Television Graeme Blundell and the tale of two Julias: Gillard and Zemiro
A documentary of the Rudd-Gillard years conjurs all the mystery and drama of the best political thrillers
‘T he last week of parliament,” a woman’s voice says dryly above a babble of competing news reports. “In politics, they call it the killing season.” This is how Sarah Ferguson’s much promoted new ABC political series, The Killing Season, begins. It’s a forensic deconstruction of the forces that shaped the federal Labor Party during the leadership years of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. With a tone of fatalism set at the start, this drama unfolds its narrative of spectacular and sinister machinations with all the propulsiveness of a fine political thriller.
It’s an extraordinary drama: a distressing, complex, intertwined set of political narratives about ambition and ruthlessly executed power. Ferguson acerbically, but objectively, presents us with a political universe riddled with weakness, impatience, irascibility, gullibility and misguided altruism and, in some cases, a certain shrewdness verging on sheer common sense.
There are many interviews with the large cast of characters, many still in parliament, filmed with just the right degree of stylisation to maintain our interest, and they constantly surprise with their juxtaposition and the way they are interwoven with archival vignettes.
It’s easy to be reminded of SBS’s important documentary series Liberal Rule, which was like a big Jeffrey Archer novel, chronicling the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation’s political imagination.
Again, here in Ferguson’s account, there’s all the mystery and drama you would expect in a blockbuster and, occasionally, a little unconscious comedy, which it certainly needs given the straight-faced moral fastidiousness of the protagonists as they look back so determinably on their place in history.
The crow or raven is used as a kind of Shakespearean conceit through The Killing Season, conjuring just the right sense of foreboding. The drama in fact begins in designer Deb McNamara’s evocative title sequence, with the evil-looking bird, head cocked against swirling dark clouds and a night sky seen through flailing tree branches, a portentous piano track playing behind the noirish imagery. You can almost hear Lady Macbeth predicting the king’s murder.
The first episode begins in 2006 when after months of leadership speculation Rudd and Gillard, the two most ambitious politicians of their generation, challenge Kim Beasley and Jenny Macklin for leadership. Despite its Archeresque storyline, The Killing Season most closely re- sembles David Fincher’s cinematically lavish American television drama House of Cards, his reworking of the 1990 British miniseries of the same name, about power plays and dastardly, sometimes murderous, political shenanigans. It stars Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a deviously bright US House of Representatives majority whip, a sweet-talking wheeler-dealer denied the job of secretary of state, obsessed by the dynamics of power.
Like Spacey’s Underwood, Rudd is presented through the tightly written script as a scarilily cerebral but curiously unempathetic operator obsessed by the Machiavellian dynamics of power. You almost expect him to turn to us with Underwood’s form of direct Shakespearean address — as he presents his false fronts to all those with whom he deals — and bring us into intimate contact with his true self.
His “loyal deputy” takes longer to find definition in this tale. There’s something almost Chaplinesque about the younger Gillard. She’s comically awkward, teetering on high heels in black pantaloons, her military-style jackets worn tight, wobbling at times as she reaches out to colleagues for support, off balance as she looks through the media crush.
She accelerates through hairdos, too, still waiting for hairdresser Tim to turn her into the facsimile of Margaret Thatcher, the way she appears in the sometimes emotional interviews with Ferguson. She possesses great charm and what appears to be genuine humility and a kind of larrikin raffishness too, that throaty chuckle with the sexy edge. But beneath it all the overweening ambition smoulders beneath the awkward girlishness recognised early on by the impressive Macklin. “I knew she would never give up until she had won and I didn’t think this was right for the Labor Party,” Macklin says.
Ferguson gets the political thriller convention just right, foreshortening in the interest of narrative but never simplifying. We are constantly trying to read between the lines, chasing subtext in the vocal inflections and the body language of each interview subject.
It splendidly maintains the tone of a superior TV fictional drama, that level of abstraction, set as much by composer Pete Drummond’s sound score as by pictures. Documentarian Paul Clarke, who gave us Whitlam: The Power and the
Passion, calls this kind of approach “playing music upon the collective memory”, but the sound here is hardly sweet or even nostalgic. It’s discordant and sometimes chilling as we look closely at the dissembling faces of former leaders. We’re still uncertain if they speak the truth or if they believe the words that tumble so effortlessly from their lips. The other Julia — Zemiro, that is — also is back, starring in the 13th season of SBS’s RocKwiz, that gloriously knockabout display of rock nerdery, comedy, musical trivia and performances by some of the biggest names in music.
It’s still recorded live before a pub audience at the Gershwin Room at the Esplanade Hotel, aka the Espy, in Melbourne’s St Kilda, bathed in blue, yellow and red light. Co-hosted by Zemiro and the comically lugubrious Brian Nankervis, it’s one of the few series that recalls TV’s old days when live shows were makeshift and spontaneous, built on the reassuring reiteration of stock phrases and comic business, the audience eternally in on the joke.
Zemiro comperes while Nankervis stagemanages from behind her on the small stage, wickedly drawing focus now and again, a jazz clown with that showground spruiker’s voice.
There’s something of the court jester about her too in this role, disorderly and zany and rather extravagantly sexual, flirting with men and women, unashamedly licentious, immodest and lustful. There’s no one like her on local TV; by some magic of innate showmanship she manages to make audiences feel they are all part of the television game, spokesperson and friend, never afraid to snap her fingers in the face of the electronic monster.
This season the show salutes the decades and this week it’s the 1960s and Zemiro is the It Girl, channelling Twiggy, Anita Pallenberg, Jane Birkin and Marianne Faithfull in a black sheath cocktail dress, the highest of heels and a fleck gold evening jacket. The music is just as cool, tight and concentrated, though the house musos, Peter Luscombe, Ashley Naylor, Clio Renner and Mark Ferrie, and back-up chicks Vika and Linda Bull, tough, hardened pros, also love a gag and a bit of lairising.
The celebrity guests are British India’s frontman Declan Melia, icon of antipodean pop Dinah Lee and Australia’s top teen idol of the late 60s Normie Rowe who, while he’s looking a bit like Harry Dean Stanton, is still in miraculous voice. Zemiro is in fine form, omnipresent, lending grace, suavity, and a jocund toothsomeness to the lowbrow show business, the sawdust-on-the-floor pub rock ’n’ roll. Zemiro is also back on the ABC with the 11-part third season of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery. Again we travel with the irrepressible Julia around Australia and to Britain to experience entertaining and candid interviews with celebrity guests, another format rarely seen these days. She has proved a charming and adept naturalistic presenter, her broader instincts usually under control — though happily not always.
This week it’s the very private Matt Lucas from Little Britain, a comic of disdainful defiance with that sophisticated veneer of high camp who, dressed in three-piece grey suit, pink tie and fedora, proves to be charm incarnate.
“I was always a bit of a joker,” he tells her as they wander around the London inner suburbs where he grew up. “I had very bad health, bad eczema, lost my hair when I was six years old so I didn’t want to define myself by being ill but by being funny.”
He reflects on how he learned to cope with playground taunts and how an inner resilience, essential for a life in comedy, was born. At his old primary school he comes across a songbook from his junior years and plays Julia one of his favourites on the piano, his voice a dead ringer for Elton John’s. It’s a lovely episode and celebrates a bearer of happiness in the very funny Lucas, an artist of supreme confidence who can be identified simultaneously as an ordinary person and a star despite himself.
Julia Gillard faces the
TV cameras in the three-part ABC series
The Killing Season
Julia Zemiro with Matt Lucas