Annabel Crabb lets us know what our national lead­ers are cook­ing up

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ AMAN may be a pes­simistic de­ter­min­ist be­fore lunch and an op­ti­mistic be­liever in the will’s freedom af­ter it,’’ Al­dous Huxley once wrote. It might be the tag line for Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabi­net, which re­turns this week, and not to the nether re­gions of the dig­i­tal chan­nel but to prime-time ABC1.

It’s the en­gag­ing and rather off­beat po­lit­i­cal in­ter­view se­ries in which the re­li­ably droll and slyly in­quis­i­tive ABC po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor eats and talks food and recipes with her sub­jects while dip­ping into their bi­ogra­phies.

The idea is based on the ac­cepted wis­dom that din­ner book­ings with politi­cians can turn into an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies. (Tony Blair wrote in his mem­oir A Jour­ney that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween al­co­hol and prime min­is­ters, for in­stance, could fill a book, not that Crabb en­cour­ages overindul­gence in her sub­jects.)

Af­ter all, when peo­ple tell you how they learned to cook, or didn’t, they usu­ally end up telling you their life story. Crabb wants her sub­jects to drop their guard and their slo­gans and spin as they’re forced to pre­pare a meal and share it with her. It doesn’t al­ways hap­pen, but most have tried valiantly at least to ap­pear hu­man, to be­have nat­u­rally rather than per­form­ing a po­lit­i­cal func­tion ac­cord­ing to a pre­de­ter­mined set of coded in­struc­tions.

And some have sur­prised, such as Joe Hockey, who turned out to be great tal­ent, as TV re­al­ity peo­ple say, gre­gar­i­ous and blok­ishly charm­ing. And Greens leader Chris­tine Milne shared her home-baked onion and goat’s cheese tart with Crabb in one com­pelling episode, her do­mes­tic ge­nial­ity con­trast­ing with her po­lit­i­cal stee­li­ness.

She was a charmer. And there are a few in this new se­ries too, in­clud­ing se­na­tor Nick Xenophon cook­ing bar­be­cued oc­to­pus in Ade­laide, Craig Emer­son smok­ing out his Queens­land kitchen with a spicy salmon stir fry, and Lib­eral MP Sus­san Ley, who flies her own plane to the lo­ca­tion and cooks a coun­try roast.

Crabb was slightly awkward at first, as you may ex­pect of some­one who, while she had made count­less TV ap­pear­ances as her­self, had never re­ally had to act her­self be­fore. In her TV in­ter­views and cur­rent af­fairs ap­pear­ances on the ABC’s The Drum and In­sid­ers, she just turned up and chat­ted on, al­ways amus­ing, per­cep­tive and some­times dryly acer­bic.

But in the TV se­ries she is a char­ac­ter in a show and the de­mands are dif­fer­ent. As any­one who has ap­peared on TV for any length of time knows, it’s hard to know how to play be­ing your­self. Bert New­ton fret­ted about it for years and his friend Gra­ham Kennedy never un­der­stood it ei­ther.

‘‘ In or­der to be a per­son­al­ity of TV,’’ he used to say, ‘‘ you first have to prove you haven’t got one.’’

The great US in­ter­viewer Dick Cavett said a wor­ried Johnny Car­son once ad­mit­ted to him that he fre­quently couldn’t re­mem­ber what was said on a show he had just fin­ished tap­ing — and, some­times, who the guests were. ‘‘ Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it hap­pened to me too, and that a few days ear­lier I got home and it took me a good 10 min­utes to be able to re­port with whom I had just done 90 min­utes,’’ he said, re­call­ing later that it was no less a fig­ure than Lu­cille Ball.

‘‘ It’s an odd­ity pe­cu­liar to the live per­former’s di­vided brain that needs ex­plor­ing,’’ Cavett said. ‘‘ It has to do with the fact that you and the ‘ you’ that per­forms are not iden­ti­cal.’’

