Nothing says “feel-good” like the words “sporting drama”. Unless, that is, you’re talking about Barracuda. The Australian swimming series, bought by BBC Three, follows a young prodigy in the pool, who’s destined for great things – but it soon becomes apparent that he’s destined to make a splash in all the wrong kind of ways. Eddie the Eagle, this ain’t.
That, in itself, is reason to dip your toes into Barracuda’s depths – rather than go with the usual narrative flow, this mini-series swims against the current to navigate fresh oceans. Danny (Elias Anton) is a poor kid, from a background worlds away from the prestigious Blackstone College, to where he’s won a scholarship on the back of his strokes. And so he finds himself the subject of abuse from the rest of the team, led by Martin Taylor (Ben Kindon), the team captain and his closest rival.
Danny’s fight against that prejudice is one that’s also encountered by his mum, Stephanie (Victoria Haralabidou), as her outsider presence is warily tolerated by wealthy socialite mothers, including Martin’s snooty family matriarch (Rachel Griffiths). Cheered on by her, he swims through the ocean of class, race and classroom discrimination to find success where it matters: the pool.
Director Robert Connolly captures the watery sequences with a fantastic fluidity, the camera gliding underwater and over it at a breathtaking pace; not since the Olympics has swimming been so accessible and so viscerally thrilling. But we’re a long way from the Olympics, even with Coach Frank Torma (Matt Nable – warm-hearted enough to soften his cold edge) in Danny’s corner, sculpting his streamlined technique.
Danny’s nickname, “Barracuda”, on account of how fast he moves, feels like a big deal in Episode 1. His friendship with Martin, meanwhile, blossoms, as Elias Anton and Ben Kindon’s chemistry sparks a subtle, loyal bond. But Danny’s college days soon fade away – a shift in scale that elevates Christos Tsiolkas’ story to something deeper and more profound than your run-of-the-mill school programme. While the original book is a non-linear affair, the screenplay adapted by Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko takes a chronological approach: each episode is another chapter in Danny’s life, taking us from 1996 to 2000. That lends events a suitably novelistic tone, one that’s more akin to a four-hour movie than a TV series.
Over this epic journey, Danny’s blinkered approach to his swimming contrasts with the show’s gradual zooming out to show us the relationships around him being impacted by, and impacting upon, his unwavering focus. Anton is fantastic as the young, ambitious sportsman, his fish-out-of-water status leaving him prone to bursts of rage – an anger that repeatedly threatens to derail his whole career. Worse, it threatens to derail the lives of those he loves, and it soon becomes clear that includes Martin.
That tie becomes the heart of the story, as Danny gets to know Taylor’s family. But the more time he spends with them, the more he stands out from the pack. It’s something that Martin’s aunt likes him for, because he does’t pretend to be what he isn’t, but that attitude doesn’t wash with everyone, as Danny pushes away Frank in favour of better facilities and a new coach to give him an edge in the Commonwealth Games.
The result is superb study of desire, both personal and professional, and how the two can clash. It’s a coming-of-age story subject to the rippling pressures of competitive sport – an insight into an arena where identity is defined, above all, by success and failure. Public and private school privileges are just the start of the drama’s compelling thematic tensions, from pushy parents to the taboo of homosexuality, as Danny’s feelings rise to the surface, putting him at odds with the more uptight Martin and Martin’s relaxed sister, Emma (a scene-stealing Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
In a sea of uplifting underdog comedies and inspirational dramas, Barracuda looks at the other side of the coin. This is a story that doesn’t end in someone lifting a gold medal, but still understands the cathartic power of sport itself. Excellently acted and expertly paced, the gentle depths the series plumbs make for moving viewing, creating an immersive world of submerged passion. Dive right in – and don’t come up for breath.
All four episodes of Barrcuda are available to watch online on BBC iPlayer until 22nd May 2018.