The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

There is a pop­u­lar BBC ra­dio pro­gram called Desert Is­land Discs. The idea is that the guest chooses the songs or record­ings they would wish to have with them if trapped on a desert is­land for the rest of their lives. The lit­er­ary vari­a­tion is to choose the one book you would take to such a pe­cu­liar desti­na­tion. I was such a lit­eral-minded youth that when first pre­sented with this du­bi­ous choice, all I could think was that if you only had one book for the rest of your life you would want it to be the long­est one pos­si­ble. So I al­ways nom­i­nated An­thony Powell’s novel A Dance to the Mu­sic of Time, which ran to 12 vol­umes, though War and Peace would have been a good choice for the same rea­son.

In Eve­lyn Waugh’s A Hand­ful of Dust the hero, Tony Last, ends up in some­thing quite like this sit­u­a­tion. The prospect of read­ing vol­umes of Dick­ens aloud for the rest of his life ren­ders even the great Vic­to­rian sto­ry­teller a kind of tor­ture.

There is an in­her­ent silli­ness to the concept, of course. How would you know, be­fore you were ship­wrecked on a desert is­land, that you would only get to take one book?

Such cav­illing is not, of course, in the spirit of the jest. Re­cently, to my amaze­ment, my wife and I ex­pe­ri­enced cir­cum­stances that pro­duced a use­ful fac­sim­ile of the Desert Is­land Discs sce­nario.

We were in an apart­ment for a cou­ple of days in which we couldn’t op­er­ate the tele­vi­sion. Baby boomers are still re­mark­ably de­pen­dent on tele­vi­sion, to fill the in­evitable in­ter­stices of even a full life.

Dur­ing the day we were busy and had no need of the box. And we chat­ted con­tent­edly over din­ner. But be­tween din­ner and bed­time there is an ad­dic­tive at­tach­ment to a bit of harm­less en­ter­tain­ment on the tube.

We could have read, of course, but that’s not very so­cia­ble when there are two of you. Sim­i­larly with the nor­mal di­vert­ing things avail­able on our re­spec­tive phones.

But we had in our pos­ses­sion an an­cient lap­top. What a bo­nanza we dis­cov­ered, and what fun we had. A lap­top is just big enough to make view­ing by two en­joy­able, yet it is also an in­ti­mate and cosy ex­pe­ri­ence. It was like go­ing for a pic­nic and shar­ing a plate.

And we worked out the TV se­ries we would take to a de­serted is­land. It turns out that of­ten the very first episode of a se­ries is eas­ily avail­able on the net. So we watched the first cou­ple of episodes of One Foot in the Grave, that bril- liant British satire of self-destructive frus­tra­tion mixed with the chal­lenges of grow­ing older, not hav­ing a job but still be­ing healthy.

One Foot in the Grave is in­fin­itely more clever, thought­ful and amus­ing than that re­cent dreary British film The Golden Years, which also tried to deal with the frus­tra­tion of the re­tire­ment years but had all the mer­ri­ment of boiled cab­bage.

By far our big­gest and best dis­cov­ery was the very first episode of My Three Sons, from way back in 1960. That is al­most pre­his­toric in tele­vi­sion terms.

Yet all the es­sen­tial tech­niques of suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion were there: good script, su­perb act­ing, pre­cise tim­ing, flow and se­quence and char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. As a sit­com My Three Sons, which starred the leg­endary Fred MacMur­ray, could be hu­mor­ous or oc­ca­sion­ally mildly dra­matic. The idea of an all-male house­hold — a wid­ower, his three sons, their grand­fa­ther, fash­ion­ing a fine fam­ily life to­gether — must have been mod­er­ately un­con­ven­tional in 1960.

That first episode was in its way TV per­fec­tion. And what dif­fer­ent val­ues it rep­re­sented.

The older sons wore suits on any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. Dad nat­u­rally stood up if a lady came to or left the ta­ble. MacMur­ray asks his youngest son, Chip, who has been un­kind to a girl at school: How does a gen­tle­man be­have?

What a sav­aging any mod­ern TV show would get for us­ing the term gen­tle­man without layer upon layer of post­mod­ern irony and sel­f­ref­er­en­tial faux cute­ness. Given that My Three Sons ran for 12 years, it would surely be the choice for Desert Is­land TV Show.

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