Graeme Blundell taps his foot to Tim Rogers’s beat

Rock star and debonair fla­neur Tim Rogers hosts a mu­si­cal va­ri­ety show for the mod­ern age

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blundell

ONCE, mu­sic was all over TV. In the be­gin­ning it was part of our nightly en­ter­tain­ment, with ap­peal­ing, at­trac­tive per­form­ers let loose in our homes, idolised and gos­siped about, the big, shiny ox-blood ve­neered TV box and its in­mates be­com­ing part of our fam­i­lies. Va­ri­ety shows were every­where.

As screens were drenched with rain­storms from seltzer bot­tles, del­uges of con­fetti, ba­nana skins and sight gags, this sub­sti­tute uni­verse of grin­ning comics, gib­ber­ing hosts and barrel girls, fea­tur­ing an en­ter­tain­ing ap­proach to live ad­ver­tis­ing, also in­cluded croon­ers, folkies, torch singers, rock bands and chanteuses. I can still re­call vividly the great Ir­ish tenor Bill McCor­mack who sang, nightly it seemed, for 10 years on Gra­ham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight, 20 songs a month, 200 a year. McCor­mack sur­vived through a ha­bit­ual and cheer­ily un­re­pen­tant use of large whitesheeted cue cards. They said about him that he was the only per­former who needed an id­iot sheet to sing The Lord’s Prayer.

Grad­u­ally the mu­sic died, Rove McManus’s shows (how dis­tant they seem al­ready) the last time re­ally that the songs of the day were sung on the small screen by our great artists — though they do some­times pop up on Adam Hills’s self-ef­fac­ing ABC se­ries.

Yes, I know The Voice, Aus­tralian Idol, The X Fac­tor and their like are watched by mil­lions but they’re lit­tle more than glo­ri­fied karaoke shows, hy­brid hotch­potches of game, tal­ent, va­ri­ety and on­go­ing re­al­ity se­ries. Sure they’re great fun, es­pe­cially in the early episodes which, be­fore the bru­tal win­now­ing process, cel­e­brate di­ver­sity and a crazy ca­coph­ony of voices; the en­tire com­pass of tones rep­re­sent- ing thou­sands of kids singing alone in their bed­rooms in search of their rock-star dream. But on free-to-air TV we sel­dom see our pro­gres­sive rock stars, let alone the post­mod­ernish cabaret artists and those neobur­lesque per­form­ers giv­ing a con­tem­po­rary spin to the bump-and-grind tra­di­tion.

Of course there’s RocK­wiz on SBS, the great sur­vivor, now in its 11th sea­son, an of­ten trans­gres­sive dis­play of rock nerdery, com­edy, mu­si­cal trivia and per­for­mances by some of the big­gest names in the mu­sic busi­ness. It’s still hosted by lusty, pranc­ing Ju­lia Zemiro and zany, hoot­ing Brian Nankervis, and the show con­tin­ues to speak its fa­mil­iar idio­syn­cratic lan­guage. It happily pro­vides a link to the vaudevil­lian early days of TV, when any­thing could hap­pen and of­ten did. The mu­sic, though, is no laugh­ing mat­ter, tight and con­cen­trated, though the house mu­sos, James Black, Peter Lus­combe and Mark Fer­rie, tough, hard­ened Melbourne pros, also love a gag and a bit of lairis­ing.

RocK­wiz is still recorded be­fore an au­di­ence at the Gersh­win Room at the Es­planade Ho­tel, aka the Espy, in Melbourne’s St Kilda, a live mu­sic venue for more than 100 years. And there’s a lovely mix in the edited show of low­brow show busi­ness, saw­dust-on-the-floor pub rock ’ n’ roll and club land mu­sic quiz but also, so of­ten, sheer mu­si­cal class. This week’s episode, for in­stance, show­cases the charis­matic Tim Rogers, front­man of the great rock band You Am I, re­mind­ing us just why he and his col­leagues have had three suc­ces­sive al­bums de­but at No 1 and won 10 ARIA awards since their in­cep­tion in 1989.

