Vale, Gra-Gra


Kennedy_tele_king


It’s not as though it hadn’t been on the cards for the last few years, or that we hadn’t long since given up any hope of seeing him on the box again – save for repeats of those key bits from throughout his career – but it’s no less sad knowing that Graham Kennedy, the King of Australian television, has passed away.

Kennedy was dubbed ‘King of Television’ because for a time, he seemed always to be on it, nobody else did it as well as him. Indeed, Kennedy virtually defined what it meant to be a television personality in Australia. He got his first big break working as Nicky Whitta’s sidekick on Radio 3UZ in Melbourne (now Radio Sport 927). However, not long after television started up in Australia in 1956, Kennedy made the move, hosting In Melbourne Tonight from 1957.

Most of the talent on Australian television came from the live vaudeville circuit, an ailing form of entertainment that television helped put out of its misery. These vaudeville greats were the people Kennedy was working with, and he learnt everything they had to teach him. Joff Ellen was a name he’d drop in later interviews; Ellen appeared in a lot of the early live sketches. Ernie Carroll, the voice of Ossie Ostrich, was another veteran from whom Kennedy learnt a lot. (In fact, Graham Kennedy was working opposite Ossie Ostrich long before Daryl Somers ever was! And the Ostrich provided a more ‘adult’ line of humour then, too.) And it would be remiss not to mention the ubiquitous television writer Mike McColl-Jones.

Essentially, Graham was taught all of the routines: the set-ups and punchlines that constituted a virtual library of material he could draw from as the need or opportunity arose. Kennedy was, of course, pretty quick with the patter already, a result of his earlier radio experience.

Part of Kennedy’s shtick on live television was making fun of the products he’d advertise for his show’s sponsors. The response was better when he appeared to rubbish the products. This kind of playfulness was something he’d developed on radio with Nick Whitta, but he took it to greater lengths with Bert Newton, a regular partner from his early days on television.

Kennedy lost his job fronting his variety show in the 70s, for making a ‘crow call’; it was a long, nasally ‘faaaaaaaaark’ sound, a way of saying ‘f*ck’ on live television. Although, it’s not as simple as that. During a certain live advertisement for Cedel hair spray, in which a lady is in the foreground, doing a piece to camera, Kennedy is at his desk, out of focus in the background or perhaps off-camera altogether, making various bush noises, one of which happens to be the sound of the crow.It was a regular feature of his show at the time, a kind of a running gag. It was turned into an issue because at about the same time, Graham Kennedy was using his position on television as a platform for political commentary, attacking Senator Douglas McClelland, Minister for the Media in Prime Minister Whitlam’s government. The crow calls and the political comments were used as grounds for forcing Kennedy to pre-record the show rather than performing it live-to-air, enabling it to be edited – or censored – as necessary. It was for this reason that Kennedyt and the Channel 9 Network parted company after nearly twenty years. Truth be told, (or, to be more accurate, ‘general assumption be made’), Kennedy and the network were both happy to see the back of each other by this stage.

My earliest memories of Graham Kennedy are of his hosting the game show Blankety Blanks in the late 1970s. He’d been employed to front the show on the Ten Network in 1977 and it was the first of his many ‘comebacks’ to television. Blankety Blanks involved a contestant having to provide the missing word from an incomplete, innuendo-laden sentence, hoping to match the word with whatever a panel of celebrity guests – television personalities, pop singers, thespians – had chosen to complete the sentence. It was all just an excuse for Kennedy to banter with showbiz mates on a panel that always included cigar-chomping Northern comic ‘Ugly’ Dave Gray and, more often than not, thelikes of Noelene Brown, veteran of satirical live review and television comedy; Stuart Wagstaff and Noel Ferrier, Australian thesps; Jon English and Mark Holden, Australian pop stars and a who’s who of stage and screen celebrities of the day.

