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Through a Glass Mission Brown: Cosmo, “Paper Giants” & the 70s

Over the last two nights ABC television has presented a semi-fictional drama based on the advent of the woman’s magazine ‘Cleo’ in the Australian publishing market of the early 1970s. “Paper Giants” depicted in what many would consider to be a romanticized fashion the early career of Ita Buttrose and her tempestuous employers, the Packers (Sir Frank and Kerry). In itself an entertaining piece of TV, unlike the more lightweight brethren of the Australian TV drama world (i.e. commercial soap operas)  this two-parter not only tried to keep the viewers focused for a tick over three hours on the episodes, it also tried to resonate historically plus give some kind of social insight into the various issues it portrayed (women’s rights, sexual discourse, the pressures of work on families, etc).

Overall, from my amateur, child of the 70s, male perspective I think “Paper Giants” was an enjoyable piece of television and yet marginally of value as an interpretation of the changes underpinning Australian society and history at that time (i.e. the pre-Fraser years). However some of the themes appeared to be historically muddied or too narrow in focus, relying too much on the self-appointed importance of ‘Cleo’. Also the underlying premise, that the beginnings of a woman’s magazine run by Ita Buttrose and the Packers could provide a unique and telling insight into Australia as it was then seems to me at best a problematic position.

Taking the last point first, is the story of the ACP’s radical answer to ‘Cosmopolitan’ a solid entry point for a TV drama to examine what Australia was like in the early 70s? In all honesty no, and this isn’t the fault of the show’s producers. At the risk of taking the higher and broader approach favoured by historians of yore the most telling way to understand what was happening in Australia to Australians before and during the events of the 1975 dismissal is through the story of Gough Whitlam and his federal Labor government of 1972-1975. “Paper Giants” attempted to reflect itself against Gough’s rise and fall, showing the younger staff on ‘Cleo’ firmly behind Whitlam’s spirit of the times if not his policies, whereas the character of Kerry Packer was seen as representative of much of the old conservative business establishment of the time, writing of the ALP government as economic wreckers. However the technique of using a ‘people’s level’ standpoint to look at grand sweeping social and historical changes can only go so far. Just as one wouldn’t use ‘War and Peace’ to understand Napoleon’s 1912 invasion of Russia or “The Sullivans” to understand World War Two, “Paper Giants” is more a series of vignettes about Whitlam-era Australia. To get a far more useful and telling insight through a TV drama on the times that were arguably the most tempestuous of the last 50 years of the twentieth century the first and best option always will be “The Dismissal”:

Portraying the differences in how young Australian women dressed, found out about sex toys or struggled to find a balance between work and family as was done in ‘Paper Giants” is arguably too superficial, too focused on trivial minutiae of day to day life, or even non-specific to the era. The gender wars, fashion, culinary trends and all those kinds of social issues are always in a state of flux, the difference being the actual things we wore, drank, listened to, watched, played with etc etc. On the other hand the political and social spirit of the Whitlam era is utterly unique and needs to be seen through the two most significant lenses of the time; Kerr’s sacking of the government in 1975 and end of the Vietnam War for Australia by 1973. Both of these issues have been dealt with very successfully by Kennedy-Miller mini-series from the 1980s, and it’s an unfortunate shame that “Paper Giants” can’t tread new steps in the footprints of these programs.

There are other stories about Australia from this era that could also be just as important and just as instructive as to how Australia progressed as a nation and as a society during the 70s which have as yet not been aired. I recall with tremendous clarity another story that perhaps was far more divisive and far more influential, even though it’s origins were hardly nationally important. When Kerry Packer decided that the TV coverage for test cricket in Australia should be his on the Nine Network, and the establishment failed to do what he wanted, the same larger than life media magnate effectively destroyed the establishment of the game internationally, creating the World Series Cricket circus which for 2 years divided loyalties and sparked bitter legal, even diplomatic conflicts. That would be a highly suitable subject for the same kind of production presented in the style of “Paper Giants”.

How about Jack Munday, the BLF and the Green Bans placed on the planned redevelopment of The Rocks in the early 70s? The boat people influx from South East Asia after the Vietnam War? The anti-Kerr protest movement post-1975, perhaps tied in with a postscript on the decline of Gough Whitlam to 1977? A mini-series showing how the single most important youth program on Australian TV grew (i.e. Molly Meldrum’s “Countdown”)? Or a docudrama based on the most controversial soap opera of its time, “Number 96”? Whether from high or low culture, national politics or sport; there are more interesting and arguably just as important stories from Australia’s seventies history that could and should be told on TV in the early 21st century.