Rogers also turns up as host of the Stu­dio at the Memo this week, a six-part new per­for­mance se­ries from Rene­gade, the same Melbourne pro­duc­tion com­pany that gives us the knock-about RocK­wiz, and it’s also filmed be­fore an au­di­ence. In this case it’s the leg­endary ‘‘ hid­den theatre’’ in the Me­mo­rial Hall, next to the St Kilda Army & Navy Club in Acland Street. It’s an art deco 1920s dance­hall ne­glected for decades but in re­cent years re­stored by the trust that owns it and now runs as a per­for­mance venue.

Rogers presents a flam­boy­ant pa­rade of our chart-top­ping artists and the lat­est in avan­tgarde bur­lesque, cabaret and cir­cus on a small stepped stage with velvet cur­tains and some art deco trim. The line-up for the sea­son in­cludes ec­cen­tric theatre star Paul Cap­sis, chanteuse Martha Wain­wright, in­die dar­ling Kate MillerHei­dke, Don Walker from Cold Chisel and the ac­ro­bat­ics of Cir­cus Oz. And Rogers is joined on­stage each episode by the Syn­di­cate, led by mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Lance Fer­gu­son, the man be­hind the Bam­boos, that fine lo­cal funk and soul out­fit.

The first car­ni­va­lesque episode fea­tures the sexy French chic of Abby Dobson and Lara Goodridge as Baby et Lulu, ac­com­pa­nied by flautist Jane Rut­ter, the ef­fer­ves­cent Vir­ginia Gay do­ing her ‘‘ turn­ing pretty songs dirty and dirty songs pretty’’ shtick, and Todd McKen­ney rip­ping out some Peter Allen.

There’s also pixie rocker Dave Graney, in­tro­duced by Rogers as ‘‘ a Mood­ist who has caught his foot in the crack of time’’, and the Cruel Sea’s Tex Perkins do­ing a kind of beat poet thing, gruffly and very com­i­cally read­ing the lyrics from For­eigner’s hit song Ur­gent. It’s an un­ex­pected per­for­mance that, ac­cord­ing to the host, ex­ca­vates ‘‘ the nuggets from the deep­est, deep­est shafts of lyri­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion’’, the comic florid­ity typ­i­cal of his ex­trav­a­gant host­ing style.

Rogers ap­pears to us, he says, in the guise of a fla­neur, that word un­der­stood in­tu­itively by the French to mean ‘‘ stroller’’, the gen­tle­manly idler mooching through life with no in­ten­tion to buy, treat­ing those he passes as ob­jects for plea­sure when they take his eye. Su­san Son­tag fa­mously re­ferred to the fla­neur as ‘‘ the soli­tary walker re­con­noitring, stalk­ing, cruis­ing the ur­ban in­ferno, the voyeuris­tic stroller who dis­cov­ers the city as a land­scape of volup­tuous ex­tremes’’.

And that’s what Rogers seems to be look­ing for in his show, set as he says in the ‘‘ cre­pus­cu­lar am­bi­ence of St Kilda’’, as he de­lights in watch­ing and of­ten par­tic­i­pat­ing with th­ese lu­bri­cious (in the case, cer­tainly, of Har­lowesque Gay, and the svelte Dobson and Goodridge) and pleas­ing oh-so-haute per­form­ers. He tells us Hem­ing­way once said there are only two places to live — at home and

in Paris — and that it was in Paris over ab­sinthe and crepes that Rogers de­cided to cast off his pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion as a lugubri­ous over­rated, young In­die gui­tarist and live the life of a bon vi­vant ‘‘ in the re­fined search for sen­su­ous en­joy­ment’’.

He re­ally is an el­e­gant dude of a per­former, ex­trav­a­gantly coif­fured, dressed in two-tone shoes, cream pants with a slight flare, tight velvet jacket over a soft white shirt and a long wispy scarf, with a sly, se­duc­tive charm as a host; you take him at his own word that he’s al­ways in charge, his self-con­fi­dence match­ing his self-delu­sion. Not all of what he does in pre­sent­ing and chat­ting with his guests and a rather strait­laced au­di­ence works, but as far as he is con­cerned he is never beaten, al­ways drolly cock-a-hoop.

