JA­COB­SON DOWN UN­DER

Howard Ja­cob­son and Dan Gold­berg dis­cuss the BBC’s two-part pro­gramme

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY SI­MON ROUND

HOWARD JA­COB­SON has been telling a joke for a quite some time about his first trip to Aus­tralia back in 1964. “As the boat I was in was pass­ing the equa­tor, we passed a ship go­ing the other way and Robert Hughes, Ger­maine Greer, Clive J ames and Barry Humphries were on it. They were all shout­ing from the deck, ‘you’re go­ing the wrong way mate’. In re­al­ity they weren’t all on the same boat and they all ar­rived in Bri­tain at dif­fer­ent times. But I have al­ways thought that my life was in some way run­ning par­al­lel with these people.”

Now 50 years on, Ja­cob­son has ce­mented this link by mak­ing a two part doc­u­men­tary — Rebels of Oz: Ger­maine, Clive Barry, and Bob — which tells the story of these four fiercely am­bi­tious and in­tel­li­gent Aus­tralians who landed on ours shores just as Ja­cob­son was ar­riv­ing in Syd­ney to take up his first lec­tur­ing job at the age of 22. He had al­ready met Greer in Cam­bridge. “Some­one had said, ‘you should meet this woman, she has just come from where you are go­ing’. I met her and I thought bloody hell, if they are all like her this is go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing. She was very im­pres­sive, very con­fi­dent and very beau­ti­ful. She is the kind of per­son who can take up the oxy­gen in a room.”

You could say the same thing about all four. Robert Hughes was a larger than life art critic who made his mark in Lon­don and New York both on tele­vi­sion and in print with a di­rect­ness that shocked the es­tab­lish­ment. Humphries is an icon­o­clas­tic co­me­dian who shot to fame with comic cre­ations in­clud­ing Dame Edna Ever­age. James ruled the air­waves in the 80s and 90s with his prime-time shows but has also found time to write nov­els, po­etry and to trans­late Dante. And, of course, Greer rocked the world in the early 70s fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of her fem­i­nist work The Fe­male Eu­nuch.

“The one thing they all have in com­mon is words,” Ja­cob­son notes. “They are all very good with lan­guage. They are good writ­ers and good talkers. Ev­ery one of them is great on tele­vi­sion. They can all hold an au­di­ence. The qual­i­ties they brought over here were very Aus­tralian qual­i­ties. They had no fear of author­ity.”

The four were from a gen­er­a­tion which took its en­ergy from a feel­ing of cul­tural in­fe­ri­or­ity. Ja­cob­son feels they went in search of cul­ture be­cause of the lack of it at home. “They got over this in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex by be­ing clev­erer than us and show­ing us how to do it. The ones I know are still like that. Aus­tralians know more about Euro­pean art than Euro­peans do. They have read more books and lis­tened to more serous mu­sic. It was in Aus­tralia that I started lis­ten­ing to Mozart and Schu­bert and it was there that I started look­ing at paint­ings even though there weren’t that many paint­ings.”

When they came over here, they made their mark by man­ag­ing to be in­tel­lec­tual with­out be­ing posh — quite an achieve­ment in the 60s and 70s. “They took

‘THE QUAL­I­TIES THEY BROUGHT OVER HERE WERE VERY AUS­TRALIAN’

us by storm,” he re­calls. “We were very sleepy. The satire thing was just be­gin­ning to hap­pen but it was very much a pub­lic school satire. We were still a class­rid­den so­ci­ety. They turned up with their ac­cents and their lack of re­spect for author­ity and were funny and rude. They were just what we needed.”

While young Aus­tralians left in the 60s think­ing their na­tion a provin­cial back­wa­ter, to a 22-year-old Man­cu­nian Syd­ney was packed with ex­cite­ment. “I found it thrilling. I sup­pose there comes an age when you have more fun if you leave home and that is what we were all do­ing. I was bored out of my head at Cam­bridge — it was my fault, not Cam­bridge’s — and this was my great ad­ven­ture. It was a glit­ter­ing, shim­mer­ing coun­try and re­mains so in my imag­i­na­tion. I ide­alise it and I think that amuses the people who made the film. They said to me: ‘Do you re­ally like Aus­tralia as much as that?’”

It was Ja­cob­son’s obit­u­ary of Hughes in the In­de­pen­dent in 2012 which alerted the pro­gramme mak­ers at the pro­duc­tion com­pany Mint Pic­tures — one of whom, Dan Gold­berg, be­came the se­ries pro­ducer. Him­self an im­mi­grant to Syd­ney from his na­tive Glas­gow, Gold­berg dou­bles as the JC’s Aus­tralian cor­re­spon­dent. He was “amazed” at Ja­cob­son’s take on Aus­tralia. “It is al­ways re­veal­ing when an out­sider look­ing in says some­thing about your coun­try. It was very com­pli­men­tary about Aus­tralia and in par­tic­u­lar about these four fig­ures. We were taken aback and thought it was worth pur­su­ing. I made con­tact with Howard, I think through the JC, and asked him whether he would be in­ter­ested in mak­ing a pro­gramme about these four people. As he joked at the pre­miere in Sh­effield, he said yes but thought noth­ing would hap­pen.”

In fact, the project im­pressed com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tors at both the BBC and Aus­tralia’s ABC net­work and it was com­mis­sioned as a two-part in­ter­na­tional co-pro­duc­tion, with film­ing in Lon­don, Syd­ney and New York. Ul­ti­mately there was enough ma­te­rial for a four-part doc­u­men­tary se­ries had it been re­quired.

Gold­berg says that de­spite the com­pli­ca­tions in ar­rang­ing fund­ing and the in­evitable de­lays in­volved in a project of this mag­ni­tude, it came to­gether largely through Ja­cob­son’s ef­forts. “Howard not only ap­proached the three main char­ac­ters but also people like Martin Amis, Si­mon Schama and Melvin Bragg came on board through his work. It took two years al­most to the month from when we had the idea to the pro­gramme be­ing screened on BBC4.”

He adds: “I’m a jour­nal­ist. Give me a cou­ple of phone num­bers and I’ll have an ar­ti­cle with you by the end of the day. I’m still com­ing to terms with the gla­cial pace of the tele­vi­sion busi­ness. But of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is one is right up there. It has its chal­lenges but I en­joyed ev­ery mo­ment.”

The sec­ond part of Rebels of Oz is on BBC4 on Tues­day at 9pm. Part one is avail­able on iPlayer

Brolly good show: Howard Ja­cob­son with Barry Humphries and ( be­low) Dan Gold­berg

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