The second problem facing “Paper Giants” is the historical veracity of the program and the associated historical significance of “Cleo” itself. There were without doubt some generic accuracies relating to parts of the story. Jack Thompson did pose semi-nude for “Cleo” and at the time he was shacked up with two sisters. Kerry Packer and his brother Clyde did  struggle to deal with their father’s regime and it was true that Mike Willesee was almost the first centrefold for the magazine. However the whole significance of a racy publication that had a smaller circulation than its far more established and conservative stablemate ‘Women’s Weekly’ must be carefully weighted. How important was “Cleo” in depicting sexuality and nudity during the early 70s in Australia contrasted with more popular and arguably more important media as embodied in “Number 96”? For those who shaped Australian business and public policy magazines such as “The Bulletin” and “The National Review” were arguably just as crucial. Men still had access to the old “Australasian Post” which was perhaps just as significant in terms of readership and influencing Aussie male culture as “Cleo” was for women’s culture. Then there were local and imported books ranging from Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” through to Alex Comfort’s “Joy Of Sex”. “Cleo hardly failed to inspire a culinary or fashion revolution in Australia, insofar as much of the impetus for these changes came from immigrants coming to this country or young Aussies coming back from overseas. Perhaps “Cleo” and the whole Packer/Buttrose collaboration as depicted in “Paper Giants” was most important historically because it was a symptom of the times, not a catalyst or causal agent. And of course journos and publishers are besotted with the idea of being the men and women who shape how society thinks (without understanding sometimes the consumer of the media can make their own mind up without guidance from a sensationalist magazine).

If one was to sit back and let “Paper Giants” do its first and primary job as a television show and entertain the viewer then I think there are far too few current Australian productions that can do what this docudrama did. It may have been 70s History-Lite or Women’s Rights Through Media 101, but it was a good story reasonably well told for an audience which may not have anywhere near the intimacy of knowledge of the subject nor the personal experience to pick huge holes in the narrative’s historicity. As a summation and reflection of a time when Australia changed more radically than it had for generations, tinted with rose colour mini-series glasses it’s was better than to be expected. However like almost all semi-fictional TV or movie adaptations of real events the underlying medium itself as well as the cribbed short cuts in terms of explaining the politics and society of the times means it fails to really inform as well as entertain. By taking its subject too seriously whilst dressing it up in both the fanciful and the vaguely historic it contorts our past for those who weren’t there in ways that aren’t always accurate.

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He’s Not Dead Jim: An Evening With William Shatner

If anyone could be given the accolade of being a self-made post-modernist superman in the world of popular entertainment then the unbackable favourite for such an accolade would have to be William Alan Shatner. Best known through his TV roles as a star ship captain, a veteran cop, an eccentric lawyer amongst dozens of other roles, as well as being a song stylist, writer, horse trainer and all round entertainer Shatner has taken self-aware parody and a congruent earnestness to levels never seen in contemporary pop culture. Denigrated as a has-been, he records an album of theatrical white-man rap backed by the incredibly credible Ben Folds called ‘Has Been’. Defined by his iconic status as Captain James T Kirk (the original and still the best) in ‘Star Trek’, he not only ran towards the type-casting he also undermined it with roles in movies such as ‘Free Enterprise’, or poking fun at his fans with the famous “Get a life…” sketch on ‘Saturday Night Live’. The man cannot be separated from the act, and yet his act is not necessarily the sum of the man.

Now I will freely admit that my interest in William Shatner is almost exclusively based on his role as Kirk on ‘Star Trek’. I’ve seen his performance as Bob Wilson in ‘The Twilight Zone’ classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and some other incidental movie roles. I was not particularly interested in ‘TJ Hooker’ (although I do pride myself on my trivial knowledge of who was his lead male co-star in that show…and the answer is Adrian Zmed), and his work in the role of Denny Crane in ‘The Practice’ then ‘Boston Legal’ has mostly slipped me by.  Like any Shat-man fans I love listening to his truly unique recitation of the songs ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ on his classic album ‘The Transformed Man’, and I still recall watching with great hilarity his take on ‘Rocket Man’ from the 1978 Hugo Awards.