Some­times he flum­moxes his in­ter­view sub­jects with his long Wildean ques­tions, el­e­gantly self-rev­er­en­tial, and can never grasp why they sud­denly burst into laugh­ter at the out­ra­geous­ness of it all. There are ago­nies of be­wil­der­ment and frus­tra­tion as he strug­gles through oddly po­etic sen­tences, some­times quot­ing Apol­li­naire and Robert Frost.

There’s a look of wounded dig­nity when they raise a laugh, a sense of hurt pride in his eyes, say­ing more ef­fec­tively than words that he has done his best. It’s a won­der­ful act re­ally. And can the man sing — crooner, jazzman and full-on rocker — with moves be­hind the mi­cro­phone that, as Gay sug­gests, would make Mick Jag­ger en­vi­ous. ‘‘ We aim to charm you,’’ he tells us of his show. ‘‘ My hero Kurt Von­negut de­fined charm as a scheme by which a stranger could make some­one trust a per­son im­me­di­ately, even be­fore know­ing the in­tent of the charmer.’’

There’s no one else like him on TV and this show, like RocK­wiz, should run for decades, es­pe­cially as Fox­tel has al­lo­cated a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar fund to record lo­cal per­for­mance. Rogers is se­ri­ously cool, in the sense that the word means calm, stoic, in­trigu­ing and im­pres­sive, and sug­gests re­served con­fi­dence, a self-con­scious aplomb in be­hav­iour that dis­tances it­self from au­thor­ity rather than di­rectly con­fronts it. A way of fit­ting in while stand­ing out, maybe.

As Louis Arm­strong was known to say, ‘‘ If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit.’’ Some­thing you could never say about the at­trac­tively non­cha­lant Rogers.

THE News­room, Aaron Sorkin’s pas­sion­ate but po­lar­is­ing lib­eral slant on the com­pro­mises, vested in­ter­ests and fi­nan­cial im­per­a­tives of broad­cast­ing news in the world of US prime­time ca­ble, was eas­ily the most con­tro­ver­sial new se­ries last year. It was cel­e­brated and dis­dained in equal mea­sure, in­cit­ing as much de­ri­sion as ap­plause, but from the in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple who stopped me to talk about it dur­ing its run it seemed its fer­vent ad­mir­ers had started to win out.

The News­room was the ur­bane Sorkin’s first foray into se­ries TV since the can­cel­la­tion of his pre­vi­ous show, Stu­dio 60 on the Sun­set Strip, in 2007. Like that doomed show and the pre­ced­ing low-rat­ing but crit­i­cally suc­cess­ful Sports Night, the so-called ‘‘ utopian drama’’ was his third at­tempt to crack that strange sel­f­re­flex­ive genre, a TV show about the mak­ing of a TV show.

Whether you hated or ad­mired the se­ries, you’ll re­call that The News­room stars Jeff Daniels as a mid­dle-aged tele­vi­sion news an­chor who ex­pe­ri­ences an epiphany, af­ter which he de­cides to break cred­i­ble news in the world of US ca­ble TV, dom­i­nated by celebrity gossip and rat­ings-driven beat-ups.

Much of the crit­i­cism of the first sea­son em­anated from jour­nal­ists, them­selves work­ing in news and cur­rent af­fairs and who prob­a­bly had good cause to feel of­fended and just a lit­tle bit morally queasy. It was easy to un­der­stand the di­vided opin­ion. Ca­ble TV news, af­ter all, is one of the most bru­tally and nas­tily politi­cised and ide­o­log­i­cally pres­sured are­nas in TV, and it takes guts to make jokes at its ex­pense. But as Sorkin said, even if a lit­tle de­fen­sively: ‘‘ Any­time some­one is talk­ing about a tele­vi­sion show this much is good for tele­vi­sion.’’

