Tele­vi­sion Annabel Crabb meets Scott Mor­ri­son

Af­ter an un­promis­ing start, the ABC’s Kitchen Cabi­net is cookin’, a prime­time hit show av­er­ag­ing more than a mil­lion view­ers an episode

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

Any­one who has been there knows that in­ter­view­ing on tele­vi­sion is an art that has noth­ing to do with democ­racy. As vet­eran Amer­i­can TV jour­nal­ist Bar­bara Wal­ters said, “When you’re in­ter­view­ing some­one, you’re in con­trol. When you’re be­ing in­ter­viewed, you think you’re in con­trol, but you’re not.”

In Kitchen Cabi­net, re­turn­ing this week, Annabel Crabb is firmly in the driver’s seat as she once again eats and talks food, recipes and the prob­lems of po­lit­i­cal life as a guest in the homes of our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives from both sides of the fence.

The idea is based on the ac­cepted wis­dom that lun­cheon book­ings with the po­lit­i­cal class not only ce­ment so­cial re­la­tion­ships, they can turn into an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies, and be per­son­ally and emo­tion­ally re­veal­ing. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” said Jean An­thelme Bril­lat-Savarin, the French lawyer and politi­cian, who gained fame as an epi­cure and gas­tronome.

When Crabb started out on what has be­come a rather epic culi­nary jour­ney, she said she wasn’t sure why this kind of per­sonal dis­clo­sure some­times oc­curred. “Per­haps it’s be­cause the ar­rival of a plate helps them to for­get the pad and pen­cil that lies — either lit­er­ally or fig­u­ra­tively — be­tween in­ter­viewer and in­ter­vie­wee.” Like hell it does. Much of the fun of the show is in watch­ing politi­cians at­tempt­ing to act oh-sonat­u­ral and be­liev­able in a do­mes­tic con­text while Crabb ma­noeu­vres them for a killing thrust of that fig­u­ra­tive writ­ing im­ple­ment.

When it started rather qui­etly on the ABC’s sec­ond chan­nel a cou­ple of years ago, the show was just a lit­tle lame, an ex­er­cise in awk­ward­ness. Crabb bat­tled as much as the politi­cians in try­ing to turn of­ten rather inanely ob­du­rate con­ver­sa­tion into en­ter­tain­ing tele­vi­sion.

But never to be taken lightly, Crabb and her pro­duc­ers per­se­vered and the shows im­proved: her au­di­ence grew, the friend­li­ness be­came less grat­ing and Crabb be­came more cheek­ily as­sertive. (She also got a big­ger bud­get, bet­ter light­ing and more cam­eras.) Her most re­cent se­ries have av­er­aged more than a mil­lion view­ers an episode and are now a part of prime-time ABC pro­gram­ming, with no short­age of pol­lies will­ing to wine and dine the at­trac­tive and gre­gar­i­ous Crabb.

“The more com­fort­able you make some­one feel, the bet­ter in­ter­view you’re ul­ti­mately go­ing to get,” US talk show host and news an­chor Katie Couric once re­marked. Crabb uses all the tricks to re­lax her wily politi­cians, meet­ing her sub­jects on their level by bring­ing a cake or a pud­ding — she’s an in­spired home baker — and match­ing them for mood, en­ergy lev­els and even body lan­guage. She’s now fully adept at the sub­lim­i­nal cues that show she’s fully present in the con­ver­sa­tion, not sim­ply tread­ing wa­ter wait­ing for the next cue.

She’s es­pe­cially good at mov­ing it all along, de­fus­ing awk­ward­ness with a small mo­ment of josh­ing hu­mour. And she al­ways seems poised to change di­rec­tion based on what hap­pens in the in­ter­change — re­gard­less of what ques­tions she and her pro­ducer may have contemplated be­fore­hand.

It’s ob­vi­ous, too, that she is prac­tised at lis­ten­ing, not just to the words her sub­jects ut­ter but also the tone in which they are said, the pauses and nu­ances of the an­swer, and what’s left un­spo­ken. Some­times a small smile flick­ers around her lips, sig­nalling the thought that “Oh, that’s a good bit right for the edit right there”.

She of­ten in­gen­u­ously clut­ters her con­ver­sa­tion with a slight con­fu­sion of in­ter­rupted thoughts, then sud­denly pops the tightly coiled ques­tion. It’s a killer tech­nique.

At other times she sim­ply looks at her quarry qui­etly and calmly as they fuss around the food prepa­ra­tion, and you can al­most hear her thoughts, tin­kling like dis­tant wind chimes. Crabb’s eyes sparkle with what seems like a gen­uine lik­ing for her sub­jects, but lurk­ing be­neath is the shrewd judg­ment so ap­par­ent in her col­umns, only just masked by that seem­ingly guile­less flir­ta­tious­ness.

