Graeme Blundell remembers swinging Sydney
A drama set in a home for unwed mums highlights a turbulent era
THE 1960s, for anyone who was there, are like something of a personal Rorschach test. When asked what you think of the period, you can’t help give away who you are and where you stand on just about everything. It was a decade when social action was deeply connected to intellectual passion, and an idealism was engendered to which not only the young and impressionable responded.
So if you thought the end of the decade was in sight when people stopped exchanging sexual favours and started swapping recipes for mung bean mornay, when you could actually tell how long the drum solos went and were happy to smile without pharmacological enhancement, then think again. Nine’s popular
Love Child brings it all back. Those tight jersey miniskirts, the McNaughtons’ E-Type Jag, the Michael Caine and Easy
Rider references, and Phil Spector’s wall of sound. That time when youth was revered but everyone happily forgot for a couple of years that it didn’t last, and every kind of trivial irresponsibility was known as “doing your thing’’.
I’ve only just caught up with Sarah Lambert’s series (a second season just announced, too) and, while it’s not completely successful, it’s a delight to look at, with classily cinematic direction from set-up director Shawn Seet, characterised by an arresting visual formalism, and superb period design by Tim Ferrier. It’s also fun to be dragged back to a 1969 Kings Cross, where the series is set, a time it was easy to be fascinated by the way freedom and debauchery could be pursued at the same time, in the same impulse. “It swims out of the dust like a blob of spilled oil,” novelist Ruth Park wrote of the old Cross, “all rainbows and reflections.”
More than 1.5 million of us are following Jessica Marais’s maverick midwife Joan Millar, returned from Swinging London to work at Kings Cross General Hospital, as she continues to be swept up in the plight of five young women in the attached notorious unwed mothers home. Jonathan LaPaglia plays the smarmily charismatic Dr Patrick McNaughton, head of obstetrics at the hospital, and a purse-lipped Mandy McElhinney plays Frances Bolton, the bellicose matron who controls the running of Stanton House.
The young women, sent away to be hidden from their families and friends for the duration of their pregnancies, have formed special bonds, determined to fight for each other and for their children. Of course they confront sex, destiny, love, failure and varying degrees of success. And in doing so our fab five fall into the decade’s readiness to subvert tradition, rushing — as so many of us did — to align themselves with anything construed to be a virtuous cause and ducking in and out of narrowly averted personal disasters.
It’s a kind of fairytale set against the world of the mythical Cross, a place where, as songwriter Paul Kelly wrote, “if the rain don’t fall too hard everything shines just like a postcard’’ and your body leaves you and your soul goes running.
Lambert presents us with an overarching structure that is sufficiently commodious to accommodate a vast variety of exciting incidents — Mick Jagger’s arrival in Kings Cross, the moon landing, which glued us to TV sets for the telecast, and the increasing clamour of antiVietnam War protests — as well as a plethora of characters and a detailed discussion of a major social institution.
While at times it appears soapy, oscillating not always convincingly between comedy and tragedy, it’s really in a tradition critic John Cawelti, in one of his many discussions of the formulaic conventions of popular culture, defines as the social melodrama, a successful fictional genre dating back at least to Dickens. The Victorian master storyteller showed conclusively that a writer could represent society in a fairly complex way and still achieve tremendous popular success. He did this by synthesising social criticism with the archetype of melodrama and gave his readers the pleasures of seeing the folly of men and institutions combined with the satisfaction of witnessing the triumph of virtue and the punishment of vice.
Lambert has beguilingly combined a detailed and often critical analysis of an Australia emerging slowly from the torpor and social repressiveness of the late 50s with a plot abundantly full of surprise and suspense, as she takes her characters through a series of trials and tribulations to what we assume will be their appropriate rewards. She gives us a period when religious faith has lost its power to sustain a basic belief in the benevolence of a world order and her characters are looking to other sources of transcendence.
It was a time when sexuality was becoming part of a larger moral context, even if promiscuity in some cases might have turned out to be the primrose path to unhappiness. Lambert pithily portrays a sense of the social upheaval in Australia as the 60s come to an end and her characters face a rapidly changing place. And she does it cleverly, rather wittily working from the moralistic predictability of melodrama: the good must triumph and the wicked must fail. And one of the prime satisfactions of this kind of social melodrama is we know this from the beginning. But Lambert and her directors and fellow writers are smart enough to entertain the possibility that the good may fail and is able then to achieve suspense and excitement.
I’m enjoying Marais’s beauty, as luminous as 60s siren Julie Christie in Darling, with the same kind of naturally icy delivery; hissing at LaPaglia as McNaughton, a natural-born villain, all rubbery nose and adenoidal delivery; and McElhinney’s seemingly cold-hearted matron, who one suspects has a heart of broken gold. And the young actresses, Miranda Tapsell, Sophie Hensser, Ella Scott Lynch, Harriet Dyer and, especially, Gracie Gilbert as Annie Carmichael, are simply splendid. AFTER seven years, 277 episodes, more than 150 special guests and thousands of questions, the purple velvet curtain closed for the last time in 2011 on Spicks and Specks, the country’s favourite music quiz show. It was a big party night. Adam, Alan and Myf (they had graciously joined the ranks of the few known on television by their first names) invited a cast of more than 20 special guests to celebrate with a seemingly endless array of their favourite games.
The show represented a kind of reassuring combination of unpredictability and merit, accidental good fortune and quite straight-out arse as each panel tried to outfox the other with its knowledge, or lack of it. Adam Hills became a great TV creation as host, his characteristic momentary look of intense bewilderment when moments misfired followed by that maniacal cackle as he usually buried his head in his hands, at once his wand and safety valve.
It’s back, an adventure in programming that might have misfired disastrously given the popularity of Adam, Alan and Myf, but it’s slowly settling. Our new host, award-winning comedian John Earl, still tends to shout at the autocue and the other regular panellists, singersongwriter Ella Hooper and the very clever stand-up comic and radio dude Adam Richard, are developing their Spicks and Specks identities. As always the battle for laughs is all-encompassing among the panellists. They’re unstoppable, waiting for an opportunity to drop something in, a sarcastic quip, a muttered aside or a sudden surreal meandering that turns into a monologue. Just like what happens at a good dinner party. And that’s still the trick of this enjoyable series. All of it is skilfully produced and edited to represent a brilliantly deceptive air of under-rehearsed confusion.
The outrageously camp Richard is stealing the series. He has the instinctive comic’s knack, a matter of natural presence, of telegraphing to an audience that what he is saying is meant to be funny and they should be laughing even though the lines themselves may not be particularly hilarious. He has possibly the quickest wit in local TV, could even give Shaun Micallef a dust-up, and surely must have his own talk show at some stage. Love Child, Monday, 8.40pm, Nine.
Spicks and Specks, Wednesday, 8.30pm, ABC1.
Jessica Marais in
Love Child and, below, with Gracie Gilbert