Well, Crabb has fig­ured it out now. She’s al­to­gether more svelte, ac­com­plished and less hes­i­tant, and even more en­ter­tain­ing. And she un­der­stands how to po­si­tion her­self un­ob­tru­sively for the cam­eras. She’s also mas­tered the two other things TV pre­sen­ters need. The first is be­ing able to turn con­ver­sa­tion into hu­mour. And the other is the old­est skill in TV: mak­ing the view­ers be­lieve they are on an in­ti­mate foot­ing with ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­body.

She has grown into her cos­tume too, the way ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tors do. She wears mul­ti­coloured vin­tage-in­spired 1950s dresses and her hair is usu­ally styled in a variation of the vic­tory roll, ap­par­ently named af­ter the ma­noeu­vres per­formed by vic­to­ri­ous Al­lied air­men at the end of World War II. She wears it with a hint of the el­e­gantly di­shev­elled.

Her skin glows and she ap­pears so whole­some you can’t help but be re­minded of the luminous Donna Reed who, as the star of her own sit­com be­tween 1958 and 1966, epit­o­mised self­less Amer­i­can mother­hood, though her crown­ing achieve­ment had been win­ning an Acad­emy Award for play­ing a pros­ti­tute.

Crabb’s eyes sparkle with what seems like seem­ingly care­less in­no­cence and a gen­uine lik­ing for her sub­jects, but lurk­ing be­neath is the shrewd acu­men so ap­par­ent in her col­umns. She es­chews the com­bat­ive for the sneaky and, some­times — well, of­ten — the flir­ta­tious, al­ways try­ing to tease out some anec­dote or de­tail of the most per­sonal sto­ries. And she gets them too from Mal­colm Turn­bull in the first episode of the third sea­son this week. The for­mer Lib­eral leader is no stranger to Crabb; she pro­filed him for her 2009 Walk­ley Award-win­ning Quar­terly Es­say, Stop at Noth­ing: The Life and Ad­ven­tures of Mal­colm Turn­bull. First, though, she rit­u­ally pre­pares dessert (she does one in her retro-style kitchen in a stylised mon­tage at the start of ev­ery show). This time it’s a con­fec­tion of choco­late mousse, rasp­berry streaked cream and hon­ey­comb. ‘‘ It’s much like my host,’’ she says, ‘‘ multi-lay­ered, in­trigu­ing and just as rich as you think it is.’’

Then Crabb in­ter­views Turn­bull at his prop­erty in coun­try NSW, bought by his fa­ther in 1981. They catch yab­bies for lunch in the dam, insert­ing some good jokes about cor­nered op­po­si­tion mem­bers and blood­less coups in the con­ver­sa­tional mix. A dab hand in the kitchen (Turn­bull’s wife, Lucy, who joins them for lunch, says ‘‘ it’s a well-trav­elled place for him’’), the chatty pollie pre­pares roast tomato, yab­bie and rocket pasta.

And he talks gen­er­ously about the per­sonal toll fierce lead­er­ship bat­tles take and the bleak pe­riod that fol­lowed his re­moval as leader. ‘‘ If

Kitchen Cabi­net, Tues­day, 8pm, ABC1. Shitsville Ex­press, Tues­day, 9.30pm, ABC2.

Wed­nes­day Night Fever, premieres July 3,

9.30pm, ABC1. you are com­pletely and ut­terly lack­ing in a sense of self-aware­ness, and you are absolutely obliv­i­ous to what ev­ery­one else thinks, you are per­fectly suited to be­ing a po­lit­i­cal leader,’’ he says dryly.

‘‘ On the other hand if you are drip­ping with em­pa­thy and you take se­ri­ously what other peo­ple think, then you run the risk of be­ing se­ri­ously hurt.’’ Then, af­ter a pause, he asks rhetor­i­cally: ‘‘ How can you be an ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal leader and be a hu­man be­ing?’’