I’ve both volumes of his ‘Star Trek’ memoirs and there was a rather intriguing TV show some years back called ‘Invasion Iowa’ that perhaps gave us the best insight into Shatner the performer; this was a favourite of mine from the later Shatner oeuvre. I couldn’t tell you much about his other activities such as his horse breeding nor his charity work. It goes without saying that his professional career has been wide, long and varied in scope and I’ve but dabbled in watching it.

On reflection it would be incredibly hard to take some of this body of work seriously if you didn’t actually read or watch his off-camera discourse on these adventures in the world of film, television and music. Or taking into account his classical training as a theatre actor, his accomplished legacy of working with many greats of stage, screen and recording studio. You don’t reach the level of popular appeal he has by being a simple one line running gag, nor can his 50-odd year place in the public eye be seen as a stable career of excellence and artistic integrity. For every Emmy Award winning performance as Denny Crane there has been a B-grade movie role or a TV commercial which has shown Shatner happy to flog himself as a mouthpiece for whoever will pay his way. So the question is, how can such a confusing melange of genius and banality, of self-referential piss-taking and brutally keen seriousness about his craft and his life experiences be all mixed up in the one Canadian celebrity? Is William Shatner utterly egotistical (as perhaps feuding ‘Star Trek’ co-stars George Takei might contend)? Or is the man behind James T Kirk a contradictory cultural phenomenon that no one including the man himself can get a hold on?

I don’t know if I got any definitive answers from his presentation ‘William Shatner Live: Kirk, Crane and Beyond’ which I took in on the evening of Tuesday April 5th at Sydney’s State Theatre, but I sure as hell found the man on stage to be utterly engaging and entertaining. Over the course of an almost three hour interview/recitation/comedy routine/confession/self-serving celebrity roast William Shatner ranged from the unaware comedian, saying and doing things that raised as big a laugh as one could expect from perhaps a Mr Magoo come to life, then with a knowing inflection of his words, a cutting remark to his interlocutor Jonathan Biggins, or a simple change of posture the audience were signaled this was one big act from the great man. Not afraid of a self-deprecatory insight he dangled like a worm on a hook for his audience to swallow, hook line and sinker, there was also some rather pointed remarks about the environment, education, friendship and most affectingly addiction. One minute he was regaling his fans with stories of being held in a crushing grip of the testicles thanks to a sign language capable gorilla, then the next he was recounting the story of the death of his previous wife under the most tragic of circumstances. The presentation had a strange mix of embarrassment and guffaws, self-induced exorcism and hammy silliness, perhaps drawing a look on many an audience member’s face mirrored in this classic look of bemused exasperation from Shatner as Kirk:The moments that we came perhaps closest to Shatner at his most truthful were in those times when he spoke about himself with self-deprecatory comments, remarking upon his willingness to take almost any job available, his thankfulness at being cast as ‘Star Trek’s’ Kirk, and his effusive praise for his friends. His discourse on matter environmental were a little too naive, a little too simplistic and it was disingenuous to plead ignorance over the feud he has been part of with most of the other cast members from ‘Star Trek’. A more critical observer would have preferred real insight, or perhaps less happily a rant that whilst not pleasing could have been more honest. However to expect more from William Shatner is unreasonable; he was there to make people engage with him first and foremost, not reflect on the capabilities or flaws of George Takei.

At show’s end there came one final masterpiece of Shatner-esque post-modern strangeness. No doubt inspired like so many other overseas celebrities to somehow connect with an Australian audience by going straight to the old trick of performing a local classic, William Shatner sang/rapped/declaimed the Men at Work classic ‘Down Under’. It was as if the same man who had taken on Cyrano de Bergerac followed by ‘Lucy in The Sjy With Diamonds’ was now channeling a significant phase in Aussie pop culture. To top it off he merged this worldwide Australian song performed in his own inimitable manner with Gough Whitlam’s oration from the sacking of the Federal Labor government on 11th November 1975. There was something hilarious yet compelling watching Bill in only a few moments give all his mock-Shakespearean acting skill to a line such as “…he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich”, then scant seconds later recite historical words like “Kerr’s curr” and “…God save the queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General”. If he hadn’t won over his already compliant fans by now at Sydney’s State Theatre he never would.