She has teased out some won­der­fully pen­e­tra­tive re­marks, such as this riff from Malcolm Turn­bull af­ter he lost the Lib­eral Party lead­er­ship some years ago. “If you are com­pletely and ut­terly lack­ing in a sense of self-aware­ness, and you are ab­so­lutely obliv­i­ous to what ev­ery­one else thinks, you are per­fectly suited to be­ing a po­lit­i­cal leader,” he told her. “On the other hand, if you are drip­ping with em­pa­thy and you take se­ri­ously what other peo­ple think, then you run the risk of be­ing se­ri­ously hurt.” Then, af­ter a pause, he asked rhetor­i­cally: “How can you be an ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal leader and be a hu­man be­ing?” Mm­mmm.

In the new sea­son, Crabb looks for such in­sights from the Mo­tor­ing En­thu­si­ast Party’s sen­a­tor Ricky Muir, who takes her for a ride in two ve­hi­cles; Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who in­vites her to his off-the-grid farm and cre­ates ev­ery el­e­ment of his meal from scratch; and Olympic gold medal­list and sen­a­tor Nova Peris, who en­ter­tains Crabb in her fam­ily’s coun­try nes­tled in Kakadu which is, of course, teem­ing with croc­o­diles.

But first up it’s the Lib­eral Party heavy hit­ter and new Trea­surer Scott Mor­ri­son, filmed be­fore the re­cent lead­er­ship spill, who may be fa­mous for his bel­li­cose but suc­cess­ful stop­ping of the boats cam­paign but who re­mains some­what per­son­ally un­known to most of us. “Peo­ple de­scribe him as am­bi­tious, un­com­pro­mis­ing, even ar­ro­gant; I’ve also heard com­pas­sion­ate, de­vout and a Tina Arena fan,” Crabb says at the start. She bakes a pavlova-like dessert: two meringues sand­wiched to­gether with orange slices, chopped nuts, whipped dou­ble cream and, her cur­rent culi­nary ob­ses­sion, date syrup. As she sug­gests, it’s hard on the out­side and gooey on the in­side — but is her host?

It turns out he’s bois­ter­ously blokey and hardly ever stops blush­ing and smil­ing, bravely at­tempt­ing cutely lame jokes, greet­ing her at the door with flow­ers and a re­mark about politi­cians and door­knock­ing.

Later there are many gags about his time as im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter (a port­fo­lio his wife dreaded him gain­ing), and some faint jests about mar­itime “op­er­a­tional mat­ters” and “on­wa­ter is­sues”. They lunch at a beach house his fam­ily reg­u­larly rents on the NSW south coast, Mor­ri­son, while his knife skills are rudi­men­tary, at ease in the kitchen as he pre­pares a Sri Lankan fish curry, cha­p­at­tis and samosas — or as his staff call them, “ScoMosas”.

A rea­son­ably re­laxed Mor­ri­son talks of his wife and their long bat­tle with IVF to have a fam­ily, his ca­reer as a child ac­tor, and rather drolly about his time at univer­sity where he stud­ied eco­nom­ics and thought the po­lit­i­cal types were “weirdos”. Then he’s quizzed on his Chris­tian faith (he was “a Unit­ing Church kid” like Crabb her­self, it turns out) and whether or not he is an­noyed that Pe­ter Costello calls him a “Happy Clap­per” (He just smiles and says, “You’ve got to laugh at your­self”).

He’s dis­arm­ing about his failed stint as the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Tourism Aus­tralia, the man who over­saw the con­tro­ver­sial but suc­cess­ful “So where the bloody hell are you?” tourism cam­paign — he ad­mits to un­leash­ing Lara Bin­gle on the world — los­ing his $350,000-a-year job af­ter what in­sid­ers de­scribed as a bit­ter fall­ing-out with the then tourism min­is­ter, Fran Bai­ley. Crabb mis­chie­vously points out the irony in his first big job be­ing to en­cour­age peo­ple to come to Aus­tralia and his first big po­lit­i­cal one to en­cour­age them not to.

He comes across as oddly vul­ner­a­ble, rea­son­able, pa­tient and while good jolly com­pany just a lit­tle world weary, aware that we must all deal with what he calls “life’s bit­ter hands”. Of the job it­self, the moral com­plex­i­ties and Machi­avel­lian de­vi­ous­ness of pol­i­tics, the spite­ful name call­ing and reg­u­lar po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions, he says, “I’ve re­ally learned not to care; and I re­ally don’t that much.” In the end he re­minded me of that old joke — econ­o­mists are peo­ple who are good with fig­ures but don’t have the per­son­al­ity to be ac­coun­tants.

Kitchen Cabi­net, ABC, 8pm.

Host Annabel Crabb, above, and with Scott Mor­ri­son, her first guest in the new se­ries of Kitchen

Cabi­net

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