To my mind, Kennedy made the crow call throughout Blankety Blanks, but that may just be how I choose to remember it. Watching the show was certainly discouraged if not actually forbidden by my parents during its initial broadcast despite my being too young to even realise that rude things were being implied (they were rarely actually said). The show was repeated a decade later, believe it or not. Why would you repeat a decade-old game show? Because it was still hilarious, not least of all because of the outdated clothing and hairstyles. But not panelists, it would seem. Because at the same time as Blankety Blanks was being repeated, all-new episodes were being broadcast on a rival network, this time hosted by Daryl Somers, surrounded by a fair whack of the same panelists, all now ten years older. But to be honest, Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks was funnier than Daryl’s.

Kennedy made other ‘comebacks’ throughout the 80s: hosting a clip show in which he got to crack jokes between bits and bobs excerpted from various comedies from around the world. It was, in a way, a forerunner to Australia finally launching the local Funniest Home Video franchise – which, again, Kennedy initially hosted in 1990, making with the snappy patter between the clips of children coming off bikes and swings to crack their heads on concrete, and men getting belted in the crutch. Graham Kennedy also hosted a ‘news show’ – that is to say, a co-host got to occasionally read headlines out between Graham Kennedy’s banter. It doesn’t sound like much now, but it was always worth watching – which was essentially Graham Kennedy’s talent: being able to turn ‘not much’ into riveting viewing.

As an actor, Graham Kennedy didn’t make many films and yet he shines in all of them. So much so that they’re worth watching just to see him in action. His role as Harry, the seminal philosophical Aussie digger in The Odd Angry Shot (1979) – (Australia’s M*A*S*H or, since it’s about the Viet Nam war and not the Korean war, Australia’s Platoon – except without all the glorified Oliver Stone pontification) is brilliant. Similarly, he is essential as Mack in Don’s Party (1976) and Ted in The Club (1980). The latter two are adaptations of plays by David Williamson. As a younger, hungrier playwright, Williamson wrote important works that perfetly caught the Australian idiom and temperament, representing ‘real’ Australians on stage – as opposed to his more recent work, which seems to keep the chattering classes contented by telling them what they want to hear.

In a soundbite accompanying radio news reports of Kennedy’s passing, Williamson claimed that Graham Kennedy doubted his acting talents; he considered himself an impostor compared to ‘real’ actors, and as a result, didn’t pursue film work. However, Williamson insisted, Kennedy was often a better actor than any of the ones he looked up to as ‘real’. This is hardly surprising: Graham Kennedy was taught to act by Australia’s best vaudeville performers. And he honed these talents in front of television cameras. He was always going to be perfectly suited to cinema.

After a life on television, Kennedy chose to spend his latter years away from the limelight, enjoying a country property with his horses and dog, refusing to be wooed back to television – except for one occasion when, in exchange for a four-wheel drive vehicle, he allowed Australian television’s most sanitised and successful host-cum-interviewer, Ray Martin, to interview him for a ‘birthday special’, the occasion being Kennedy’s sixtieth. Graham claimed to have been ‘ambushed’ by some of the questions, and as a result, swore during a lot of the answers to render them unusable. What was edited for broadcast is still worth watching – not for Ray of course, but for Graham.

Actor Graeme Blundell wrote a biography, King – The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy. He was encouraged by television comedy writer Tony Sattler, one of the few friends Graham allowed to stay close to him in his final years. Sattler feared that Kennedy could pass away without his story being told. It’s as good a story as you can tell about someone whose entire life has been about perpetually providing a performance persona to the public. Graham Kennedy appeared to have virtually no inner life – and had he discovered or developed one in his last fifteen years, he enjoyed keeping it mostly to himself.

However, solitude was not the best option for Kennedy. He tended to smoke and drink too much and not eat properly, and when he suffered a fall in 2001 he broke a leg and fractured his skull, necessitating a move to a nursing home where he could receive better care. Yet he retained his sense of humour.