So where does this leave me when contemplating William Shatner? He’ll always be ‘my’ Captain Kirk from ‘my’ Star Trek’. He will also always be a seriously funny man who has achieved more than one could possibly expect considering his self-evident flaws as a performer. Perhaps he could be considered to be a walking celebrity Peter Principle, having reached the level of his incompetence and made that his successful career schtick. Maybe I’m being harsh; he has given so much amused or addicted joy to cynics and geeks alike. Ultimately William Shatner is not Kirk, not Crane, not Hooker or the Transformed Man. William Shatner is just that…the one and only Shat-man.

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Where Is The Australian ‘Treme’?

In the golden age of Hollywood particular studios were well known for their excellence in specific genres. Universal delivered wonderful horror films, MGM glorious technicolour musicals and Warner Brothers gritty crime dramas. Then, with the advent of television cinema changed, the old studio structure broke down, wunderkind directors and their producer associates shopped their cinematic vision from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox, via United Artists, Sony etc etc. There was no one corporate entity who could claim to be the wellspring par excellence of a specific form of the moving image.

Then, along came HBO.

Within a seemingly short time Home Box Office created a slew of seriously wonderful television dramas that have (I would argue) instituted a golden age in American TV not seen since the 1960s. ‘Oz’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Rome’, ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Generation Kill’, ‘Treme’, ‘Dead Wood’, ‘True Blood’, ‘Treme’, ‘Carnivàle’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ constitute a body of work that the previously mentioned studios would be hard put to match qualitatively in the 1930s through to the 1950s. These are mature and intelligent television programs when if anything the general TV environment has been been dominated by the so-called reality show, leading to such mind-numbingly low brow product as ‘Jersey Shores’. As one section of the TV watching public can be challenged and entertained by a vision of a Marine unit’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the day to day problems faced by a New Jersey crime family, a more populist and undoubtedly less discerning audience is happy to be fed the TV equivalent of a large Big Mac meal as they gorge on so-called ‘American Idols’, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and then told everything they do is validated thanks to Oprah Whinfrey’s pop-psych mega-rich bullshit.

Now whilst this may sound like a paean to the elite level of American television culture, what is my actual concern is where does this place the Australian TV industry and its viewers. Where is our ‘Treme’, our ‘Oz’? Whilst there has been a slavish and eager attitude by the commercial  networks to replicate the baser aspects of US TV product, or an almost gentle reassuring approach to drama through well trod genres (the crime show, the medical drama, the family soap), hardly anyone has fronted up and given us anything close to the best of HBO. ‘East West 101’ from SBS has been a rare exception, with a gritty realism drawn from such predecessors such as ‘Wildside’ and ‘Phoenix’. However this is an object lesson in what is a sorry comparative lesson in Australian TV culture. The ABC hasn’t delivered anything like these programs for years, and its dramadies have been based on the same tired old genres as the commercial networks. ‘Rake’ might be an entertaining diversion but how many law programs do we need (remember ‘MDA’?). At least they aren’t pumping out the utterly banal Logie friendly ‘Packed To The Rafter’ type of domestic drama. However our public television networks can do better.

Foxtel’s ‘Showcase’ has made a minor effort thanks to the likes of ‘Spirited’ and ‘Satisfaction’ however their supposedly more meaty dramas ‘Love My Way’ and ‘Tangle’ have trod paths that are depressingly familiar (i.e. family angst) and only one step removed from soap operas. They are not cinematic in terms of their narrative nor in their complexity of character and direction. Whilst some may argue there are no bigger issues than what happens around the kitchen sink or the dinner table domestic tragedies and the minutiae of invented people barely different from us makes for unsatisfying TV.

So, where are the Australian TV shows willing to look at our past and our present, our fantasies and our realities through a 12 part, four or five season well-financed and creatively intelligent vision that is uniquely ours? The Kennedy Miller mini-series of the 80s were a good start but they haven’t been embellished on or used as a developmental phase. ‘Underbelly’ has used the semblance of HBO style without the substance, whilst local movies such as ‘The Boys’, ‘Animal Kingdom’ and ‘Snowtown’ have given us movies which could be the kernel for such TV programming. Our history and our current society are rich veins for HBO-like mining if only there was similar bravery and fiscal liberalism from our production houses. Until someone rises to the challenge our local television landscape will be relatively barren, populated by vapid reality shows and innocuous soaps, and viewers like myself will continue to devour the likes of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Treme’ and ‘True Blood’.

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