Tele­vi­sion Graeme Blun­dell praises The Ex-PM

Bake Off is one cook­ing show that con­tains all the right in­gre­di­ents for feel­good tele­vi­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

Iam on lo­ca­tion in Syd­ney’s in­ner west at Yar­alla Es­tate, and se­creted away from the jog­gers and dog walk­ers is a huge mar­quee dressed in an in­dus­trial out­back style — look­ing rather like a shear­ing shed — sur­rounded by large gas bot­tles. There’s ten­sion in the air as another judg­ing round be­gins in the new se­ries of The Great Aus­tralian Bake Off. It’s a new, slightly reimagined ver­sion of the Bri­tish par­ent show, ini­tially re­jected by pro­gram­mers but now in its sixth sea­son. It’s the BBC’s third most pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion for­mat abroad, sold to al­most 200 ter­ri­to­ries.

The lo­cal ver­sion is judged by the Barossa’s leg­endary cook Mag­gie Beer and the hard­nosed en­tre­pre­neur­ial chef Matt Moran with zany co­me­di­ans Claire Hooper and Mel But­tle pro­vid­ing the culi­nary gags, saucy say­ings and wince-mak­ing culi­nary dou­ble en­tren­dres. (Ex­pect many jokes about burnt bot­toms, scone’s throws, bread that is half-baked, ex­tremely kneady, soggy ladies’ fin­gers, and warn­ings to “watch your jugs”.)

It’s re­ally lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the Bri­tish show: am­a­teur con­tes­tants com­pet­ing against each other in a va­ri­ety of chal­lenges, test­ing their dis­ci­pline, strat­egy, time man­age­ment, emo­tions and, ul­ti­mately, cook­ing skills — and, of course, re­veal­ing those some­times emo­tional back­sto­ries. As al­ways, it’s great fun to tune in to find out who has been van­quished as the se­ries pro­ceeds, who is left, which of them is seem­ingly be­ing set for fi­nals (lots of red her­rings, of course) and who the cam­eras love.

Beer loves the con­cept. “Bak­ing was our life grow­ing up; you went to your grand­par­ents and there were sponge cakes and af­ter­noon teas,” she says. “I’ve never had a sweet tooth but these days if you give me a pavlova I can’t leave it alone.” But she em­pha­sises she al­ways goes into the tast­ing ses­sions hun­gry, to do jus­tice to the con­tes­tants and their baked items so lov­ingly pro­duced. Then she laughs guiltily: “I have had so much sugar in the past six weeks.”

Moran, con­vivial and eval­u­a­tive, thinks we all res­onate so much with bak­ing be­cause bick­ies were one of the first things many of us learned to cook as kids. “Ev­ery­one can do it and we all have some affin­ity with it,” he says.

As Beer sug­gests, it’s a rather jolly, gen­tle show, no bitch­ing, back­bit­ing or vin­dic­tive­ness, un­like so many re­al­ity se­ries. This is feel-good TV, where the hosts are kind and the con­tes­tants, who have var­ied and in­ter­est­ing bi­ogra­phies, are treated with re­spect by the pro­duc­ers. Some re­al­ity cook­ing shows — My Kitchen Rules comes to mind — are re­ally ex­cru­ci­at­ing comedies of so­cial em­bar­rass­ment, what Ricky Ger­vais once called “wheel­ing out the be­wil­dered to be snig­gered at”. There’s none of that here, and the use of re­al­ity TV con­ven­tions never stran­gles spon­tane­ity, un­like, say, MasterChef, where ev­ery mo­ment is too con­trived to sug­gest ac­tu­al­ity.

Beer says it’s all im­promptu and un­re­hearsed. “The pro­duc­ers re­mind us if we for­get some­thing, push us a lit­tle if we need to be more suc­cinct, but they never put words into our mouths.” Moran, never short of a forth­right opin­ion, says more adamantly, “I don’t want to be pro­duced; I’ve al­ways spo­ken hon­estly and will con­tinue to do so.”

It re­ally is a su­perb piece of sim­ply pre­sented TV, though not ex­actly in­ex­pen­sive given the num­ber of cam­eras used — at least seven on the day I visit. Their pro­lif­er­a­tion (most TV drama di­rec­tors are ex­tremely lucky to be given two) pro­vide all sorts of in­ti­mate cov­er­age of the con­tes­tants and what they cook, and en­ables fast, of­ten com­plex edit­ing, the im­ages cut to a cin­e­matic-style sound­track.

It’s all rather cutely in­ter­wo­ven with bu­colic shots of mag­pies, kook­abur­ras and pel­i­cans. It’s sounds a bit twee but this is a for­mat with a lot of heart, an agree­able and con­vivial way to spend an hour. As Bake Off’s BBC com­mis­sion­ing editor, Clare Pater­son, sug­gests, the rea­son for its suc­cess is prob­a­bly that it rep­re­sents a safe haven in an of­ten harsh world, dis­till­ing the huge com­plex­ity of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and iden­tity into sim­ple dis­plays of mea­sur­ing, sift­ing and mix­ing.