Blundell tells of writing his book: how he’d take each chapter to Kennedy and read it to him, for approval. Somewhere along the line, Graham told him he needn't return with further chapters:

“I know how the story ends.”


All Creatures Grate And Smell


Iamnotananimalblog


I saw the advertisement for the DVD of I Am Not An Animal on the ABC before they actually started broadcasting the series – as is the way now, the ABC will actually commission shows on the strength of being able to sell the DVD and the book of the series through ABC shops. I figured this thing about talking animal animations was the legacy of the Aardman studio’s Creature Comforts.

When a copy of said DVD appeared on my doorstep, courtesy of FilmInk, I popped it on and realised that I Am Not An Animal was a very different show indeed. Rather than a bunch of animal animations built around real-life interviews with people, this show features a bunch of animals that, as the result of animal experiments, think that they are people; their dialogue is voiced by contemporary comedians. But the biggest difference is that, although you can get into Creature Comforts almost immediately, I Am Not An Animal takes perseverance.

I say with total confidence that if you watch and enjoy the show, you didn’t come to it by accident in the first episode and stick with it; you must have been promised by someone you trust that your dedication would pay off. The style of animation demands a lot from your eyes, the different voices, a lot from your ears, and all the information that has to be imparted to set the scene and the characters in that first episode just makes your head hurt by the end of it. But by about episode three, the satire is working a treat, you know which character does what, and the laughs are coming thick and fast. If you packed it in early, next time the opportunity comes up, give it another go.

I got to interview animation director Tim Searle for FilmInk just before the show started going to air in Australia, so I was able to slip a snippet onto NewsRadio the day of the first broadcast. But I never got around to re-cutting a long version, partly because the phone line wasn’t so good, and also because there was a lot of um… um…ing to edit out – much as I would have loved to pull some choice quotes of the DVD. Maybe one day when I’m cashed up and bored I’ll give it a go just for this blog. Meanwhile a short, narrative version of this interview will appear in FilmInk any minute now.

And just for anyone who isn’t aware, the show’s title comes from the now-legendary lines attributed to John Merrick, the so-called ‘elephant man’ in the 1980 film of the same name, directed by David Lynch and produced by Mel Brooks:


“I am not an animal! I am a human being.”


Timsearle


Demetrius Romeo: How did I Am Not An Animal come about?

TIM SEARLE: I started work with Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, trying to develop an interesting narrative animation. Peter Baynham, when we were working with Steve Coogan, had this vague idea that it should include talking animals and we worked it out from there. It was very much of Peter’s brain, and we started looking at various technologies that we could utilize to bring it to fruition and we ended up with the photocollage look that we ended up working with, mainly because it’s so productive as well as looking a little bit odd. It’s got some sort of vague realism without going completely realistic.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you mean it’s more productive?

TIM SEARLE: The thing is that we do comedy, and the way that animation has tends to have evolved over the last few years is that you take it to storyboard and thereafter send it off to a cheaper market for animation. I wasn’t really into the idea of doing that. What I intended to do when I set up in animation, was do animation.

We do comedy, and I think comedy is very easy to get wrong. A scene can be as easily destroyed by over-acting or by doing an animation drum solo, as easily as if it were too wooden or too simple. I think the animation part of the process is too important to just let go of, so we use a digital desktop system that enables us to maintain a good degree of control.

Demetrius Romeo: You’re right about it being very distinctive, that digital collage method. How did you hit upon the idea to use that sort of graphic?

TIM SEARLE: We’ve been using the desktop system, using vector graphics, flat colour, and I’ve always been into photocollage. Mainly we use that sort of stuff in background work and what-have-you. We were looking at all sorts of ways of realizing it and Peter had this idea that the animals should look very distinct from other talking animals, like Yogi Bear, in terms of standing up and walking around, in that it should look a bit awkward that these animals wanted to be human and have human characteristics. So we needed to explore a way that would give us some sort of realism without it costing a fortune. We looked at full CG [computer generated images], but ultimately we realised that we couldn’t realize the ambition of this series using CG. It would have been too restrictive in the number of environments we could have had and characters we could have built. So we needed to find another way forward so we got the guys whose software we’d been using and they wrote us a means of using bitmaps, effectively, so that’s the way we could use the photocollage.

