The real-life people behind the characters in Netflix's Boy Swallows Universe.

Boy Swallows Universe has fast become one of the world's most talked about series.

The Netflix show, based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Trent Dalton, wasn't just carved from the author's imagination – it included characters based on some very real people.

As it turns out, Dalton grew up surrounded by a lot of real-life criminals, including a convicted murderer and an armed burglar.

Watch the official trailer for Boy Swallows Universe. Post continues after video. 

Video via Netflix.

The semi-autobiographical tale follows 12-year-old Eli Bell as he grows up in the suburbs of Brisbane, among some questionable characters linked to his mother and the underworld. 

The coming-of-age story is gut-wrenching and hopeful and everything you want from a great book or TV series – and it's also based on people who really did exist.

In Boy Swallows Universe, we meet two characters based heavily on people Dalton adored as a boy: Arthur 'Slim' Halliday and Gary John Lawrence, aka the character Lyle Orlik. The roles are played by Australian actors Bryan Brown and Travis Fimmel, respectively.


The real Arthur Slim Halliday and Byran Brown, who plays Halliday in Boy Swallows Universe. Image:

The duo were long-term inmates of Brisbane's infamous Boggo Road Gaol, and while Halliday was a childhood friend and babysitter, Lawrence was Dalton's real-life stepfather.

Halliday, who Dalton got to know personally after he was released from jail in 1976, was known as the 'Houdini' of Boggo Road. He was the jail's most persistent escape artist, having made six known escape attempts – two of which were successful.


One was in 1940, when Halliday hauled himself over the perimeter wall at Boggo Road using an eight-metre-long rope that was tied to a grappling hook made of wood. He was captured two weeks later. 

The second time was in 1946, when he and two other inmates escaped over a wall using a piece of clothesline that had been secured to a pipe.

Halliday was tracked down in a huge manhunt within a few days.

He was originally sent to Boggo Road in 1939 to serve a five-year sentence for breaking into houses. However, 'Slim' was later convicted of the 1952 murder of 23-year-old Gold Coast taxi driver, Athol McCown. 

Slim had been a free man for three years when he attempted to rob a store in Sydney and shot himself in the leg with a handgun during a struggle with the storekeeper. Halliday was arrested, and police alleged he'd used the pistol he'd shot himself with to beat the taxi driver to death a month earlier.

Halliday always maintained his innocence (and if you've watched Boy Swallows Universe, you'll know Eli Bell does too!). 

The truth died with Slim in 1987. He was 66.

Despite his past, Dalton and his three older brothers, Joel, Ben and Jesse – who were represented through Eli's one older brother, Gus, in the series and book – worshipped Halliday.


"I loved the guy. He was the funniest, kindest old bloke," the author told The Townsville Bulletin

"He was a man who dropped around the house of this guy my mum was in love with. To me, he was this mythical guy that my brothers would whisper about when we were playing in the backyard."

Dalton's stepdad Lawrence, on the other hand, was renowned for having served the longest time in Boggo Road without ever having been convicted of murder. He was a beloved figure in Dalton's childhood, and provided the inspiration for BSU's Lyle Orlik, Eli's stepfather – a kind-hearted crook who cared for Eli's mother and two boys.

"[Lawrence] was a really sweet man to me when I was a boy," Dalton told ABC News in 2022.

The author later told the Townsville Bulletin that Lawrence was "genuinely the first man that I ever loved and he was probably in many ways my mum’s true love, the love of her life.

"The difficult part of falling in love with that guy was that he had a pretty shady past and he had some pretty dark activities that he got up to in his downtime," he shared.

Lawrence first went to jail when he was 20 years old in 1964 on a minor charge and was later jailed again for assault and robbery of a 20-year-old student in 1968.

For his part in the crime, Lawrence was sentenced to 16 years in prison for robbery in company with personal violence, two counts of indecent assault and attempted sodomy.


He met Dalton's mother while visiting a friend in a women's refuge, entering her life during the breakdown of her marriage to Dalton's father.

The real Gary John Lawrence (left) and Travis Fimmel (right), who plays Eli's stepdad in Boy Swallows Universe. Image: Netflix.


But Lawrence abruptly exited the boys' life when he was sent to prison for 10 years, and when he left, he was determined to not let it happen again.

"[He was this] guy I loved so much [who] kind of disappeared from my life, Dalton said. "A lot of the book is me just processing things in my head about what the hell happened to that guy."

Just like the boys' mother, Frankie Bell (played by Phoebe Tonkin), Trent Dalton and his real-life three older brothers had a mother who used and sold heroin, and was jailed for two years in the late '80s.

Another main fixture in Boy Swallows Universe is Boggo Road Gaol, where Lawrence and Halliday spent a lot of time for their crimes. It was Queensland's main prison from the 1880s through to the 1980s before it was temporarily closed. In its time, it became known for its poor conditions and treatment of inmates.

"The conditions were disgusting. There were no toilets in the cells, no running water. They had a bucket and a jug of water," Kevin Hayden, who was a guard at the prison, told ABC News in 2022.

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

Boggo Road in the mid-1980s. Image: Inside Boggo Road.


Dalton's 2018 debut novel sold more than one million copies and won nine awards. It became the fifth-biggest show on Netflix in the first week of its release. Set in Darra in Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe delivers a stark and realistic account of life in that part of the country during the '80s, filled with heart and hope. 

Feature Image: Netflix.

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