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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Whit­lam: The Power & the Pas­sion,

which he had com­mit­ted Aus­tralia — was just be­gin­ning.

As so­cial com­men­ta­tor Jane Caro says, we watched jumpy film footage of mil­i­tary men run­ning and fall­ing in fear of an in­vis­i­ble en­emy, pic­tures of bod­ies and the sounds of medi­vac helicopters ev­ery night on the TV news. When the old-time po­lit­i­cal Left was un­able to chal­lenge con­ser­va­tive con­trol, a lo­cal coun­ter­cul­ture slowly, even timidly, emerged in the at­tempt to, if not sub­vert, at least by­pass the main­stream.

Grad­u­ally, ex­per­i­men­tal theatre, street plays and pageants, folk songs, the surf­ing sub­cul­ture, Oz mag­a­zine, movies and our own rock mu­sic changed the way young peo­ple saw the world. Aus­tralia’s dated and in­con­sis­tent cen­sor­ship laws be­came a mat­ter of satire and ridicule as the 1970s loomed, and flout­ing them and be­ing ar­rested was con­sid­ered es­pe­cially cool.

The coun­ter­cul­ture gained mo­men­tum from this op­po­si­tion to cen­sor­ship and also to the Viet­nam War, and by the early 70s it was as­sert­ing it­self in fem­i­nism and Abo­rig­i­nal and gay rights. Young peo­ple be­gan to share the emerg­ing rad­i­cal stu­dent Left’s taste for con­spir­a­cies and its dis­taste for au­thor­ity, with­out too much con­sid­ered thought — they could place Richard Nixon’s name along­side those of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler with­out a qualm. As Clarke il­lus­trates so vividly, this is the world Whit­lam laid claim to, the old guard of the La­bor Party left in the past.

The se­ries is su­perbly nar­rated by Judy Davis, an ab­sent in­ter­locu­tor, her calm, mod­u­lated voice in­ter­rupt­ing the flow of re­flec­tion only oc­ca­sion­ally, ca­pa­ble of as much scorn as ad­mi­ra­tion. And the nar­ra­tive is or­ches­trated with a star­tling bar­rage of per­sonal pho­to­graphs and archival footage — be­tween 360 and 400 pieces cut to­gether by edi­tors John Pl­ef­fer and An­toinette Ford. They con­stantly sur­prise with their jux­ta­po­si­tion and the way they are in­ter­wo­ven with small, clev­erly staged en­act­ments, vi­gnettes re­ally, or­ches­trated in dif­fer­ent de­grees of close-up or in a slightly stylised pre­sen­ta­tion.

Some will loathe what Clarke has done and see only a cartoon-show trav­esty of his­tory, an un­con­scionable ex­er­cise in po­lit­i­cal mys­ti­fi­ca­tion and a trans­par­ent at­tempt to vin­di­cate the rad­i­cal pol­i­tics of the late 60s and early 70s. (As Clarke says, it has be­come the great white­washed era of Aus­tralian his­tory.)

Some won’t like the lyri­cism, the mu­sic and the way Clarke so skil­fully ap­plies his now well-de­vel­oped ir­rev­er­ent sen­si­bil­ity as a TV his­to­rian.

Oth­ers sim­ply will dis­dain the idea of an ap­proach to his­tory that makes doc­u­men­tary ac­ces­si­ble for a main­stream prime-time au­di­ence. TV is in­im­i­cal to in­tel­lec­tual dis­course, they’ll say, and can­not deal with ideas or ex­plain com­plex is­sues that re­quire a good deal of painstak­ing ex­pli­ca­tion to be un­der­stood, even min­i­mally. Good luck to them. I loved it, and I loved Gough; I laughed out loud as I watched and cried too, just as I did then. I was there and that’s how I re­mem­ber it. As Midnight Oil’s song con­cludes, ‘‘ It’s bet­ter to die on your feet than to live on your knees.’’ WHEN that svelte Bri­tish drama­tist Stephen Po­li­akoff be­gan his cel­e­brated se­quence of TV dra­mas as writer-di­rec­tor with Shoot­ing the Past in 1999, he de­clared a mis­sion to ‘‘ slow tele­vi­sion down’’. It was ap­par­ently a de­lib­er­ate reaction against the fre­netic, fast-cut­ting, flashy cam­er­a­work and rapid-fire speech that had be­come the norm. And this kind of pro­gram-mak­ing con­tin­ues in this HBO­dom­i­nated era of long-form, highly cin­e­matic, stylis­ti­cally sat­u­rated sto­ry­telling.

