Corporate promotion disguised as history
THE mail is in on the history of the post office in Australia and the news is less average than ordinary. The first episode of this two-part documentary has the feel of a vanity video made by a company that wants the world to pay attention to its sterling services.
When it comes to communication now, understandably it’s all electronic. The days when people sent letters to each other are long gone; all that turns up in most people’s letterboxes today are offers from usurers and final demands from creditors.
But even if Australia Post’s best days are behind it, that’s no reason for a commemoration of the romance of the mail, a phrase that does not exactly inspire. Certainly the way the post transformed Australia is a substantial subject. The creation of the bureaucratic state made it possible, and mass communication of the written word changed the way people understood their identity.
Life wasn’t local when personal and public news reliably arrived across countries and continents. And the role stamps played in shaping a national identity independent of the empire merits a program of its own.
But it takes the skill of a substantial social historian to integrate the history of an institution and the society it serves; skill the team responsible for this show does not demonstrate.
The size and scope of the subject overwhelm this documentary. There are brief grabs of experts, including well-regarded historian Ross McMullin, talking about the role of the post in Australia’s past. Clare Wright provides occasional commentaries that are a good deal more engaging than the narrator’s.
Stamp of nostalgia: Randall Mettam as Charles Kingsford Smith
But the history is secondary to human interest, which is not all that interesting. There are re-enactments of mail coaches galloping, of bushrangers robbing postmen and of diggers on the goldfields writing letters. None of this adds anything, making this a rare documentary: one that needs more talking heads and less action.
Some of the special effects, notably the cartoonish movements in faux historical art of great moments in postal history, are amateurish.
But above all the script lacks any sort of chronological or thematic sequence, as if the editors wanted to ensure everything they had was used.
In the end this is an exercise in corporate nostalgia, defined by the program’s central subject, the postie pilot whose run covers the Simpson Desert. The shoot, involving two aircraft, must have cost a fortune, but the idea that letters are essential in the age of satellite phones says a great deal about the way the world has changed faster than the mail service.
It is entirely appropriate that this documentary is being shown on the History Channel.
He’s funny, talented, and seems, in his many media appearances, to be a helluva nice guy. Of course I’m about Chris Isaak, pictured, not the ubiquitous Glenn A. Baker, who hosts this videotaped, slightly awkward press interview in a Sydney hotel. More singing and less jabber from the interviewer — who regularly talks over his subject, derails him when he gets interesting and frequently trips over his own tongue — would have helped. A little clever post production, especially with regard to the audio levels, wouldn’t have gone astray, either. TV doesn’t often get made faster, or cheaper, than this. I have a love-hate relationship with this program, that I suspect tracks its uneven output. Just when I start to loathe it because it seems to have become with better sets, it pulls out a trademark conversation with precision timing between six or seven Walkers on telephones, and the characters practically effervesce. Kitty and Kevin are depressed, uncle Saul is set up on a date with someone Justin met at an NA meeting, and Sarah’s intervention in Kitty’s depression goes comically awry.