Australia comes in little cheerful chunks

‘Australia comes in little cheerful chunks’, Honest History, 11 March 2015

David Stephens reviews Australia: the Story of Us (Channel 7), episodes 1-4

Australia: the Story of Us (ASU hereafter) is a franchise owned by an American firm called Nutopia. In that regard, it is like KFC, Macdonalds and Victoria’s Secret, each of whom manufacture small, seductive items, promote them using familiar or attractive faces and (in two out of three cases, at least) expect them to be rapidly consumed with no long-lasting effects of any kind. The question is whether, like KFC and Macca’s, ASU does more harm than good.

chisholm_463_1aenk7h-1aenk90Caroline Chisholm and colleagues (Yahoo7/Essential Media & Entertainment

Honest History came into existence to promote the many-strandedness of Australian history, in contrast with the military history obsession that threatened to overwhelm us. So, we were almost bound to look favourably on a show which, in its first four episodes, covered geological time, James Ruse, monster mammals, First Australians, a war over Tasmanian seals, Pemulwuy, the Rum Rebellion, Caroline Chisholm, Eureka (nice bolshie snippet, that one), the invention of Australian football, bushrangers, the overland telegraph, Melba, Gallipoli, the Western Front and a few other chunks about Us. The opening burst of the show, delivered in an orotund baritone that was soon to become irritatingly familiar, was all about heroes and heart, explorers and builders, a country ‘forged in war and peace’, discovery, diversity, and similar wide-ranging sentiments. Nothing very deep, a bit boastful but pleasingly eclectic.

Many-strandedness in ASU is accompanied by a multiplicity of talking heads, some of them a surprise. As well as a collection of historians and other experts (Larissa Behrendt, Michael Cathcart, Peter FitzSimons, Alex McDermott, Michael McKernan, Ross McMullin, Peter Stanley, Clare Wright and others), there are people who are notable in other fields (Tim Costello, Tim Flannery, Rebecca Gibney, Adam Goodes, Greg Norman, Dick Smith, Guy Sebastian, Malcolm Turnbull) or just notable for being notable. Some of this talent comes up with interesting angles, some of them seem to be reading a script and some give the impression of being in the wrong studio. Others from the Channel 7 stable (Chris Bath, Andrew O’Keefe) may just have happened to be in the right studio at the right time.

On the down side, the most notable irritation for this reviewer was Richard Roxburgh, the narrator. He was a shouty, choleric actor in Rake (same production company) and here he is a shouty, choleric narrator. One hankered for the unobtrusive but persuasive voice-over of a David McCullough (The Civil War and other Ken Burns productions) or even that nice Simon Reeve, underused elsewhere on Channel 7. Mr Roxburgh or his voice coach seemed not to have grasped that the point of the Story (really Stories) of Us was how many and varied the stories were, not HOW VERY EXCITING EVERY SINGLE STORY WAS. An often florid script bombastically delivered can make one welcome the commercial breaks.

Episode 4 on 1915-18 was the acid test. Would it be just over-the-top Anzackery, nation-forging in Turkey and Simpson’s donkey? As it turned out, it was mostly AE2, Billy Sing and Keith Murdoch at Gallipoli then on to Sister Kelly and Pompey Elliott in France. A mixed bag. As for how the contents were spread out for the viewer, while the film clips of Gallipoli (as of other locations in the series) were interesting, the re-creations were patchy (as they were throughout the show). I recently heard a radio documentary producer roundly condemn most such visual work as ‘hokey’ – she would say that, wouldn’t she? – and I suspect she may well be right. The faces in ASU, even in early Sydney and in the dust at Gallipoli, looked too scrubbed, the clothing too neat, the haircuts too modern, the teeth too perfect (ever wondered why so few pre-1960 portraits show smiles?) to be accurate, the running hither and yon too choreographed and the Gallipoli stuntmen’s double somersaults from the hidden springboards following the simulated explosions looked rather too Matthew Mitchamesque.

resizephotobytonymott_221_1afq9dl-1afq9fvMatch of the day: inventing AFL (Yahoo7/Essential Media & Entertainment)

Then, inevitably, compression distorts. The technique of pulling out illustrative vignettes tends to lead to overstating the importance of some individuals and events. In the Great War episode dead-eye Billy Sing in 1915 and Pompey Elliott at Villers-Bretonneux in 1918 come into this category. There was a heavy hint also at the end of episode 4 that Australia won the war with the help of its allies, though this may just have been infelicitous syntax. Some talking heads, notably Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG, may have been professionally destined to produce hyperbole (in his case, claiming that we ‘founded our culture’ on Anzac). On the other hand, the three sentence burst at the end of episode 4 on the effect of the war on Australia was rather more balanced than the equivalent section of the refurbished World War I galleries at the Australian War Memorial.

Considering how ASU dealt with the Great War raises the key question for popular presentations of history: is it better to have a once-over lightly treatment of a complex mix of stories, at the risk of simplifying and leaving things out, or to have relentless, repetitive picking at a single theme? ASU obviously punts for the former and, while the frustrations of the format are obvious, the optimism (some would say shameless Aussie self-congratulation) of the series is a change from sentimental, mawkish and morbid Anzackery (some would say self-congratulatory necrophilia). The ASU story chunks are mostly fairly positive – even the bushrangers are presented as folk-heroes – and there are not too many down sides; all the ups and downs are very recognisably ours.

‘Ocker nationalism’ is not a bad summary of the ASU approach. There has not been much though on White Australia, the Frontier Wars only got a passing glance and the divided Australian society during the Great War hardly rated a mention. The choice of which chunks to highlight inevitably leads to bias and questions of ‘why X rather than Y?’ There is no doubt though that this Australian knock-off of the Story of Us carries the smell of gum-leaves. The American version was apparently made mostly in South Africa with a South African cast. The equivalent here would be if ASU was made in Aotearoa New Zealand. There is no sign of that in the credits (though a couple of the research-writing team did work for the Kiwi Russell Crowe on The Water Diviner). While there are some oddities, as described above, they seem to be driven more by the discipline of providing bite-size chunks than by the domicile of the Nutopia money-men.

Overall, ASU makes an honest effort to deliver varied fare to fast-history consumers. Inevitably, short-order cooking ruins some dishes but four episodes of ASU fed into a young Australian would do more good than harm. Viewing these episodes would certainly give a more balanced (albeit superficial) view of this nation than would be obtained by, say, strolling through the Australian War Memorial. ASU deserves comparison with Defining Moments at the National Museum of Australia and Chris Masters’ The Years that Made Us as an introduction to an Australia that is about not only Anzac but lots of other things as well. In this year of all years, any production that puts our great Australian bellicosity in its proper, proportionate place is to be welcomed.

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