DEN­NIS GLOVER on the pol­i­tics of the play­ground

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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 .

Big tar­get strate­gies — Page 6

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.