The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Graeme Blundell Tour SBS One. de France: The Story, Fri­day, 8.35pm, Tour de France, live from Satur­day, June 29, 10pm, SBS One. The Time of Our Lives, Sun­day, 8.30pm, ABC1.

E’S rid­ing that bike like a sprocket head­ing for the moon, which is not a place, it’s a planet, and he’s rid­ing to that star,’’ in­toned the mer­cu­rial broad­caster Phil Liggett dur­ing the 2000 Tour de France. And the man they call ‘‘ the voice of cycling’’ has hardly paused for breath since, still search­ing the back of his brain for im­ages to con­vey cycling’s ‘‘ world of hurt’’ to his mil­lions of lis­ten­ers.

He’s back on Satur­day night to call the race again with those flights of rhetor­i­cal bril­liance, when SBS cel­e­brates the event’s 100th edi­tion.

The cov­er­age will be even more ex­ten­sive than last year’s, when more than six mil­lion peo­ple tuned in to watch the race un­fold across the French coun­try­side and the SBS web­site recorded its high­est ever aver­age daily browser num­bers.

This year the tour is more spec­tac­u­lar too, for the first time fea­tur­ing a twi­light fin­ish on the Champs-El­y­sees in Paris for the fi­nal stage. The race also vis­its Cor­sica, which will host the Grand De­part for the first time, and in­cludes the climb on Mont Ven­toux and a dou­ble as­cent of the Alpe d’Huez. Only three rid­ers have been able to take the yel­low jersey on the Alpe and keep it to Paris. With its bends, steep gra­di­ent and crowds of spec­ta­tors, it has been called ‘‘ a climb in the style of Hol­ly­wood’’.

Aus­tralia’s Cadel Evans, the 2011 win­ner, will bat­tle it out for the mail­lot jaune with last year’s run­ner-up Chris Froome and two-time cham­pion Al­berto Con­ta­dor. Aus­tralia’s own team, Orica-GreenEDGE, which de­buted last year, lines up with Matt Goss and Si­mon Ger­rans seek­ing its first win.

And, TV voyeurs that we are, we’ll be

The Tour de France will be a spec­tac­u­lar af­fair in this, its 100th edi­tion

wait­ing in those dark mo­ments on the couch af­ter midnight for a sight of sur­real car­nage, barbed wire, up­turned press mo­tor­bikes, bleed­ing cam­era­men, and torn Span­dex scat­tered across the road. ‘‘ The his­tory of the Tour de France was chis­elled into th­ese walls of rock by men will­ing to ask more of them­selves, know­ing that this time for some, the an­swers from their bod­ies would be . . . no more,’’ Liggett once said.

The Tour is such riv­et­ing TV be­cause it is sim­ply the most phys­i­cally gru­elling and emo­tion­ally de­mand­ing en­durance event in the ath­letic world, sado­masochis­tic in its in­ten­sity. Even more so this year when it’s sup­pos­edly drug-free.

Some see it as a kind of fa­ble, a mod­ern ver­sion of a me­dieval mys­tery play that in terms of suf­fer­ing and re­demp­tion tells us some­thing of the na­ture of mas­culin­ity and our pas­sion for hero­ism. That’s just one of the things that make it such a unique TV ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing in which to im­merse your­self, even if you know lit­tle of the sport.

Abound­ing with para­dox, cycling at this level is also ar­guably the most mod­ern sport, the cov­er­age brought to us in fast al­ter­nat­ing cin­e­matic grabs as the race ac­cel­er­ates to­wards and away from us on our TV screens. And in this dig­i­tal era it is per­fect for TV, which just loves sen­sa­tion­al­ist cov­er­age of the real thing. The Tour is the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity-TV se­ries as new cam­era and edit­ing tech­nol­ogy puts us on a bike our­selves, mak­ing a break up a moun­tain with the star rid­ers, on the road scram­bling for our ma­chines in a spill, or heav­ing along, breath­less in the pelo­ton.

