ANNABEL IN THE HOUSE

The ir­re­press­ible Crabb goes where few have ven­tured to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate Par­lia­ment House

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell The House with Annabel Crabb,

Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cab­i­net has been one of the ABC’s sur­prise hits in re­cent years. Start­ing qui­etly on its se­cond chan­nel, it was an ex­er­cise in sus­tained awk­ward­ness in the be­gin­ning. But the pop­u­lar jour­nal­ist, then new to this kind of tele­vi­sion, is not one to give up eas­ily and thought­fully tried to turn of­ten rather inanely ob­du­rate con­ver­sa­tion with politi­cians into en­ter­tain­ing TV as she shared meals with them. Then with a big­ger bud­get, bet­ter light­ing and more cam­eras it all im­proved. Her au­di­ence grew as she moved to the main chan­nel, and as a per­former she de­vel­oped a per­sona that closely rep­re­sented the shrewd, eval­u­a­tive and witty jour­nal­ism of her col­umns.

Hap­pily, she never aban­doned that seem­ingly guile­less flir­ta­tious­ness, cot­ton­ing on to the first trick of ap­pear­ing on TV, which is to make it look easy and ap­pear to be on first name terms with ev­ery­one with whom you speak.

She had her de­trac­tors — mainly on the left of pol­i­tics — who de­rided her for an “in­sid­i­ous spread of pro­pa­ganda” be­cause she didn’t lac­er­ate politi­cians of whom they dis­ap­proved. Crabb merely shrugged in interviews when it was raised. Kitchen Cab­i­net was, she said, “an in­her­ently po­lite for­mat”, never in­tended as a form of broad­cast in­ter­view jour­nal­ism.

From the mak­ers of the show comes Crabb’s new doc­u­men­tary se­ries filmed ex­clu­sively in­side the heart of Aus­tralian democ­racy, the build­ing that com­mands more of our na­tional at­ten­tion than any other. “Its lead­er­ship changes, its an­cient ri­val­ries, its sheer power to change our lives make this the most scru­ti­nised struc­ture on the con­ti­nent,” Crabb says in the first episode by way of in­tro­duc­tion. “And yet, para­dox­i­cally, it is also one of the most se­cret.”

The House with Annabel Crabb is di­rected adroitly and with great cin­e­matic style by Sta­ma­tia Maroupas, and pro­duced by Madeleine Hawcroft, some achieve­ment too, given the lo­gis­tic prob­lems they en­coun­tered, with ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Nick Hay­den and Sue Spencer. “The Kitchen Cab­i­net team had spent quite a few years bust­ing down the doors of politi­cians’ houses around the coun­try, so we thought why don’t we find a way in through the doors of Par­lia­ment House,” Hawcroft says.

The House was shot across 10 months just be­fore the start of the 45th par­lia­ment with un­prece­dented ac­cess granted by Par­lia­ment House au­thor­i­ties to the ex­ten­sive parts of the build­ing where cam­eras — and mem­bers of the pub­lic — or­di­nar­ily are not per­mit­ted.

“The press gallery rent space from the par­lia­ment, so there are al­ways cam­era peo­ple from var­i­ous net­works walk­ing around the build­ing,” Hawcroft says. “How­ever there is a 32-page me­dia rules doc­u­ment (in­clud­ing maps) that clearly out­line where cam­eras can and can’t film — and most of the build­ing and its 10km of cor­ri­dors are off lim­its.” Hawcroft won some con­ces­sions for her team and with lim­ited su­per­vi­sion — car­ry­ing around signs that read “Par­lia­ment House Doc­u­men­tary Project Film­ing In Progress”, they were hard to miss — they roamed the build­ing rel­a­tively free.

Maroupas fol­lows Crabb as she chats to the cam­era and interviews the build­ing’s res­i­dents, traips­ing 14,000sq m of par­quetry floor­ing past 482 doors. It’s an epic piece of film­mak­ing, as Hawcroft sug­gests, never com­pletely ob­ser­va­tional as a doc­u­men­tary, or en­tirely led by Crabb as the pre­sen­ter, though she also pro­vides link­ing nar­ra­tion, of­ten a se­ries of droll ob­ser­va­tions on the ac­tion. “In our se­ries, we had to find a way to weave in interviews with key char­ac­ters led by Annabel and mo­ments where we are com­pletely fly on the wall,” says Hawcroft. “In post-pro­duc­tion, we were led by the strong­est scenes shot on lo­ca­tion.”

It’s ob­vi­ously in­flu­enced by the BBC four­part se­ries In­side the Com­mons, filmed across a year in the run-up to the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion and screened on the ABC last year. Re­porter Michael Cock­erell took us into the heart of Bri­tish democ­racy, the House of Com­mons, the coun­try’s most iconic build­ing that turned out to be a crum­bling wreck (like many of its in­hab­i­tants). As Benji Wil­son wrote in Lon­don’s The Tele­graph, Cock­erell “quickly latched on to a tren­chant metaphor and ham­mered it home — that the Palace of West­min­ster is a mock gothic relic that is com­ing apart at the seams, and so is the in­sti­tu­tion it houses”.

