatable to those who can’t be who they are, whose families and communities don’t or won’t accept them.”
When Channel Seven axed A Place To Call Home in mid-2014, Berry and the rest of the cast bid farewell to their much-loved personas.
Several months later when Foxtel saved the drama — an unprecedented move in television — most of the actors were ecstatic. But Berry admits he felt sick with anxiety.
“It’s not that I was reluctant … let’s say apprehensive. I didn’t sleep very well. I even developed an eye twitch!”
It wasn’t just that he’d moved on — Berry was in two war-themed documentaries in that year — but he was nervous to go back.
“Everything that James had gone through, I was terrified about having to live through that again.”
It’s why the actor argued for a progression of his character’s storyline in season three. Berry wanted to see James with a bit more strength, after so many episodes of being the victim.
“At the end of the day, he’s a wealthy and influential heir who’s a born leader. I thought more of that should come through.”
And while it will in the new episodes to air from this Sunday, there’s no shortage of heavy drama either.
Haunting storyline ... There’s a scene in the new season of A Place To Call Home that left David Berry an emotional wreck for days. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
“I can’t say too much without giving it away, but there’s an argument between James (and his wife) Olivia that gets extremely heated. It really shook me.
“When you see it, I think you’ll understand why.
“For a week after, I had total anxiety. I’d start crying for no reason — just totally bawling on set or at home. I had zero control over it.”
The emotion of someone who doesn’t exist bleeding into his own world was a frightening experience, Berry said.
“I guess that’s all good for the character,” he laughed. “Probably not so much for my wife (in real life).”
There are many things about this show that Berry is fond of. The opportunity to tell such a rich story, for one, as well as the high production values and quality feel of the show.
But the young performer has also discovered something a white, heterosexual man rarely does.
“I’ve experienced what it feels like to not be loved or accepted for who you are,” he said.
“That’s a very potent emotion. It’s such a big, important part of life, and not having it is pretty rough — you end up wanting and yearning for it and there’s not a lot of room for anything else.”
But will James ever get the one thing he desperately wants? Berry said to watch this space.
In teasers for the upcoming season, his character is seen in flirtatious situations with a handsome doctor, hinting at a possible romantic dalliance to come.
“I think James will always fight to be at peace. Whether he gets there is another story. It’ll be difficult, given the time and his circumstances.
“But I know I’ll fight to get him there.”