tion of a ‘‘ magazine concept’’ for TV, in which programs would be sponsored by several advertisers. In a memo dated July 19, 1951, he sketched out his rough idea for Today. His working title for the program was Rise and Shine. ‘‘ A morning communications show, which will give the news, time, weather, tips for commuters and which will feature a riseand-shine personality,’’ the memo said.
TV’s first ‘‘ rise and shine’’ personality, welcoming and inclusive, was Dave Garroway. His trademark sign-off was to give his audience a kind of blessing. ‘‘ Peace,’’ he would say, extending the palm of his hand.
‘‘ So as you leave the house into the day, you’re close to it at the beginning of the day, knowing where you’re going and what the world is like that you are going into,’’ he told his viewers when he first appeared, the shadowy images picked up by a mere fraction of American households. His syntax may have been tangled but he understood how morning TV worked. ‘‘ He does not crash into the home with the false jollity and thunderous witticisms of a backslapper,’’ one critic noted. ‘‘ He is pleasant, serious, scholarly looking and not obtrusively convivial.’’ It’s been the trick of every so-called ‘‘ personality presenter’’ since: an effortless ability to establish a rapport with an audience that eradicates distance.
Garroway loomed out of the set somehow, peering at his audience over gigantic hornrimmed glasses. He presided over it for nine years until July 1961. After the suicide of his second wife his behaviour became increasingly erratic, his last day a tragic example of a host who could not survive the pressures of a daily broadcasting schedule. He simply lay down on the studio floor and refused to get up if he did not get the conditions he demanded. It was unclear what they were, but shortly thereafter his retirement was announced by NBC. He shot himself in the head in his Philadelphia home when he was 69.
Watching Today during the past few weeks, I wondered about the fate of the present newsreaders, weather presenters and regular contributors. There’s just too much of Weaver’s ‘‘ rise and shine’’ personality; there’s so much going on it comes at us like exploding rice bubbles. It’s a bit like a televised club show with better wardrobe — gushing segments on celebrity gossip, endless sporting trivia and panels of leggy blondes discussing the perils of political correctness and the failure of feminism. It needs a good kick up its expensively upholstered arse; perhaps this coming week celebrating its history might do it. I’VE been avidly following Underbelly: Badness, the dense true-crime story of Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin and his constantly frustrated attempts to put a face to and track down gangland and underworld figure Anthony ‘‘ Badness’’ Perish. As with all the Underbelly franchise instalments, regardless of some hits and misses inside individual series, it is skilfully mounted, superbly photographed by Joe Pickering, gracefully choreographed and vividly edited.
Again, writer and producer Felicity Packard and director Tony Tilse are involved, and Burkhard Dallwitz provides the brilliant musical score. Production company Screentime’s producers are now so thoroughly steeped in the mythology of Australia’s saints and sociopaths they manage to bypass the countless legal hassles and create these compelling morality plays from their heinous material with deceptive ease. Deceptive because they must all fear their houses being firebombed by the crims whose lives they dramatise, or taken away by the lawyers who represent them. (There are no preview discs for Badness, no synopses and few production details, given the constant threat of legal action in the continuing Perish affair.)
Badness is as tightly ordered
first Underbelly, the terrible story of Carl Williams and his murderous underworld conspiracies and his investigation by the Purana police taskforce in Victoria. Again, as I felt with that saga, this new series is also like being locked in a suffocating dark box where life is defined by alcoholism, misery, misogyny, violence, loveless copulation and betrayal. It’s impossible to look away, so visceral is the storytelling.
While the characters are different in the Underbelly series, the formula remains largely the same and, for that, its devotees are grateful, like readers of great crime novels that feature the same protagonists. Think of the great series from James Lee Burke, C. J. Box or Michael Connelly. We want more of the same but want it to be just that little bit different. Sydney crime writer Peter Corris once called this ‘‘ endless variations on the same melody’’, describing his long-running series featuring private detective Cliff Hardy. But it’s also more than that.
The fact is notorious crimes have a profound resonance in our national life and, in some cases, even come to define certain places and periods. And it is important for writers and producers to engage with them to help us understand why. Sure, staring into the moral abyss of terrible events can be deeply unsettling but, as Neil McKay, the writer of the confronting Appropriate Adult, the story of Fred and Rosemary West, coming soon to Seven, suggests, an inconvenient truth lies at the heart of such investigations.
Terrible criminals such as Perish and his violent cohorts are not always creatures from another planet; nor is their corrosive nihilism. What is so disturbing is not that they behave so monstrously but how like the rest of us they so often seem. Since Sophocles, dramatists have engaged with the darkest areas of being human. Dramas about such events help illuminate them for us, and help to make us less afraid. LAST week I happened to catch Hardcover Mysteries, a fine new series on pay-TV’s CI channel that stylishly travels inside the minds of America’s most popular novelists to explore the crossover from fact to fiction. How much of today’s great mystery writing springs from the imagination and just how much of it is ripped from the headlines?
In this new eight-part series top fiction crime writers share stories of real-life cases that inspired them to write or captured their fascination. What a bunch of master storytellers and acute psychological observers of human nature. All accomplished talkers too, including Harlan Coben, Linda Fairstein, Sara Paretsky, Kathy Reichs and Joseph Wambaugh.
One of the things I’ve found, having interviewed many crime writers for this paper and on the panels of writers’ festivals, is that they are passionate about engaging with readers, articulate and shamelessly delighted to discuss their processes, especially if the bar is open.
Last week I saw David Baldacci look at the 1964 murder of Washington socialite Mary Meyer. At the trial of her accused killer the existence of a secret diary is revealed detailing an affair with president John F. Kennedy, which leads many to conspiracy theories and became the partial basis for Baldacci’s bestseller, Absolute Power. This week it’s Lisa Scottoline’s turn. Her thrillers often explore family relationships and here she untangles a shocking murder-for-hire scheme plotted by the 15-year-old victim herself.