Graeme Blun­dell re­mem­bers swing­ing Syd­ney

A drama set in a home for un­wed mums high­lights a tur­bu­lent era

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS - Graeme Blun­dell

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

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