Demetrius Romeo: There are samples of, I guess, early ‘demo’-versions of animations on the DVD, and I’ve got to say they’re nowhere near as interesting to look at.

TIM SEARLE: Bear in mind that that stuff was generated four or five years ago; the CG work is something that everyone has a very high expectation of with Dreamworks and Pixar people doing what they do. The benchmark is so high that you need to hit it or you’re always going to be on the back foot. I quickly dismissed the idea of using CG, even though Peter was quite enamoured of the idea of having it look quite naturalistic so that the bizarreness of the comedy would be even more dominant. But in the end he was as much of a fan of the way we ended up working as anyone else.

The other thing we tried was motion capture because Steve Coogan, who played the Horse and Martin the Sparrow because he was quite interested in finding a way of getting his acting facial characteristics into the animation. We looked at that, but that was all in its infancy and it was going to be too restrictive as well. A lot of that stuff, you can’t get in to adapt the code – or you certainly could at the time – so it was just going to be too proscriptive. We wouldn’t have been able to control it effectively, I don’t think. So I just decided one day that enough’s enough, and I came back and worked up a few character designs on the basis of what would I do if no one was telling me that we’ve got to do this stuff and showed them to everyone who needed to see ’em and they just saw it as a way forward. That part of the process went very, very quickly; we went from situation where it all looked like the project was falling to bits, to a commission and getting going in a matter of a couple of months. I was very pleased that we just bit the bullet and went for it.

Demetrius Romeo: I want to talk about the antecedents to the show. You’ve got a few different animation fore-runners to the show, Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, and another show you do, called 2DTV that is satirical and animated. Tell me how these two shows might have influenced where you went with I Am Not An Animal.

TIM SEARLE: Technically, they were very important because Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, that was the first thing we did using cell action, which was the digital tool we were using for I Am Not An Animal. That was the first one we cut out teeth on it. Also, we were using animals and they were quite surly and conversational. I’ve always been into the idea of animals, or characters, having a bit of depth to them. Those characters were very broad.

And 2DTV is a topical comedy show, so we learnt to work very quickly on that. It is topical, so up to eight minutes of a twenty-four minute show are made in the last four days up to transmission, so we have to work real quick in order to turn it around. In order to make six half hours for I Am Not An Animal, we needed to work well and work quickly. Both those projects enabled us to do I Am Not An Animal, in more ways than one.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve got great talent on hand doing voices on I Am Not An Animal – virtually the entire cast of Big Train plus Steve Coogan. A comment is made in one of the docos on the DVD that it would be too expensive to get the talent together to make it now if you were starting from scratch now.

TIM SEARLE: That was just an excuse from that exec from the BBC not to recommission it. I don’t think that’s true. I think the people who worked on it were such fans of the project that we would have been able to get them back.

Demetrius Romeo: With such a ground-breaking show, why weren’t BBC prepared to run with another season.

TIM SEARLE: Your guess is as good as mine. I really don’t know. It sounds presumptuous I guess, but we were working future episode ideas and we were looking forward to another series. I mean, we were critically well-received, and when people like Matt Groening of The Simpsons get in touch to say they thought it was excellent, then you think you’re on some sort of good path, but the BBC decided that because it didn’t get the ratings they were hoping for, they’d give it the chop.

Demetrius Romeo: I remember a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus where John Cleese says, “I wanted to get into program planning, but of course, I’ve got a degree.” You’re up against the same woes that comedians have been up against for some time.

