Wallpaper queen meets a sticky end
Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst 9pm, SBS
FROM her birth in a mud hut in outback Queensland, Florence Broadhurst had many incarnations: remorseless self- promoter and personal history fudger; member of a vaudeville troupe in India and Southeast Asia; singer and dancer in 1920s Shanghai; ‘‘ French’’ couturier in London; ‘‘ English’’ painter, charity queen and socialite in Australia; truck saleswoman; wallpaper design pioneer; and, in a wasteful final act, victim of a brutal, unsolved murder. She was nothing if not the mother of reinvention.
Clearly Broadhurst couldn’t have the standard documentary treatment inflicted on her, and Gillian Armstrong has delivered something that is anything but: 80 minutes vibrating with energy, music, irreverence and humour, to say nothing of the ravishing wallpaper Broadhurst only began creating in her 60s.
Great liberties are taken with archival photographs and interviews are interspersed with dramatised scenes filmed with actors, all spiced with a tart, posthumous commentary provided by an imaginary Broadhurst.
Unfolding Florence certainly puts fresh twists on the old- photo- andanecdote approach to televisual biography, but there are moments when the whole enterprise threatens to buckle beneath the weight of its gimmickry: silly sound effects, dialogue unfolding from mouths in old photographs like silent movie captions, and cut up, animated photos that feel like a mix of one part Terry Gilliam animation to nine parts Terrance and Phillip, the flatulent Canadian superstars from South Park .
Then there’s the ominous clock ticking away the minutes during a re- creation of Broadhurst’s final walk to work early on the morning of the day she was murdered in her studio in the eastern Sydney suburb of Paddington. As she approaches the studio door, the clock revs up and begins unfurling the seconds as well. I sucked in my breath, only for the door to close behind her. It turns out she was killed much later in the day. So why the bloody stopwatch?
All in all, I’d prefer to curl up with Helen O’Neill’s book Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives , but there is much value to be had here between the more irritating stretches, not least the interviews with admirers, interior designers, eastern suburbs matrons and former employees ( especially a down- to- earth but clearly still besotted David Bond). Yet, amid all the plaudits, it’s hard to escape the feeling that for much of her life Broadhurst was an extraordinarily self- absorbed goose to whom even her child was at best peripheral. Her son, Robert Lloyd- Lewis, seems almost paralysed by sadness during his interview here; still feeling like the only child of a woman who would rather not have reproduced, he quietly observes: ‘‘ Motherhood was not her forte.’’
Nice wallpaper, though.
Mother of reinvention: Felicity Price as the young Florence Broadhurst