The word — drawn from the French where it means ball or, more loosely, pla­toon — is the term for the bunch, pack or main group of rid­ers in a race. Like most of us re­ally, even if we have never owned a bi­cy­cle, al­ways find­ing our­selves stuck some­where in the mid­dle, hop­ing des­per­ately for one of Liggett’s ‘‘ trips to the moon’’ — which is how he de­scribes a rider’s legs sud­denly find­ing mo­men­tum from nowhere.

The race’s in­ten­sive cov­er­age takes us be­hind the scenes, peep­ing, spy­ing and watch­ing strong peo­ple break­ing down, crying, suf­fer­ing and con­fess­ing. We want to see how peo­ple cope as their dreams col­lide with re­al­ity; it’s the ba­sis of al­most ev­ery­thing we watch. And it takes place in a con­trived, bru­tally hard-nosed com­mer­cial set­ting. In fact the race started al­most in­hu­manely in pur­suit of the franc, the rid­ers given lit­tle sup­port or back­ing, de­scribed at the time as lit­tle more than ‘‘ chain-gang work­ers’’.

As Tour de France: The Story, a fine French doco di­rected by Jean-Christophe Rose, which SBS is air­ing on Fri­day (with an English com­men­tary), rather dra­mat­i­cally shows, the race started as a pub­lic­ity stunt in 1903 (there were breaks dur­ing the world wars).

Sales of L’Auto news­pa­per, an­ces­tor to to­day’s L’Equipe, were fall­ing badly and edi­tor Henri Des­grange was des­per­ate to find a way to win a cir­cu­la­tion war with com­pet­ing sports news­pa­per Le Velo. Mirac­u­lously, as it turned out, a six-day race, which be­came the tour, was sug­gested to Des­grange as a sales pro­mo­tion.

Sixty rid­ers de­parted from the now fa­mous Cafe au Reveil Matin in Mont­geron on the south­ern out­skirts of Paris at 3.16pm on July 1, and quickly be­came face­less shad­ows sway­ing in the dust. Of th­ese, 21 were spon­sored or pro­fes­sional rac­ers; in the pack were dis­rep­utable rac­ers who com­peted un­der pseudonyms.

The film has won­der­ful footage of the first fin­ish — Rose uses dig­i­tally en­hanced colourised archival footage — the rid­ers ar­riv­ing in Paris af­ter 10,000 hellish kilo­me­tres, faces caked in mud. Then they are herded un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously to­wards a fin­ish­ing line be­hind a gate that the cam­eras of the time didn’t even bother film­ing.

Per­versely, for the ex­ploited rid­ers at least, the tour was an in­stant hit. L’Auto’s cir­cu­la­tion soared and Des­grange went down in his­tory as the fa­ther of one of the great­est sport­ing events in the world. But rac­ing re­mained a sketchy busi­ness in the be­gin­ning and was not al­ways held in high re­pute — co­caine, chlo­ro­form, bull’s blood and the crushed tes­ti­cles of wild an­i­mals the drugs du jour along with co­pi­ous amounts of booze, rid­ers even re­fu­elling in bars and cafes along the route.

Since then, as Tour de France: The Story il­lus­trates so vividly, the race has un­der­gone

‘ H

many changes: from the demise of the Bri­tish cy­clist Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mont Ven­toux, to the per­for­mance of Lance Arm­strong, the sur­vivor, and his ul­ti­mate un­mask­ing as an un­con­scionable drug cheat, and the suc­cesses of Eddy Mer­ckx, nick­named the Can­ni­bal.