TIM SEARLE: Well, the thing is with comedy, I think, if you make it animation, you’re making it a little bit harder for audiences to immediately grab. I’m Not An Animal, specifically, does take a few episodes to get your head around. I think comedy, generally, is one of those things that takes a while to bed in. You’d imagine that people at the networks might have grasped that one by now.

Demetrius Romeo: I must admit it did take me a while – at least the first episode. Once you get your head around the animation style and the characters, then you start to pay attention to what they’re saying and can enjoy it.

TIM SEARLE: The other problem with the first episode is we were so worried about setting the whole world up, setting up the whole rationale for how the animals got to where they got to, that the first episode is very plot-heavy and not as heavy on the jokes as future episodes. From episode three onwards, it settles right down, and each episode is funny in its own right, and we’re not so hung up on trying to explain everything all the time. I’m still proud of the first episode, but it’s just not as strong as the episodes that follow it, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: I know that the show copped a bit of flak early on because the animals are seen to be enjoying the environment of the lab where they’re being experimented on.

TIM SEARLE: Yeah. I think if anything, it’s an allegorical tale about people as much as anything else. It’s really having a dig at the way we all live our lives at the moment, in terms of people shutting themselves from real life. I think a lot of people, if they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere and had to fend for themselves, they’d be up the proverbial.

We all came to like the characters very much and sympathise with their plight. The fact that you’ve got this horse with literary pretensions who considers himself the leader and then Mark, who’s this bitter, fiercely ambitious sparrow with a penchant for writing bad, annoying songs. They’ve all got something about them which is a little bit irritating, and yet nonetheless they all get along as a group.

One of the things that we think it’s similar to is Dad’s Army: it’s a group of people who are all thrown together with a common cause, but their all different characters.

The backdrop of the vivisection lab was one of the things that got reported on early and the anti-vivisection lobby were quite vehement and got in early to criticise it without seeing it which is a shame. We were on the back foot from the start on that basis, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s a pity, but then you do make good fun of the animal liberationists as well, I’ve got to say.

TIM SEARLE: Well, to be honest the animal liberationist is deliberately displayed in an over-simplistic way, but it would have been predictable and unfunny to portray the liberationists as angels. But you’d have to be a bit uptight to take offence at that, I think. A lot of people without watching it might think that we were making light of the suffering animals, but we certainly were not. The animals in I Am Not An Animal naively see themselves and all other animals as people, and to start with they’re clearly idiots and they’re innocent idiots who have no idea of what’s going on around them, and that’s made very clear. It’s a joke about ignorance and snobbery and the theme running through the series is about how they deal with other more ordinary and arguably more dignified creatures.

And the suffering of animals has been portrayed in other animations: Cruella DeVil wasn’t exactly kind to the animals in 101 Dalmations, and Chicken Run was set on a farm where the characters are destined to end up in pies. Numerous stories feature animals heading for a grizzly fate from which they are rescued and I think we weren’t unusual in that respect.

Demetrius Romeo: No, but you actually pinpoint the foibles of humanity particularly well in the process. Because they have human traits, we really are looking at how people behave. I particularly like the rabbit from the call centre – that is so funny.

TIM SEARLE: Arthur Mathews – he’s a really clever guy. He wrote Father Ted and Big Train. He was doing that rant quite a bit – the little Irish voice at the call centre – and Pete had this idea if part of that guy’s brain in the body of a rabbit and just goes off on these little rants.

Demetrius Romeo: The humour works well, the satire hits its mark and the animation is groundbreaking. Where do you go next?

TIM SEARLE: I don’t know, to be honest. We hope that we can continue to do other interesting narrative projects and we shall endeavour to do so. We’re developing material so we’ll wait and see what comes of it. At the moment we’re working on a pilot for the BBC which is a sketch show, and the animation is shared between three studios, so we’re doing a third of this pilot, so that’s the immediate future. But as Baby Cow animation we shall endeavour to do other interesting narrative work.

