25 April 2007


On Sunday ABC TV showed Curtin, a transgenre feature which walked a not always clearly defined line between dramatised documentary and biopic. While the reconstruction of the period (late 1941- early 1942) looked authentic on the surface (every male character's hair - if they had any - was firmly fixed with unguent) I have a few bones to pick with the producers/scriptwriters, including:

  • While all the principal characters were based on real people, many, if not most, of them would have been unfamiliar to the average viewer, let alone people like me with a smidgin of knowledge about the era. For example Robert Menzies was otherwise well played by Bille Brown, an actor who looked nothing like him. Why couldn't each character have been introduced with a caption explaining who they were?
  • Was everyone in high places, even political adversaries, on first name terms with each other in the 1940s? In my recollection that degree of familiarity (or artificiality) didn't come into common use until the late 60s - early 70s.
  • Language. Was "step up to the plate" (meaning to assume responsibility) in common - or even uncommon - Australian use in the 1940s? What not "go into bat for" which has both cricket and baseball connotations?
  • Terminology. The "Japanese Imperial Army"(shown in a caption near the end credits) should be "Imperial Japanese Army".
Pedantry aside, in yesterday's Australian John Hirst had an opinion piece "A fascinating PM, if not our best one" about the "docudrama", as he classified it.

He makes some good points:

Curtin was a wartime leader who had no stomach for war. Neither by temperament nor knowledge or experience could he handle the business of how best to use armed men to win a war. He solved this problem by handing the control of Australia's forces to American Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Southwest Pacific.


We admire Curtin for keeping to the task that he knew he was not suited for. This becomes the drama rather than the old story of the good Curtin and the bad Menzies.

It is an oddity that Labor's best prime minister could remain in the job only because he was propped up by his wife, his daughter, Ben Chifley and Menzies.

McInnes plays John Curtin magnificently. The other actors do not resemble their subjects closely. McInnes has Curtin's body: the tormented face and limbs in private, and the thrusting energy in public. It is that contrast that makes Curtin so fascinating, even if he was not our best prime minister.

Who, I wonder, does Hirst, a venerable Australian historian, think is (or should that be was) our best PM?


Miss Eagle said...

I think Curtin - the period his PM'ship and up to the 1949 requires a whole mini-series. Such a significant time. Some great players - including the bureaucrats like Nugget Coombs and John Crawford. Could this one-nighter be regarded as a pilot and could someone please fund the long version? I think Hirst would probably go for Deakin as the best. Unless I'm mistaken Hirst leans to the conservative side so it is unlikely that he would give the kudos to Curtin.

Shortshadow said...

In today's (yesterday's?) Australian Greg Sheridan, normally an ABC basher, had, if not a good then at least a neutral word to say about the program: he described it as a "serviceable tele-movie".

On ABC RN's Counterpoint the other day there was a discussion about Nugget Coombs and his aboriginal policies - see
here for details, inc transcript. Warren Mundine thought that Nugget's advocacy of self-determination rather than assimilation was misguided.

Miss Eagle said...

Thank you for the reminder about the Nugget Coombs stuff on Counterpoint because I missed hearing it. Well, I tried to read the transcript - but it was such utter and complete and absolute drivel. Standard for this program. If this program is meant to be the ultra-right's answer to one P. Adams it fails dismally. I'm no great fan of Adams but at least he is a reasonably competent and professional broadcaster and has some brilliant guests who, by and large, he handles rather well. OK, Mundine has his own views borne out of his own experience - but even he cannot express the whole of Aboriginal experience. I'm an anglo-celt out of Northern Australia. I have spent a good bit of my life living in communities with significantly sized Aboriginal communities - the majority of whom were either living close to traditional lifestyles and/or had strong cultural roots. Their experience - and mine - is a world away from the drivel on Counterpoint. No recognition of the virtual enslavement of Aboriginals by huge pastoral companies - and the eviction of Aboriginal people from their own land when an attempt was made to get them decent wages and give them an economic base and recognition of economic participation. Don't think they'd want to talk about that on Counterpoint. Miss Eagle's view is that when she sees traditional Aboriginal women on the make up counters at David Jones and Myers selling cosmetics to white women, she will then believe that racism is on the run in this nation. You see, I have the view that most businesses do not want to employ Aboriginal people. For some, like the mining industry, it can be in their own interests. But, for Aboriginal people who negotiate with the companies and include employment in the contract, the reality can be quite different from negotiated hopes. Counterpoint won't tell us about that. For Aborigines who look nearly white and who have adopted modernist consumerist values, the outlook can be better but not guaranteed. Look at the problem of racism in the AFL and you'll see what I mean. (Of course, the battle is now switching to sexism.) The facts are that there is no one size fits all for Aboriginal people just as there are not for the rest of us. One of our colonialist, paternalist attributes has us regarding Aboriginals as all of one piece and that if we find the magic formula and invest money in it, then things will be OK. And, of course, if things are not OK it won't be our fault it will be theirs. The thing is that a quick trip to Uluru, a reasonable shot of good will, and the ministerial wielding of power does not give insight. Living closely with the people does. Nugget did this. His views might not have provided perfection either - because he, like the rest of us, was human and flawed. Now can Counterpount and CIS own up to that. Sorry for the rant - or at least its length. I am biassed, react badly to pontificating drivel from any source, and I like what I know about Nugget Coombs. I was at his memorial service at St Mary's in Sydney. I sat among people who knew him, who worked with him, and for him. I listened to their conversation. I believe Nugget was a great Australian and great human being. The Counterpoint lot, including Mundine, have a long way to go before they come close to matching him.