And like the great race it­self, Liggett’s com­men­tary re­mains a vir­tu­oso dis­play, unique on TV, one of the medium’s great pre­sen­ta­tions. Helped by his off­sider, cycling vet­eran Paul Sher­wen, he holds it all to­gether for view­ers, work­ing with a crew of more than 80 and now broad­cast­ing into the US as well as South Africa, Bri­tain and Aus­tralia. They are the English-speak­ing voices of cycling, do­ing in­cred­i­ble dis­tances dur­ing the race, al­ways a day ahead of the rid­ers in each day’s fin­ish area com­men­tary box. There’s a world feed, then in­di­vid­ual coun­try splits and they some­how segue be­tween each, ad­just­ing their com­ments to the dif­fer­ent time zones and the rac­ers of most in­ter­est to their home coun­tries.

And there are, of course, what are known as the ‘‘ Ligget­tisms’’, those free-flow­ing flights of ver­bal fancy, of­ten com­pared to Jack Ker­ouac on a mind-al­ter­ing bike tour. Lis­ten out for

‘‘ the elas­tic has snapped’’, ‘‘ he’s danc­ing on his ped­als’’, and ‘‘ he’s hold­ing on by the skin of his shorts’’. He mixes and matches his well­worn ex­pres­sions, the com­bi­na­tions more en­ter­tain­ingly out­landish year by year.

Some­how Liggett and his team also man­age to add a kind of trav­el­ogue com­men­tary to that of the race, squeez­ing in men­tions of Joan of Arc, Napoleon’s armies and La Belle Epoch. If the race passes a vil­lage where Jeanne Moreau lived or a de­serted beach where Brigitte Bar­dot still wan­ders alone, they try to squeeze in a ref­er­ence. It’s breath­tak­ing work: cycling is the one sport to in­te­grate land­scape with furious ac­tion, each con­tribut­ing equally to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

SBS adds a lit­tle more touris­tic elan, with pop­u­lar chef Gabriel Gate re­turn­ing for the ninth con­sec­u­tive year with his Taste Le Tour, a gas­tro­nomic jour­ney that fol­lows the tour route. He vis­its each of the re­gions just be­fore the rid­ers en­ter them, meet­ing the patissiers, vignerons, fro­magers and, of course, the

cuisiniers. And while we will all lick our lips at Gate’s rata­touille nicoise, smoked trout ter­rine and tar­ti­flette, we’ll re­ally be wait­ing for the footage of gen­darmes crash­ing into some cy­clist’s ho­tel to seize the drugs, the ju­di­ciary ar­riv­ing in their black cars. Ah, plus ca change,

plus c’est la meme chose.

‘‘ LIFE is es­sen­tially a cheat and its con­di­tions are those of de­feat; the re­deem­ing things are not hap­pi­ness and plea­sure but the deeper sat­is­fac­tions that come out of strug­gle,’’ Scott Fitzger­ald wrote. He could have been talk­ing about so many of us who reach our 40s and feel life some­how has passed us by. He also wrote:

‘‘ At 18 our con­vic­tions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide.’’

The char­ac­ters in the new 13-part ABC se­ries The Time of Our Lives, which started last week (if you missed episode one you can still catch it on­line at ABC iView), haven’t quite reached that point but some of them are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand the first law of mar­riage: af­ter the un­sat­is­fac­tory res­o­lu­tion of do­mes­tic ar­gu­ments, you never re­ally make up, you just get used to the way you dis­ap­point each other.

The show was cre­ated by Judi McCrossin and Amanda Higgs, who worked to­gether on

The Se­cret Life of Us, the hit show about love, sex, friend­ship, car­pet rash, vodka shots and how much pizza to leave in the fridge for break­fast. A big hit for Net­work Ten (those were the days), the se­ries ran from 1999 to 2003 and re­volved around a group of friends in their mid-20s to early 30s, liv­ing in a St Kilda block of flats. It was the most watched Aus­tralian drama in its tar­get de­mo­graphic of 16-to-39-year-olds for three years run­ning.