We’re really proud of the project and the fact that it’s animated I like to think is the icing on the cake. It’s a great comedy project that happens to be animated.


Enough (Money for old) Rope(?)

Shortly after I wrote the rant that follows, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Denton and was able to put my criticisms to him directly. He accepted them with an open mind and answered them honestly, in the process making me realise just how much prejudice I was carrying. After you read this, do check out the interview.

I’m not always home in time on a Monday night to catch Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, and it’s a pity. I grew up – or failed to grow up – at just the right time to have Denton as a hero: someone who somehow fooled the powers that be to land a job that he clearly could do well, and that he clearly deserved  – the sort of job that traditionally would go to some half wit rather than the geeky, cheeky, clever, funny guy.

That show was Blah Blah Blah, and I mention it only to point out that before Denton left radio – the Breakfast shift on Triple M, which he claimed to leave because, amongst other reasons, he got sick of having to promote things like Big Brother – his advertising catchphrase seemed to be the Jewish equivalent of ‘blah blah blah’: ‘yadda yadda yadda’. The phrase came to the fore with comic overtones thanks to the likes of Seinfeld. But enough of the diversion. Back to Enough Rope.

One of the things I notice about Enough Rope when I do catch it is that it sits a little uneasily, and I’m not sure why. One of the reasons might be because it gives television commentators in newspapers reason to allow their senses to leave them long enough to make foolish generalisations like ‘finally we now have someone on par with Michael Parkinson here in Australia’. This is clearly a foolish thing to say, not because Denton isn’t ‘on par’ (which I take to mean ‘as good an interviewer’) with Michael Parkinson. Sure, Denton appears less subjective and tends to direct the interview with a slightly heavier hand, but he’s also funnier, and will pull out the comic armoury to corner his quarry when he feels it necessary. That’s pretty much ‘on par’ with Parky. But there’s no ‘finally’ about it; Denton always has been a great interviewer. Cast your mind back, if you will, to that fantastic yet sadly undervalued tonight show he had on the Seven network about a decade ago, and recall how good his interviews were.

Admittedly, those interviews were set up to be ‘events’ where the medium was also the message: when interviewing Peter Greenaway, the director responsible for such striking cinema as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and A Zed And Two Noughts, Denton chose to match the filmmaker’s style, having him brought onto the interview set between hanging slabs of meat. The proceedings were shot at weird angles, the cameras shooting between flickering candle flames. It was a hoot. Similarly, when interviewing the world’s greatest model (whoever it was that year), Denton did so while photographing her at weird angles. In a sense, Denton, as an interviewer, was coming at them from different angles. The show really subverted the expectations and the established norms of the ‘tonight’ show format. It also gave rise to the ‘musical challenge’ – itself an overhang from Denton’s sophomore show for the ABC, The Money or the Gun, on which a different band delivered ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a different style each episode.

So back to Denton’s new chat show, Enough Rope. It has few frills, and part of its thing is to include interviews with interesting people who aren’t celebrities (something he pioneered, again, on his earlier shows). Naturally, we only get to see the interesting ones – who knows how many dull ones never made it to the screen? But often they are utterly engaging, showing a side to a person or a profession that you would not expect. On the other hand, sometimes the celebrity interviews just fail to deliver. Other commentators have probably taken Denton to task for going a little easy on disgraced stockbroker Rene Rivkin. If they haven’t, heaps of ‘men on the street’ certainly have. But then, Rivkin has something that makes him special. He must have; he was featured on Australian Story recently as well. But whatever that something is, I can’t for the life of me work it out. If a poor person had benign brain cancer and was convicted for insider trading, he’d probably just go to gaol without getting on prime time television. Twice. Without his wife telling the nation that she resents him for losing her children’s inheritance. Heck. There’s probably been heaps of such poor people, and we just haven’t heard about it – because they’re poor!

