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Actors deliver words of strength about Australia's history

The group of Aussie actors who star in the History Channel special The People Speak.
The group of Aussie actors who star in the History Channel special The People Speak. Nick Wilson - Foxtel

AN ESTEEMED group of film, television and stage actors have united for The History Channel's special TV event.

Hosted by author Thomas Keneally, The People Speak features 25 actors and musicians delivering the letters, songs and speeches of rebels, visionaries and protesters from Australia's rich democratic past.

Sam Worthington, David Wenham, Ryan Kwanten, Rebecca Gibney and Jack Thompson are just some of the big names who take part in impassioned performances.

The People Speak - The History Channel - Sunday at 6.30pm Qld, 7.30pm NSW.

The two-hour special is inspired by the American format created by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in 2009, when A-listers including Morgan Freeman, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Josh Brolin performed crucial moments in America's history.

Chandon Pictures and Paper Giants star Rob Carlton said he didn't have to think twice about participating in the readings, performed in front of a studio audience at Sydney's historic Carriageworks.

"I'm interested in history and the way it shapes our sense of self and obviously being story tellers, we're always leaning on the days that come before us," he said.

"Then there was the way they were going to stage it at the Carriageworks at Redfern as a one-night event. It just felt really special. When I found out the other people who had agreed to do it, then that turned the filming evening into something special."

Carlton said there was a "nervous energy" backstage among the actors.

"Everyone was anxiously pacing before their speeches," he said.

"It's a different performance style. We hadn't memorised the speeches, we were reading the speeches.

"It was like a performed reading, and so when you take actors out of their comfort zones there's a nervous energy."

In the introduction to the special, Carlton describes democracy as "self-correcting", which is something he says stems from the fundamental principle of transparency in democracy.

"Humans will always err and break the rules. People will act in self-interest and not the interests of everybody," he said.

"That's where democracy can step in and correct these things when they get out of hand.

"It reinvents itself every few years. We get to go to the ballot box and say 'we've had a bit of that, some of it was good and some of it was bad'.

"With the democratic process comes freedom of speech, and through that we can tap at the edges of the institutions that guide us."

Both of Carlton's readings are from the 1800s.

The first is colonial leader William Charles Wentworth making the case for the Emancipist Party.

"Wentworth was a libertarian. He was ahead of his time in terms of his thinking," he said.

"He was a man for all seasons; he was quite incredible."

His second reading could not be more different. It's an excerpt taken from Governor Gawler's 1838 speech about how Aboriginal people should imitate white men to assimilate into society.

"While I have every reason to believe his intentions were good, he perhaps wasn't quite as aware of the ramifications," Carlton said.

"The words are slightly villain-esque in a modern reading. No one wakes up and says 'I'm going to be a villain'.

"I believe he was trying to be as helpful as he possibly could, and I play it like that."

Topics:  actors australia history history channel tv show



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