Ever since, it seems, this new se­ries has been on the minds of McCrossin and Higgs — an­other show with sim­i­lar re­la­tion­ship themes but deal­ing with char­ac­ters in their late 30s and 40s. They write in their pro­duc­tion notes that they wanted the new show to ask the same ques­tions they were ask­ing of them­selves as their own lives went their hap­haz­ard way. ‘‘ Do you need a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship to be happy? What do you do if you are in an un­happy re­la­tion­ship, but have chil­dren keep­ing you to­gether? Can co-par­ent­ing with an ex-part­ner re­ally work?’’

You get the sense that the lives of McCrossin and Higgs were so over­wrought, they just had to make a drama out of them.

The se­ries fo­cuses on on the Tivolli fam­ily — the name con­jures for me the Tivoli (yes, I know the spell­ing is dif­fer­ent!) va­ri­ety theatre cir­cuit which flour­ished for more than 70 years in Aus­tralia, with theatres in most cap­i­tals, and fea­tur­ing a rich mix of co­me­di­ans, singers, ma­gi­cians and ac­ro­bats. Not a bad metaphor for the mod­ern fam­ily: laugh­ter, back­flips, tears and back­stage shenani­gans. And the Tivol­lis, presided over by pa­tri­arch Ray (Tony Barry) and ma­tri­arch Rosa (Sue Jones), have a lot to deal with, es­pe­cially, as the pro­duc­ers put it, ‘‘ set­tling in with the one you love; still try­ing to find the one you love; get­ting away from the one you used to love’’.

It deals with those con­flicts that can hap­pen when fam­ily mem­bers have dif­fer­ent views or be­liefs that clash, es­pe­cially when it comes to par­ent­ing. And the way that peace­ful res­o­lu­tion in dis­putes be­tween them re­quires skills in open, two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ne­go­ti­a­tion, com­pro­mise and re­spect for the other per­son’s point of view. Not skills on dis­play early on in this se­ries, and prob­a­bly not in all that many mar­riages, for that mat­ter; there is an un­der­stated but painful re­al­ism on dis­play in this be­guil­ing show.

As Woody Allen once re­marked, re­la­tion­ships are driven by the law of in­com­pat­i­bil­ity: I’m not in­com­pat­i­ble, you are.

This is top-class drama, funny at times, the way fam­i­lies can be even at their most dys­func­tional, but so emo­tion­ally hon­est it’s likely to bring tears. In last week’s first episode (di­rected with calm poise by Chris Noo­nan) daugh­ter Chai Li (Michelle Ver­gara Moore), adopted from Viet­nam as part of Op­er­a­tion Babylift in 1975, was hu­mil­i­at­ingly left at the al­tar by her boyfriend. In this week’s episode, the fam­ily’s el­der brother Matt (Wil­liam McInnes) blind­sides his ob­ses­sive wife Caro­line (Clau­dia Kar­van), who he­li­copter­par­ents their young son obliv­i­ous to the emo­tional chaos she cre­ates.

It’s all quite sub­tly done, a char­ac­ter-based drama with un­ob­tru­sive but ex­pres­sive di­rec­tion, lovely cam­er­a­work from di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Jaems Grant with a kind of voyeuris­tic sub­jec­tive feel, and script­ing from McCrossin that’s crisp and witty. Her writ­ing, ex­pressed in short, sharp scenes, re­lies on sug­ges­tion and im­pli­ca­tion. She makes us do some of the work. There’s none of the end­less chat­ter that once char­ac­terised Aus­tralian TV drama; in­stead she con­cen­trates on the ur­gency of dis­cord and that emo­tional equiv­a­lent of turn-the-page story ten­sion, con­flict be­tween char­ac­ters.

The sto­ries of McCrossin and Higgs ob­vi­ously con­nect their tal­ented en­sem­ble cast, which also in­cludes Shane Ja­cob­son, Stephen Curry and Jus­tine Clarke. They’re all ter­rific, so em­pa­thet­i­cally th­ese peo­ple, you for­get you’ve even seen them be­fore.

The pelo­ton heads down the Champs-El­y­sees in the fi­nal stage of the Tour de

France last year

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