I was re­minded of some­thing Gore Vi­dal wrote: ‘‘ Style is know­ing who you are, what you want to say, and not giv­ing a damn.’’ THE seem­ingly in­de­fati­ga­ble me­dia pres­ence known as Joe Hilde­brand also re­turns this week with Shitsville Ex­press, and he has no prob­lems about pre­sent­ing him­self on TV. He ar­rived on ABC1 last year in Dumb, Drunk & Racist, a cun­ning of mix of fly-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary, travel pro­gram and tabloid cur­rent af­fairs show deal­ing with the pol­i­tics of national iden­tity held to­gether by Hilde­brand’s gonzo ob­ser­va­tions.

An as­tute colum­nist and work­ing journo, he takes the mickey out of peo­ple and ideas, call­ing it as he sees it. He’s pop­ulist and con­trar­ian, some­times right­ist and left­ist at the same time, and of­ten vastly en­ter­tain­ing. In his pre­vi­ous show Hilde­brand took four In­di­ans on a road trip for three weeks to ex­am­ine our worst racial stereo­types and to dis­cover whether it’s more a case of cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing and that we are re­ally lovable lar­rikins who just like swear­ing a lot.

Pro­duced by the Cordell Jig­saw group, which also gave us the award-win­ning Go Back to Where You Came From, it was con­cep­tu­ally like the in­verse of that se­ries, an­other ver­sion of a kind of through-the-mir­ror TV. The show’s pro­ducer Anita Jor­gensen called it a ‘‘ let’sjust- drive-and see-what-we-get’’ fac­tual doc­u­men­tary. This new se­ries, di­rected by Rick McPhee, a pro­ducer on Go Back to Where You Came From, uses a sim­i­lar for­mat and it’s just as con­fronting and en­ter­tain­ing.

Hilde­brand takes four so-called ‘‘ lead­ers of to­mor­row’’ on a shiny red dou­ble-decker bus ride to ‘‘ Shitsville’’ to tackle some of our most fraught is­sues. They in­clude the ex­plo­sion of al­co­hol-fu­elled vi­o­lence, the gam­bling epi­demic, our sub­stan­dard trans­port sys­tem, the hous­ing cri­sis and the pros and cons of coalseam gas min­ing. Shitsville, the show tells us, isn’t a par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion — it’s that part of Aus­tralia that sums up the medi­ocre side of our national life.

Siob­han, a 21-year-old so­cial sciences stu­dent, sup­ports the Aus­tralian Sex Party and the Aus­tralian Tax­pay­ers Al­liance. Fran­cis, a 22-year-old mem­ber of the La­bor Party, sup­ports gay mar­riage and dis­agrees with the party’s refugee pol­icy. Madeleine is a 24-yearold ‘‘ blue-col­lar Greens’’ arts/law stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia. And 26-year-old Syd­neysider Jai works full time as national ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Aus­tralians for Con­sti­tu­tional Monar­chy. As they say in re­al­ity TV, only three things count: cast­ing, cast­ing and cast­ing.

Like its pre­de­ces­sor, this sec­ond sea­son is no sim­ple fly-on-the-wall, spy-cam ob­ser­va­tional piece of cheapie TV but turns the con­fes­sion­al­style, im­mer­sive re­al­ity se­ries into a morally weighted piece of so­cial his­tory. There is an el­e­ment of tes­ti­mony and sub­jec­tive per­sonal in­volve­ment to it that sep­a­rates the se­ries from any scripted pro­gram that may ex­am­ine the same ideas. Be warned, though; this week’s episode, which deals with as­sault and the way binge drink­ing fills our ca­su­alty wards on week­ends with drunk or in­jured teenagers, con­tains gen­uinely hor­ri­fy­ing footage.