Here, the tem­per­ate ex­ploita­tion of the way peo­ple’s do­mes­tic day­dreams col­lide with cold, harsh re­al­ity when the sponges col­lapse and the dough doesn’t rise makes for en­ter­tain­ing tele­vi­sion.

Ever aware of the zeit­geist, the ir­re­press­ible Shaun Mi­callef re­turns this week in The Ex-PM, his new six-part half-hour se­ries, and it’s as droll and en­gag­ing as you may ex­pect. The comic’s cen­tral per­for­mances are stream­lined and know­ing, de­liv­ered with that fa­mil­iar un­der­stated face­tious­ness.

He’s the rather svelte An­drew Dug­dale, our third long­est serv­ing prime min­is­ter, a man who once mat­tered, chang­ing the lives of mil­lions of his fel­low Aus­tralians. Now he is re­luc­tantly re­tired, with time to pon­der his legacy.

He was meant to have writ­ten his mem­oirs but, hav­ing spent his pub­lisher’s ad­vance, is forced to welcome his young ghost­writer, Ellen LeBlanc (Lucy Honig­man), into his dys­func- tional house­hold. His po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy may well have been best ex­pressed by Grou­cho Marx: “Pol­i­tics is the art of look­ing for trou­ble, find­ing it ev­ery­where, di­ag­nos­ing it in­cor­rectly and ap­ply­ing the wrong reme­dies.”

Not that he re­ally ar­tic­u­lates much at all, as the first day does not go well — what with a miss­ing grand­child, a randy wife (played with las­civ­i­ous energy by Nicky Wendt), a stolen se­cu­rity sys­tem, a van­dalised Com­car ve­hi­cle and a dead goose.

Mi­callef’s tone — he not only stars but wrote the se­ries — is po­lite and mildly mock­ing, as per usual, and never abra­sive. The first thing you al­ways no­tice with this comic is that smile. Sure, there’s the sar­donic edge but there’s also a good­ness, a lack of dis­ap­proval, a re­fusal to judge or be judged. For all his clev­er­ness, he lacks in­tel­lec­tual ar­ro­gance, mal­ice and de­struc­tive­ness.

He’s also un­com­fort­able be­ing more than two sec­onds away from a joke or a funny walk, of­ten re­cy­cling the Grou­cho crouch­ing stride first em­ployed to such comic ef­fect in Talkin’ ’Bout Your Gen­er­a­tion. It was said of Graham Kennedy that he was im­pos­si­ble to im­i­tate be- cause his hu­mour para­dox­i­cally, while so sin­gu­lar, was cre­ated around so many in­flu­ences. And Mi­callef, too, is im­pos­si­ble to im­i­tate or par­ody. Part of the fun of watch­ing him is look­ing for the in­flu­ences and ref­er­ences.

He re­mains the most in­tel­lec­tual of comics, a kind of pick­pocket of the mind: a hy­brid of Jack Benny and Bob Hope, Eric Sykes and Spike Mil­li­gan, Peter Cook and Stephen Fry, with mo­ments of Tony Han­cock and Jackie Glea­son, and a touch of Kennedy’s dis­or­der­li­ness. Like Kennedy, too, a corner­stone of his hu­mour is the way he ap­pears to give voice to the thought that is re­ally on ev­ery­one’s mind but not yet voiced.

He does it con­stantly to his per­plexed bi­og­ra­pher, bam­boo­zling her with con­stant of­fers of cof­fee that al­ways take him away from her pres­ence. His trump card is the fast tempo at which he de­liv­ers his ma­te­rial.

The old comics used to say, “seven laughs a minute and you are mo­tor­ing”, each laugh ac­cu­mu­lat­ing and run­ning into the next in what’s known as a “crescendo ef­fect”; the au­di­ence be­comes so dis­tracted they laugh be­fore the punch­line ap­pears, with lit­tle no­tion of what is be­ing said.

The show loses out slightly when Mi­callef is ab­sent — which hap­pily is rare — from the screen (though watch out for a brief ap­pear­ance by the con­sum­mate John Clarke, who plays Dug­dale’s agent, con­fined to his pala­tial house on home de­ten­tion since his con­vic­tions for tax fraud).

And the first episode works best as a kind of ex­tended mono­logue bro­ken by the dry ques­tion­ing of his bi­og­ra­pher and the mo­ments of “bad sit­com”, as one of the char­ac­ters calls it, that sur­round the Mi­callef comic pos­tur­ing.

The Great Aus­tralian Bake Off, Tues­day, 8.30pm, LifeStyle Food. The Ex-PM, Wed­nes­day, 9pm, ABC.

IN­QUIRER: Shaun Mi­callef shares his ad­vice for Ab­bott, Turnbull and Shorten with Troy Bramston.

Main pic­ture, from left, Claire Hooper, Mag­gie Beer, Mel But­tle and Matt Moran in The Great Aus­tralian Bake Off; be­low, Shaun Mi­callef and Lucy Honig­man in new six-part com­edy se­ries The Ex-PM

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