Denton’s recent interview with Rachel Griffiths was mostly good, but there a few moments that, once again, sat a little uneasily. The introduction of Toni Collette in the audience was a little bit cheesy and stage-managed, not least of all because her (and Rachel’s?) publicist was sitting right next to her in the audience. Fair enough, the publicist has to be present at official functions featuring his or her clients, but that’s the thing: since the publicist was present, it was an official function. Collette didn’t ‘just happen’ to be in the audience. She wasn’t even ‘just a friend showing support’. This was a marketing opportunity. So a mutual admiration session, a back-slap-a-thon, ensued and though it was not overly long, and it was even quite touching, it was still a bit much. Thankfully, Denton was able to debase it a little with a partner-swapping gag.

I guess by this stage the glass was now half empty rather than half full, and it was a bit easier to not so much misinterpret, but interpret in less favourable light, some of Rachel Griffith’s less thoughtful comments. Admittedly, it is only through a good chat show that the interview subject will relax enough to let the unrehearsed answers slip rather than continuing to utter the glib, stock responses – but as the host didn’t pick up on them, and in some instances, set the context up for them, again, it brings about that uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right.

For instance, when Denton pointed out that Griffiths has described herself as ‘gawky’, and asked her how much the way she looked impacted upon her career in Hollywood, she replied,

I think if I looked like Charlize Theron and had my acting ability, I’d be making thirty million a year. … If I’d been offered all the Charlize Theron roles of the last ten years I probably would have just died of boredom.

I know Griffiths is saying ‘I realise I’m not universally considered to be eye-candy the way Charlize Theron is’ – which is true enough because while I wouldn’t kick Rachel Griffiths out of bed if she farted, if Charlize Theron farted, I’d try to bottle it to auction it online – but it sounds as if she’s saying ‘Charlize Theron can’t really act as good as I can but gets away with it ’cause she’s built the way she is’. And I suppose the imputation that may be extrapolated is that Charlize is none too smart either – otherwise she would have died of that boredom, what with all of those ornamental, non-draining Charlize Theron roles that Charlize Theron has had. (Look at the other side of the coin, Rachel – if you had Charlize Theron’s body, you would have had to use it to rub uglies with Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers!)

Later, Denton gave Griffiths the opportunity to explain, ‘in layman’s terms’ why exactly the Free Trade Agreement recently signed by Australia and the United States is going to be such an awful thing for Australian arts and media. The problem is that it will mean that there will be no protection of Australian product on the telly or radio – no ‘minimum amount of local content’ quota, which will mean that what we produce locally will have to compete with what’s produced in the US, and we don’t have the same budget or experience or know-how to create the same quality, or as big a market to be able to sell it for a pittance and so compete, in our limited market place, with US-produced programs. Or at least, that’s what I think it means. In a way, though, since I don’t really have a media job, what do I care that a bunch of people will be out of work? Some of them can join me in retail, or flipping burgers, where they belong!

In layman’s terms, according to Rachel Griffiths, the problem with the Free Trade Agreement with regards to Australian culture and media, is a loss of Australia’s cultural identity. She referred to that awful, harrowing past, when, to have a media job, you had to sound like you were from the BBC. Nobody heard an Australian accent on the wireless. “Everyone spoke posh” she said, putting on those posh, crisp, BBC tones as she said it, “And there was this great shame about ourselves.” According to Rachel, in the media dystopia, the cultural nadir that will ensue should the Free Trade Agreement go ahead (and it looks as though it shall), “we could very well be looking to a future where all the voices we hear or most of the voices we hear are likely to be American voices.”

Hello! Rachel, honey, the only way we’ve heard your voice on Australian television these last few years, your appearance on Enough Rope notwithstanding, is with an American accent. You’re the freaky, gawky, grave, token Aussie chick in the cast of Six Feet Under, don’t forget. Only, you wouldn’t know it, to listen to you on that show. Where was the Aussie accent then?

