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.