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Boggo Road Gaol and Brisbane's dark side to feature heavily in Netflix production of Boy Swallows Universe

Boggo Road Gaol and Brisbane's dark side to feature heavily in Netflix production of Boy Swallows Universe

31 August, 2022

Looming over Brisbane's inner-southern suburbs is a red brick structure that was once part of Queensland's "most infamous" prison.

The guard tower and gallows beam that used to hang murderers and rapists stand as a stark reminder of the state's history as a penal colony.

Former officer John Peel, 67, remembers Boggo Road Gaol as a place where "anything could happen".

"Every day, you didn't know whether you were going to make it out and come home," he said.

"If you heard a whistle blow, that meant someone was in serious trouble."

For decades after it opened in 1883, the maximum-security prison held some of the most brutal, and longest-serving criminals in the country, including the convicted Whiskey Au Go Go fire bombers and escape artist Arthur "Slim" Halliday.

Kevin Hayden, 66, was a guard at the men's "Two Division" when Boggo jail attracted national scrutiny over a string of riots, hunger strikes and rooftop protests in the 1980s.

"The conditions were disgusting. There were no toilets in the cells, no running water. They had a bucket and a jug of water," he said.

"And there was the bird lice and rats. It was a horrible place."

Now, more than 30 years since the prison was shut in 1992, the heritage-listed site in Dutton Park will be featured in a Netflix adaptation of the blockbuster Australian novel Boy Swallows Universe.

Inspired by author and executive producer Trent Dalton's own childhood in Brisbane, the TV series will tell the "semi-fictional" story of 12-year-old Eli Bell, who tries to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas eve.

"Boggo Road, to me, is the most significant historical site in Brisbane," Dalton said.

"I had to put it in [the story] … it speaks of so much about Brisbane's ascension.

"We shouldn't shy away from our dark side as a city because our dark side is the thing that makes us such a wondrous city."

With filming starting this month, Dalton said Brisbane's first production for streaming giant Netflix had already generated excitement from local communities represented in Boy Swallows Universe.

"More than 200 Vietnamese locals in the hood where I used to live — Darra, Inala, and those areas — came out going, 'I want to be a part of this television series'," he said.

"And then Sunnybank High — the most multicultural school you could find in Brisbane — wants to be the place where we shoot the school scenes.

"Even the restaurant that my wife and I used to eat at in Darra want us to film inside. I get really emotional thinking about that fact."

Dalton would not reveal the names of the main actors in the series, but he confirmed it would include some familiar Hollywood names.

"To see an amazing Hollywood actress playing my mum, paying tribute to her, and to see that come full circle is very, very neat," he said.

The Brisbane-based production has also attracted the interest of former guard and aspiring actor Mr Hayden.

"I'm hoping to be in [the series] … they're going to see if I can be in it somewhere," he said.

"We should never lose our history. I think it gives you more knowledge of how we came to be where we are now today."

Jack Sim, who operated the Boggo Road Gaol tours for 25 years, said he hoped the show would encourage the preservation of Brisbane's cultural heritage.

"The story of our lives is not always nice or easy, and Boggo Road Gaol encompasses all the darkest and most difficult things that people have had to go through," he said.

"Some of them rose out of that with a brand new life, started again and never looked back.

"And others paid a big penalty for their mistakes and their crimes."

Before Queensland became the first part of the British Empire to abolish capital punishment in 1922, 42 people were executed at the jail.

Child-killer Ernest Austin was the last person to be hanged, and he was buried in South Brisbane Cemetery with the other executed prisoners.

Mr Sim said the history of the jail captured how attitudes toward criminal justice have changed over time.

"We no longer have 'prisons' in Queensland, we have 'correctional services'," he said.

"The idea is to try [to] rehabilitate people, so that they don't come back to jail, not to punish them."

What makes a good man?

In a case of art imitating life, Boy Swallows Universe grapples with the question of what makes a "good" man.

"I have this vivid memory of a family friend who used to play with me all the time, and his name was Slim Halliday," Dalton said.

"He was a really sweet man to me when I was a boy, and then I started to realise that, before I knew him [in the 1970s], he was known as the Houdini of Boggo Road."

Arthur "Slim" Halliday was originally sent to jail in 1939 to serve a five-year sentence for housebreaking, but he ended up doing more time after he carried out a series of dramatic escapes.

He was eventually released from Boggo Road in 1949, but it was not long before he was sent back to jail in 1952 over the murder of a taxi driver.

"I just thought it was too irresistible to not introduce that guy in [Boy Swallows Universe]," Dalton said.

"I wanted to pay tribute to my memory of that man who was, at once, a good and bad man.

"That was at the heart of the story that I was writing. It's about a boy trying to find the goodness in the people around him."

Much like the protagonist Eli, who grew up around drug dealers and an ex-convict, the prison guards at Boggo Road spent much of their life around inmates.

"You really got to know the guys," Mr Peel said.

"It's not like today, when they're segregated with bubbles — you had to be within contact range of them all the time," Mr Hayden said.

"So you had to get their respect, because if you lost their respect, then you could be in trouble."

Mr Peel said the prison guards did not carry any weapons, not even a baton, when he worked at Boggo Road.

"A whistle. That's the only weapon you really had," he said.

Mr Hayden did not carry any arms either: "All we had was hands and feet," he said.

"You learnt to be a very good talker, very quick, because you had to talk your way out of situations, rather than have to fight.

"But, occasionally, we had to fight. You had no choice. That's what life in jail was all about."

Mr Hayden recalled having to handle James Finch and John Stuart, after they started the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire in 1973, killing 15 people.

"Finch was a model prisoner, really. He didn't cause any trouble," he said.

"Stuart was a different kettle of fish. He was just a bad bugger all the way through. He was a horrible human being.

"He'd fight with everybody, every day, so he was locked in his own cell, in his own yard, in his own cage."

Mr Hayden also handled the "Colossus" of Boggo Road Nathan Jones, who is now a Hollywood actor and best known for his role in Mad Max: Fury Road.

"You couldn't put handcuffs on him because his wrists were too big," he said.

"So we had a special body belt for him when we had to move him anywhere."

Mr Hayden said the legend that Jones had ripped the door off his cell was true.

"He did that because he suffered from claustrophobia and didn't like being locked in," he said.

"But he was harmless. He was pretty easy to handle."

After his release, Jones went on to become a powerlifting champion and actor, with his next film appearance to be in the upcoming thriller Spiderhead.

It is because of the many lives that have passed through the prison's gates that Dalton describes Boggo Road as "a living story".

He joined tour director, Mr Sim, in calling for the preservation of the Brisbane landmark by turning it into a museum.

"We all know these dark characters. We all know these people and we all know that red brick of housing commission life, and it's part of our suburbs," he said.

"What I was trying to do [in Boy Swallows Universe] was really remind people that there is absolutely magic in those places as well.

"The whole story is all about never writing someone off."