This kind of tren­chant anal­y­sis is not Crabb’s style. And her se­ries pro­vides not only an en­ter­tain­ing op­por­tu­nity to shed some light on the in­ner work­ings of this long­stand­ing pil­lar of pol­i­tics, the po­lit­i­cal class and the so-called pol­icy elite, but a kind of witty travel doc­u­men­tary that en­gages with the house in its city, which tra­di­tion­ally has been re­garded as a place to poke ridicule at or to apol­o­gise for. As nov­el­ist James But­ton wrote, Can­berra is a city “that lures am­bi­tious peo­ple from all across Aus­tralia, a city that re­makes fam­i­lies, a city of clam­orous de­bates and de­serted streets, a city of words, per­me­ated with an im­mense si­lence”.

Crabb touched on this in her sub­mis­sion to the ABC. “It is fash­ion­able now to use the word ‘Can­berra’ as a mild pe­jo­ra­tive — im­ply­ing dis­tance, or be­ing out-of-touch,” she wrote. “Ev­ery­one has an opin­ion on whether ‘Can­berra’ is get­ting it right or wrong. But how much do vot­ers know about what goes on un­der the gi­ant flag on Par­lia­ment Drive? Be­yond the two min­utes on the nightly news, in which politi­cians spar in ques­tion time on the is­sue of the day, or face the mi­cro­phone for­est of a press con­fer­ence, how much of Par­lia­ment House’s other busi­ness is ever truly un­der­stood?”

Crabb and Hawcroft were in­trigued by the Up­stairs, Down­stairs no­tion of the house, and the thou­sands of peo­ple who keep this democ­racy run­ning. The prob­lem fac­ing Crabb and Hawcroft, though, was get­ting the bal­ance right of pro­vid­ing a kind of civic ed­u­ca­tion to an au­di­ence that ranges from to­tal po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers to those who barely know their green from their red cham­bers, though Crabb as the ul­ti­mate in­sider is the con­sum­mate guide.

The first episode opens with a cast of thrilled but ap­pre­hen­sive new MPs, most of whom spend their first weeks per­ma­nently lost, and an un­pre­dictable new Sen­ate. The new pol­lies are be­mused by their name plate in­stal­la­tions, the size of their suites, the of­fi­cial photo ses­sions (“If you get a good shot you can use it for years af­ter you’ve aged hor­ri­bly in the job,” ob­serves Crabb) and the var­i­ous his­tory les­sons they at­tend.

Then Crabb ven­tures down into the se­cret un­der­world be­neath the house, a hid­den me­trop­o­lis of roads, cars and 1100 rooms with a work­force that rarely sees the light of day. She talks with lo­gis­tics man­ager Sandy McIn­er­ney, the woman who could throw Aus­tralian democ­racy into dis­ar­ray sim­ply by stop­ping de­liv­er­ies of cof­fee and toi­let pa­per. “It’s the mouth and arse of this place,” she says. “Ev­ery­thing goes through the load­ing dock and ev­ery­thing goes out through the load­ing dock.”

Then it is back to the open­ing of the par­lia­ment, a stately event where Crabb makes a droll ac­quain­tance with some ar­cane West­min­ster par­lia­men­tary tra­di­tions and the of­fi­cials who carry them out, a car­ni­val of Old English pageantry en­livened some­what with a wel­come from the lo­cal indige­nous peo­ple.

Maroupas’s di­rec­tion is be­guil­ing, es­pe­cially given the com­mando tac­tics her team needed to adopt to keep track of their sub­jects. With her cin­e­matog­ra­pher Josh Flavell, she makes the most of the op­por­tu­nity to cap­ture the dis­tinct de­sign of the build­ing, its size, shape, nat­u­ral light­ing and the unique blend­ing of in­te­rior and ex­te­rior spa­ces. It’s an el­e­gant, stylish look. “It was a dream lo­ca­tion, time­less beauty with a nod to the mod­ernist era, 80s ex­trav­a­gance and Aus­tralian in­flu­ences,” she says.

Crabb again wears those mul­ti­coloured, vin­tage-in­spired 1950s dresses she dis­played in Kitchen Cab­i­net, but given the ur­gency of keep­ing up with events as they oc­cur, she oc­ca­sion­ally pops up in more util­i­tar­ian journo’s work clothes of leg­gings and dark jacket. She re­ally is one of the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple on the telly and one of the smartest, ef­fec­tively elic­it­ing the em­pa­thy of those watch­ing. ABC. Tues­day, 8pm,

Annabel Crabb in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives

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