DENNIS GLOVER on the politics of the playground
THE task of the satirist is to expose the folly of an age. The good ones can change our language and the way we view our rulers, but the geniuses can compel a society to see itself from an entirely new angle and realise something is wrong. They’re our intellectual and moral coalmine canaries.
It was the same in 5th- century BC Athens, when the first satirists lampooned politicians, philosophers and hoi polloi alike. While the Greeks had Aristophanes, Australians have Chris Lilley, writer and director of the ABC hit television series Summer Heights High .
Until recently our most important satirical creations were Jane Turner and Gina Riley’s characters Kath and Kim, whose moronic materialism summed up the age of aspirationalism. Politicians competed for their votes by beating a drum as hollow as the foxy ladies’ heads. While still rating highly, the series is in decline in a critical sense, succumbing inevitably to self- parody. ( The appearance of the ultimate unreflective suburban Australian hero, Shane Warne, surely spelled the beginning of the end.)
But perhaps it was a victim of its success in more ways than one: it made us see what we were becoming and we didn’t like it. In the same way that our fixation with Fountain Gate pointed with some inevitability to John Howard’s 2004 election victory, the appeal of Lilley’s battling secondary school may tell us something about his defeat.
In 2007, Ja’mie King, Year 11 student from Hillford Girls Grammar (‘‘ one of the expensive private girls schools in the state’’), embarks on a sociological expedition to the ‘‘ boganish’’ and ‘‘ povvo’’ Summer Heights High as part of an exchange program to show the fantastic amenities available in the public and private education systems.
Ja’mie’s behaviour immediately belies her claim that just because she’s rich doesn’t mean she’s a bitch. Her welcome speech to the school assembly gets straight to the point: ‘‘ Some people always go, ‘ Private schools create better citizens’, but I would say that they create better quality citizens. Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into uni and make a lot more money, while wife beaters and rapists are nearly all public school educated. Sorry, no offence, but it’s true.’’
She thinks she knows why parents choose public over private education: snobbery. ‘‘ In the outer suburbs ugly people breed with other ugly people and end up with really fugly kids. In a rich area, hotter people breed with other hot people and have hotter kids.’’ ( If there’s one thing Lilley understands, it’s social class.) Along the way, Ja’mie causes mayhem, pretending to be a lesbian, because it’s cool, and to raise money for African AIDS sufferers to fund the Year 11 social. When her dishonesty inevitably gets her into trouble, she tries to buy her way out of it with her mother’s wealth.
While cyclone Ja’mie is ripping through the school, the newly appointed director of performing arts, repressed homosexual Mr Gregson, is busy exploiting the memory of a student who died recently of a drug overdose to create a new school production about ‘‘ a teacher who cares’’, Mr G: The Musical.
His attempts to keep ugly and special needs students out of the production give us some of the show’s most biting social commentary: ‘‘ These kids have had a life of not being good enough; surely they know it by now.’’ Mr G is the public figure we know so well, the supreme egotist and faker keen to attach himself to other people’s tragedies as long as the spotlight remains fixed firmly on him.
Then there’s the character who most elicits our sympathy, the troubled and disruptive Year 8 Tongan student Jonah Takalua. From a singleparent family, Jonah is at his third school in 18 months and can’t yet read.
The reaction of the teaching
to persecute him or subject him to the superficially well- meaning but essentially sham social experimentation typified by the student welfare officer, Doug Peterson, who places Jonah in every conceivable type of doomed rehabilitation program from a student contract to Polynesian cultural awareness training.
While Jonah can be his own worst enemy, the fact is no one knows how to bring out his undoubted talents, illustrated by his considerable if poorly channelled wit ( one of his tags is 68IOU1).
His break- dancing crew is challenged for school supremacy by an exclusive ‘‘ no wogs’’ troupe whose graffiti comes straight from the beach at Cronulla: ‘‘ I grew here, you flew here.’’ Eventually and ironically, it’s Doug Peterson who drags Jonah from the school, to be sent back to Tonga.
But one person does care for Jonah: Mrs Palmer, head of the school’s remedial centre, Gumnut Cottage, the place to which the losers are shunted, out of sight, out of mind. And in the final touching episode, which displays the gift of pathos Lilley demonstrated at the end of his previous comedy series, We Can be Heroes , Jonah proves that with the help of his fellow remedial stream losers he can learn to read.
Let’s not try to over- interpret Lilley; his primary intention, after all, is to make us laugh. But he does it by getting us to laugh at ourselves because this is surely about contemporary Australia: affluence unmatched by selfknowledge; selfishness that’s indulged and rewarded; faux idealism that does more harm than good; the nuisance of the underclass; the tolerated bigotry; but also the redemption that results from faithfulness to our beliefs.
Perhaps most tellingly, it happens in a place we’ve all seen in real life, a run- down public school where performing arts centres are the desires of hopeless dreamers.
Lilley’s public school is indeed the perfect analogy for a society whose unequally distributed affluence has led it to lose its moral bearings.
If the portrait of aspirational Australia in Kath & Kim helped us partly understand Howard’s electoral success, then Summer Heights High perhaps explains why Australians eventually rejected him.
Lilley embarrassed us into acknowledging what we were in danger of becoming. The Kath & Kim voters have been outnumbered by those of who watch Summer Heights High .
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