Cor­po­rate pro­mo­tion dis­guised as his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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.

Stephen Match­ett

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.

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