The sec­ond sea­son, start­ing this week on Fox­tel’s Show­case, prob­a­bly will find as many de­trac­tors as avid fans, though Sorkin says he has noted how furious the show made some peo­ple and has made cer­tain changes. There’s a more con­tem­po­rary ti­tle se­quence, more em­pha­sis on life out­side the stu­dio, and an over­ar­ch­ing le­gal-based story-line that will in­form the en­tire sea­son.

It picks up a week af­ter sea­son one ended, with Daniels’s Will McAvoy pay­ing a steep price for call­ing the Tea Party the Amer­i­can Tal­iban on air. One of the sea­son’s ma­jor story arcs in­volves a wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion law­suit made by a staff mem­ber al­leged to have doc­tored a re­port about a sus­pi­cious US drone strike. The first scene of the ini­tial episode, First Thing We Do, Is Kill the Lawyers, is a cracker, Daniels ban­ter­ing fu­ri­ously with four lawyers in the stu­dio board­room, the over­lap­ping dia­logue again ma­chine-gun fast, played with the poker faces Sorkin loves.

‘‘ Four­teen months af­ter you went on the air, you called the Tea Party the Amer­i­can Tal­iban. What hap­pened?’’ McAvoy: ‘‘ The Tal­iban re­sented it.’’

I en­joyed Sorkin’s first sea­son, ev­ery rapidly spo­ken word, and I’m al­ready em­bed­ded, wait­ing for the new episodes. It’s still witty, funny, im­pec­ca­bly re­searched, of­ten al­lur­ingly ro­man­tic and enor­mous in scope. A won­der­fully wrought cry for ci­vil­ity in jour­nal­ism, de­vel­oped in an al­most fairy­tale way, full of ref­er­ences to Man of La Man­cha and to ro­man­tic quests. Again I’m hav­ing fun watch­ing — and ad­mir­ing — the act­ing, the speed of the per­form­ers’ de­liv­ery, their in­tel­li­gent ab­sorp­tion in Sorkin’s world and abil­ity to han­dle their boss’s high com­edy. And I still en­joy the con­ceit at its cen­tre — while The News­room ini­tially gives the im­pres­sion of be­ing set in the con­tem­po­rary world of 24-hour ca­ble news, it’s ac­tu­ally a stylish pe­riod piece, the world it por­trayed al­ready 18 months away.

Ap­par­ently stymied in his am­bi­tion to write a show about news­rooms, Sorkin spent time in them, hop­ing some­thing would hap­pen to in­spire him. Just as he was about to write off the pro­ject, he no­ticed he had been star­ing at live footage of the Louisiana oil spill on April 20, 2010, which be­came the theme for the first episode. Since then he has dealt with Arizona im­mi­gra­tion law, the Tea Party wing of the Repub­li­can Party, and par­al­lels he found be­tween the Egyp­tian up­ris­ing and a teacher protest in Wis­con­sin.

And in the new sea­son, apart from McAvoy pay­ing a steep price for satiris­ing the Tea Party, the show is in­volved in the run-up to last year’s elec­tion, in­clud­ing the pri­maries and con­ven­tions, along with the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment and the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Barack Obama’s mil­i­tary use of drones.

I’m glued, hooked, hang­ing in and al­ready wait­ing for the third sea­son with, pos­si­bly for starters, Euro­pean gov­ern­ments deny­ing airspace to an air­craft car­ry­ing Bo­li­vian Pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales be­cause of sus­pi­cions it might be car­ry­ing US in­tel­li­gence leaker Ed­ward Snow­den. The cyn­ics can avoid me in the street; I don’t care. Eight more weeks ahead of heart­break, be­trayal, com­pro­mise, good in­ten­tions, fail­ure and an ab­sorp­tion in that Sorkin world — you know, the one we de­serve, not the one we live in.

The News­room, Mon­day, 8.30pm, Show­case. Stu­dio at the Memo, Tues­day, 8.30pm, Stu­dio.

Tim Rogers with Baby et Lulu on Stu­dio at the Memo

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.