First watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ ALL of my pre­vi­ous films re­volve around what hap­pened to Aus­tralia in the 70s; I was a teenager then and my aper­ture was wide open, and that’s when Aus­tralia was at its most con­fi­dent and flam­boy­ant,’’ says film­maker Paul Clarke of his am­bi­tious new po­lit­i­cal doc­u­men­tary se­ries Whit­lam: The Power & the Pas­sion. ‘‘ I wanted to tell the Whit­lam story as a grand pas­sion: how we fell for this enig­matic stranger to Aus­tralian pol­i­tics; how the coun­try changed with him and how we came to blame him for ev­ery­thing that went wrong.’’

Clarke is a highly suc­cess­ful cre­ator of doc­u­men­tary TV, un­known to the pub­lic but among the most re­source­ful and in­no­va­tive film­mak­ers we have. His style is sub­jec­tive and em­pa­thetic. It’s all about mak­ing our so­cial his­tory re­lat­able, tak­ing ir­rev­er­ent ap­proaches to ma­te­rial the past presents, and Clarke al­ways looks for pas­sion and hu­mour in what he dis­cov­ers.

Then he un­der­scores it with mu­sic, de­vel­op­ing nar­ra­tive se­quences and giv­ing each a song to con­vey the mood. The ti­tle of his two-part se­ries is taken from the Midnight Oil song — ‘‘ Oh the power and the pas­sion/ Oh the tem­per of the time’’ — and there are also songs by the Easy­beats, Bryan Ferry, Ed Kuep­per and Ste­vie Wright. The witty sound­track by Kyls Burt­land es­tab­lishes con­text and a sense of place ef­fort­lessly. Few film­mak­ers ap­pre­ci­ate so read­ily as Clarke that the tone of a film, its level of ab­strac­tion, is set as much by sound as by pic­tures. Clarke calls it ‘‘ play­ing mu­sic upon the col­lec­tive mem­ory’’.

Af­ter his other telling pieces of cul­tural an­thro­pol­ogy — Bomb­ora: The Story of Aus­tralian Surf­ing, Aus­tralian rock se­ries Long Way to the Top and Wide Open Road, his story of the Aussie car — Clarke knows how to make TV his­tory work. It surely is the ideal medium for pre­sent­ing what Bri­tish his­to­rian Si­mon Schama calls ‘‘ the busi­ness of rep­re­sent­ing some­thing that’s no longer there’’. There’s no bet­ter means, surely, to find ways to per­suade us to sus­pend our dis­be­lief, to spend a while imag­in­ing, to para­phrase Schama, ‘‘ we are in­deed in a world akin to dreams or mem­o­ries, a fugi­tive uni­verse’’.

And Clarke’s Gough Whit­lam is al­most a dream fig­ure, hubris per­son­i­fied and larger than life (‘‘he stood out like a pel­i­can in a mur­der of crows’’). And, when he fell, he cre­ated a fault line in our his­tory that still di­vides us. Clarke says in his pro­duc­tion notes that af­ter the Novem­ber 1975 fall from grace, his fa­ther, un­til then a La­bor man, vowed never to vote for the party again and didn’t. And a bloke who lived a few doors down from his fam­ily carved ‘‘ Sack Kerr’’ in huge let­ters into his front gar­den with a square-mouth shovel. I’m sure he never for­got, or for­gave, ei­ther.

‘‘ In de­scrib­ing the se­ries and ask­ing for peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate on talk­back ra­dio last year, I was sur­prised by the emo­tion his name still en­gen­ders,’’ Clarke says. ‘‘ Neil Mitchell on 3AW asked me, ‘ Why would we want to see a pro­gram about the worst prime min­is­ter in Aus­tralian his­tory?’ ’’

So Clarke and his pro­ducer Penny Robins, along with ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mark Ham­lyn, set out to cap­ture the times with what Ham­lyn calls ‘‘ a counter-in­tu­itive por­trait to what might be ex­pected’’, and some­thing so lat­eral — this is cer­tainly no con­ven­tional bio-pic — that they hoped it might break open the po­lit­i­cal dis­course. (Clarke de­scribes it as ‘‘ hard-boiled journos and tough axe-grinders from the Left or Right bang­ing heads’’.)

He and his other pro­duc­ers take plea­sure in avoid­ing the ex­pected, the se­ri­ous and the wor­thy way po­lit­i­cal sto­ries are of­ten de­liv­ered on TV. Whit­lam is at the cen­tre — ‘‘ his char­ac­ter and his story al­ways in our viewfinder’’, as Robins says — but the doc­u­men­tary tells the wider so­cial story, too. Pinned to po­lit­i­cal mark­ers is an en­com­pass­ing nar­ra­tive of one of our most tur­bu­lent eras. As An­drew Den­ton says, when we be­came con­scious of Whit­lam, ‘‘ it was like a Tech­ni­color per­son had walked out of a black-and-white movie’’.

With bril­liantly sourced archival and home­m­o­vie footage, clev­erly in­te­grated talk­ing heads and a thump­ing sound­track, Clarke wit­tily gives us what he calls a story that reads like Shake­speare in sa­fari suits. Or ‘‘ Or­pheus, in a bo­gan un­der­world, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the sub­urbs with his song of change’’. Clarke is as ac­com­plished in nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism as he is at film­mak­ing, able to take com­plex ideas and give them life on the screen. He works with a kind of stream-of-con­scious­ness ap­proach, in which one im­age or thought evokes an­other, pro­pel­ling us along the quixotic Whit­lam jour­ney with a kalei­do­scopic sense of nar­ra­tive that’s quite ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

There are 46 on-cam­era in­ter­views with peo­ple who worked with or were touched by Whit­lam, su­perbly pho­tographed by John Big­gins and Frank Flick us­ing what Clarke calls ‘‘ a close-up-and-per­sonal style’’. They in­clude John Howard, Bob Carr, Gra­ham Freuden­berg, Bill Hay­den, Bob Hawke, Mungo MacCal­lum, Ge­orge Ne­gus, Barry Jones, Ian Sin­clair, Jean Kitt­son and Max Gil­lies. They hold lit­tle back, the Lib­er­als in­ter­viewed on the whole more de­cent to Whit­lam than those from the La­bor side, though Howard rather bit­terly, al­most sneer­ingly, dis­avows any no­tion of a mythol­ogy. It’s a pity.

The first episode deals with the way the out­sider Whit­lam had to fight to dom­i­nate the La­bor Party and even­tu­ally be­come prime min­is­ter, his only free ride com­ing when he was adopted as a hero by the coun­ter­cul­ture. The sec­ond chap­ter takes us through the ‘‘ crash-through-or-crash’’ way he im­ple­mented sweep­ing changes at break­neck speed (‘‘pol­icy by tantrum’’, ac­cord­ing to Kim Bea­z­ley).

And then, as Phillip Adams says of the prime min­is­ter he once ad­mired, ‘‘ He drove the govern­ment over the cliff.’’

Colour­fully and some­times quite po­et­i­cally — Clarke has a fine turn of phrase — the first chap­ter sets the chang­ing con­text of Aus­tralia. Whit­lam, in­tel­li­gent, flu­ent and imag­i­na­tive, emerges from an Ir­ish-Catholic La­bor cul­ture dom­i­nated by men who look ‘‘ like a gallery of Wil­liam Dobell por­traits’’. Things slowly be­gan to change about 1966, the year pa­tri­ar­chal prime min­is­ter Robert Men­zies fi­nally re­tired and when op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War — to

Gough Whit­lam, pic­tured in the doc­u­men­tary open­ing La­bor’s 1972 elec­tion cam­paign, pro­voked strong pas­sions

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