Besides which, we’ve lived through the shame of having to sound English on the air, we’ll live through the shame of having to sound American, if it comes to that. Rachel certainly has.

I guess I didn’t really expect Denton to make something of those things. Not now, anyway – although he might have fifteen-odd years ago when he had big hair (a mullet, in fact) and nothing to lose. I don’t know if he has mellowed or lost a bit of his bite or is just playing it a little safer. If he is still ‘hard-hitting’, his hard hits are softer than they used to be when he was young and hungry, and the industry was still mostly in the control of a stodgier, older guard in most dire need of a shake-up. Yet even if this were the case, we can at least relax knowing that he is passing on the flame to angrier and younger angry young men.

You see, the company that makes Enough Rope is Denton’s company. It’s called Zapruder’s Other Films. (Great name, isn’t it? Abraham Zapruder’s the amateur filmmaker who captured footage of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head exploding all over his good lady wife Jacqueline that fateful day in Dallas). Amongst Zapruder’s Other Films’ other films is the show CNNN which does take issue with a lot of the stuff that an older, wiser, seasoned Andrew Denton would, on his own show, possibly let pass.

Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions I’ve expressed, there is another side of the story worth reading.


First Impressions…

My friend Nos was on the phone doing his David Bowie impression. Having heard Mr Bowie speak for the duration of a press conference, come away with a recording of it, listened to it several times and then re-edited chunks of it for broadcast, I can say that Nos’s impression is pretty spot-on. In fact I did say it. Nos explained that he’d essentially ‘cracked’ the impression by imitating the way Phil Cornwell does David Bowie on Stella Street. It’s interesting, he noted, how it’s often easier to do an impression of someone when you’ve heard someone else’s impression of that person.

Opera director and occasional brain surgeon Dr Jonathan Miller, pointed out some time after helping launch the 60s satire boom with Beyond the Fringe that no one in Britain ever really did an Indian accent, but rather did their impression of Peter Sellers doing an Indian accent. This was probably mostly true, at least until the dawn of Goodness Gracious Me.

In a similar way, Nos says, he sometimes finds it helpful to see how someone else has caricatured a person, in order to work out how he’ll go about drawing a caricature. It would seem that the process is about working out what particular features communicate the essential nature of the face you’re trying to draw or the voice you’re trying to imitate. Sometimes it’s easier once you’ve seen what features someone else has latched onto – then doing it your way.

I often find myself doing the same thing as a writer, especially when I have to review a film or an album that I don’t particularly care about, and I haven’t yet worked out what exactly I think about it, or why. It helps to read what someone else has thought – what bits of the film or the music stood out for them. Usually I disagree with them, either on what they’ve latched onto, or what they’ve concluded from it, which is a good thing. When you agree, it’s much easier to paraphrase, rather than to construct your own set of arguments and conclusions.

Sadly, rather than constructing their own set of arguments and conclusions, or even paraphrasing, some people find it easier still just to change the byline at the top of the article, their only original input being their own name. What is most annoying, however, is that this level of plagiarism is nowadays an accepted mode of journalism. Particularly in a country like Australia, that has, per capita, more print media than any other nation, readers don’t appear so keen on reading anything original or in-depth; it just has to cover the bases. Journalists, therefore, don’t have to be particularly original or in-depth – they just need to submit something by deadline that covers the bases. Which is why you can browse through the arts pages of even the respected news dailies, and find that an underpaid staff writer has re-jigged the same press releases with only slightly more flair than the barely paid scribes at the free entertainment weeklies.

It’s probably worth noting that both Phil Cornwell and Nos ‘do’ Bowie by half singing everything in a heavily vibrato’d cockney tenor. That’s not how Bowie speaks, of course, but it’s quite often the way he sings. So if Bowie rings you and starts ‘singing’ his side of the conversation, rather than merely speaking it in a cockney accent, it’s probably Phil Cornwell or Nos on the phone and not the Dame himself.