ANNABEL IN THE HOUSE
The irrepressible Crabb goes where few have ventured to better appreciate Parliament House
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