Wall­pa­per queen meets a sticky end

Un­fold­ing Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broad­hurst 9pm, SBS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - James Jef­frey

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

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