I said in re­view­ing Dumb, Drunk & Racist that the se­ries should be the start of an en­ter­tain­ing run of ar­gu­men­ta­tive shows, hope­fully fronted by this dis­arm­ing guy who shows that not all ABC types wear san­dals, drink green tea and con­gest Syd­ney’s cy­cle lanes, as is of­ten claimed. It’s pleas­ant to have been right for once. WED­NES­DAY Night Fever, ABC1’s new late night, weekly com­edy se­ries, starts this week, ap­par­ently com­bin­ing po­lit­i­cal im­per­son­ations, satir­i­cal char­ac­ters, spe­cial guests and knock­about mu­si­cal com­edy — all in front of a stu­dio au­di­ence. Our host is the co­me­dian known as Sammy J, who has al­ready earned a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most in­ven­tive per­form­ers on the in­ter­na­tional com­edy scene.

His live shows, of­ten with foul-mouthed, pur­ple pup­pet Randy, in­clude the smash-hit in­ter­na­tional com­edy fes­ti­val sen­sa­tion Sammy J in the For­est of Dreams.

The reg­u­lar cast in­cludes Amanda Bishop ( At Home with Ju­lia), Paul McCarthy ( Com­edy Inc, At Home with Ju­lia), Genevieve Mor­ris ( The Late Shift) and Dave East­gate ( El­e­gant Gen­tle­man’s Guide to Knife Fight­ing). Head writer is the vet­eran Ian Sim­mons ( Good News Week, Glass House) and cre­ator and pro­ducer is Rick Kalowski ( At Home with Ju­lia).

There are no preview discs but Kowal­ski prom­ises an old-style sketch re­view hash­ing out the week’s po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural events in a style some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the D-Gen­er­a­tion, which aired on the ABC in 1986, and, more specif­i­cally, the same group’s later ef­fort The Late Show in 1992, which es­tab­lished Tony Martin, Santo Ci­lauro, Jane Kennedy, Mick Mol­loy and Rob Sitch as a sig­nif­i­cant com­edy force.

‘‘ I, my­self, look for­ward to know­ing what it’s like be­cause we haven’t shot the show yet,’’ Kowal­ski says. ‘‘ We’re do­ing it al­most live to air on the Tues­day night, more or less right through like a live show, and then we edit and le­gal it overnight, from 9.30pm un­til about six in the morn­ing, be­fore it screens on Wed­nes­days.’’ He calls it ‘‘ a glammed-up ver­sion of what The Late Show used to be’’. The dif­fer­ence is his show will be ‘‘ 100 per cent top­i­cal’’ and writ­ten from scratch ev­ery week. ‘‘ As­sum­ing that [the govern­ment] lasts the dis­tance, we’ll be on the air un­til mid-Au­gust, then Gruen and The Chaser take over up to the elec­tion; they’ll be do­ing com­men­tary but we’ll be do­ing all the char­ac­ters them­selves, in the stu­dio.’’

He lists Gil­lard, Tony and Margie Ab­bott, Bill Shorten, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Barn­aby Joyce for starters.

‘‘ I think we have a real han­dle now on the tone of the show but it’s the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties that have to be re­ally ironed out — ex­actly how many peo­ple can we have in a sketch, get­ting them in and out of cos­tume in time to make later ap­pear­ances and cop­ing with the huge make-up jobs,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s all very the­atri­cal work­ing in front of that au­di­ence and if things go wrong you just keep go­ing.’’

Kowal­ski seems de­ter­mined to cap­ture the sur­real mad­ness of live com­edy and keep the un­ruly tra­di­tions of vaudeville and va­ri­ety alive as a form of elec­tronic cir­cus.

As he spoke, I thought of the fact there is some his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence that tick­ling was used as a method of tor­ture and ex­e­cu­tion in cen­turies past. In one re­ported tech­nique, a vic­tim was tied up and the soles of his feet were cov­ered with salt. A goat was then brought in to lick the salt, caus­ing in­tense tick­ling. If kept up for long enough, the stress and ex­er­tion of laugh­ing — and squirm­ing — could have brought on car­diac ar­rest or a brain haem­or­rhage. I hope Kowal­ski’s show hurts to watch, oth­er­wise he just may find him­self the one tied to the stake and his feet salted.

Kitchen Cabi­net

Mal­colm Turn­bull and

Annabel Crabb in

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