I still re­mem­ber Shoot­ing the Past. It was a drama about a Lon­don man­sion hous­ing a huge li­brary of rare old pho­tos that was taken over by a new owner: an Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire bent on re­mov­ing the pic­tures and re­mak­ing the house as a busi­ness col­lege. A haunting story, it was re­ally about how pho­to­graphs in the right con­text are in­vested with an al­most metaphysical pres­ence and just how im­por­tant a cul­ture of his­tory is to a so­ci­ety. It was su­perb TV. And so is Danc­ing on the Edge, Po­li­akoff’s new five-part BBC se­ries, even if at times the el­e­gant sto­ry­telling is slightly frus­trat­ing.

It is pro­moted as an ‘‘ ex­plo­sive’’ drama set in the early 30s that fol­lows a black jazz band led by Louis Lester (Chi­we­tel Ejio­for) as it finds fame and royal pa­tron­age on the so­ci­ety party cir­cuit. In fact, this finely made drama has a won­der­fully glacial, highly the­atri­cal way about it. It in­fu­ri­ates and en­trances at the same time, its dia­logue is man­nered and oblique, and the mo­ti­va­tions of its char­ac­ters charm­ingly opaque.

While re­search­ing his ac­claimed 2003 TV pro­duc­tion, The Lost Prince, the tragic story of Ge­orge V’s youngest son, Po­li­akoff dis­cov­ered two of the king’s other sons were jazz fans. The fu­ture Ed­ward VIII was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the smoke-filled base­ments of Lon­don’s jazz clubs in the late 20s. He even hung out with the Duke Elling­ton band and was a lit­tle ob­sessed with singer Florence Mills, known as the ‘‘ Queen of Hap­pi­ness’’. And Ed­wina Mount­bat­ten, wife of Lord Louis, is fa­mously sup­posed to have had an af­fair with a West In­dian jazz mu­si­cian called Les­lie ‘‘ Hutch’’ Hutchin­son, a favourite of the royals, and one of the in­spi­ra­tions for Danc­ing on the Edge’s fic­tional Louis Lester.

‘‘ I find that a won­der­fully haunting time to set a drama,’’ Po­li­akoff said. It was not only a sump­tu­ous, ro­man­tic pe­riod but one ob­sessed with the new mod­ernism: the artis­tic avan­tgarde dream­ing of a new world free of con­flict, greed and so­cial in­equal­ity. Talkies and the wire­less spread quickly and the recorded voice en­tered peo­ple’s homes for the first time.

Po­li­akoff gets the pe­riod just right, a lush spread of art deco in­te­ri­ors, those bold, el­e­gant 30s Hol­ly­wood-style fash­ions, and a de­li­cious jazz score from long-time Po­li­akoff col­lab­o­ra­tor Adrian John­ston. The mu­sic is swell, gor­geous re­ally, re­flect­ing the har­mon­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated Elling­ton feel of the later 30s, send­ing roy­alty quick-step­ping pas­sion­ately across the dance floor.

As the mu­sic plays on, the world is danc­ing on the edge, a melt­ing pot af­ter the great crash, fas­cism and World War II not far off. Po­li­akoff sees the era as a time of vast con­trasts, a win­dow when a more tol­er­ant world seemed pos­si­ble, when black peo­ple were able to min­gle freely with more lib­eral mem­bers of the es­tab­lish­ment.

Of course those hip mu­sos still had to deal with the for­bid­ding Alien Regis­tra­tion Of­fice, the threat of their ‘‘ in­fe­rior’’ sta­tus lurk­ing be­hind ev­ery band­stand.

It’s all so el­e­gant and gor­geous and, be­ing Po­li­akoff, rather cere­bral at the same time, and the cast is a cracker. Ejio­for, im­pos­si­bly chic as an ac­tor, is louche and pre­pos­ter­ously posh as the velvet-tongued Lester, John Good­man does a turn as the sin­is­ter Master­son, with a weak­ness for young women, and Matthew Goode con­vinces with a nice con­tem­po­rary mu­sic hack’s edge, a bit wide and al­ways on the make. Jac­que­line Bis­set is still stun­ning as the reclu­sive Lady Cre­mone (a char­ac­ter based loosely on Baroness Pan­non­ica de Koenigswarter, the Roth­schild who be­came pa­tron to Th­elo­nious Monk).

The plot is hardly labyrinthine (we’ve been spoiled by all those Scan­di­na­vian dra­mas where plot is char­ac­ter) but the lan­guorous pac­ing wins you over and Po­li­akoff se­duces with his quirky sto­ry­telling shrewd­ness. It’s a lovely piece of in­tel­li­gent and sen­sual view­ing.

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