Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Oh Hoppy Daze

“You can almost see,” explained Geoff Masters during the Hopman Cup final, “the min-tell in-tent-city.” By the time I’d translated this, US player Lisa Raymond had lost the point, mental intensity notwithstanding.

Minutes later for no apparent reason Geoff announced brightly, “coochindard looking very happy”, while the screen showed a pair of dour, middle-aged men sporting the sort of poker faces that suggested one of them had farted and was refusing to own up. Exactly who was Dutch player Michaella Krajicek’s coach and who was her father seemed inconsequential by this stage.

The ABC’s coverage of the Hoppy had everything you could wish for -- tangential observations, a smattering of tennis and astonishing outfits (this last was provided by Krajicek rather than the commentary team). She sported a pale, cobalt pantsuit so retro it seemed that earlier in the day she had hurriedly dressed in a pitch black room, relying solely on a wardrobe selected by Shaggy or Thelma, or possibly even Scooby.

Earlier during the week on WIN, Ricky Ponting was grinding out a double century, breaking batting records and steering Australia to an unlikely win over the Proteas. Up in the commentary box Tony Greig was grinding out diphthongs, Mark Taylor was proving why he’s the scintillating public face of Fujitsu air-conditioners and Richie Benaud quietly continued a conversation he’s been conducting with the Australian public for over 40 years. Benaud’s languid commentary had the added bonus of being intelligible.

Southern Cross responded by running some old Elvis flicks, thus posing the intriguing philosophical question -- which are the more irritating -- cricket tragics or Elvis fans? Quality is rarely an issue when dealing with the King’s oeuvre so pinpointing which movie sucked the most is difficult (particularly since I only saw the last few minutes of Paradise Hawaiian Style).

Mind you, the image of Elvis warbling across a sea of swaying, grass-skirted Hawaiians, while the following acknowledgement appeared: "Our gratitude to the peoples of the Pacific at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie, Oahu, Hawaii" did make an impression, particularly as the PCC was (and still is) a theme park operated by the Mormons.

Four and a half hours later and with four decades separating the production dates, RAN (SBS), navigated through slightly more complex ethnographic waters with aplomb. In terms of current Australian television drama, it contained a number of surprises.

Firstly, RAN appears to have been written by adults for an adult audience (and if you don’t think this is unusual I can only suggest you sit through an entire episode of McLeod's Daughters). Secondly, while set within an indigenous community in the Torres Strait, it managed to avoid the two fall back positions television often resorts to in this situation – either a gushy earnestness that kills real interest or convenient stereotypes, usually summed up by a grizzled old hand musing on the locals Weltanschauung via gimcrack mysticism.

Susie Porter, as remote area nurse Helen Tremain, injected the right mix of practicality, bedraggled patience and a wary curiosity -- a somewhat less vinegary version of Judy Davis. To begin with the script ran a little florid -- “This is my place: a teardrop of sand floating in Australia’s Coral Sea,” says Tremain in the opening internal monologue. “No one knows where it is and no one comes looking.”

But small, gritty pearls of realism steadied the ship -- cheeky little kids welcoming Tremain home by asking she was wearing any underpants -- the fey Myrtle refusing a foster mum for her unborn baby on the grounds she can’t sing a lullaby, “She sounds like a cat rooting.”

Another unexpected bonus was the excellent supporting cast combining professionals with local people from a variety of backgrounds. For example Louisa Taylor, who plays Myrtle, is a project officer on Thursday Island while Luke Carroll (Paul Gaibui) is perhaps best known for his recent work in The Alice.

RAN also introduces Australians to a part of their country most have never seen before and a people many of us are only aware of through the census form. For all this, it wore its responsibility lightly with veteran producer Penny Chapman (Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool, Blue Murder) concentrating on believable characters to hook in viewers.

As to the reason of featuring a nurse in the lead role -- instead of the usual doctor, Chapman sums it up succinctly: “Doctors stitch and bandage and then walk away. Nurses stay. Especially remote area nurses who devote their lives 24 hours a day to the community they work in and who front the crises on their own. No wonder they're the most respected people in our country.”

As long as they don’t ask for a wage rise in recognition of this service. Little Mr Square Eyes can only wonder if Premier Lennon will be tuning in to RAN. Speaking of appalling, moustachioed reactionaries, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby (ABC) continues its scorched earth approach to comedy and the New Zealand education system.

Like RAN, Gormsby is another ground breaker -- the first Kiwi comedy to be shown on Australian free-to-air television -- although in comparison, its take on race relations and cross-cultural sensitivity makes Paradise Hawaiian Style look as though it was it was penned by Claude Levi-Strauss.

The show is achingly funny for reasons that must simply be filed under ‘wrong’ -- in the first episode a student does a chalkboard cartoon accompanied by the legend “Gormsby takes it up the arse”. To track down the guilty party Gormsby threatens a shy, clearly innocent pupil with an unusual punishment, or, as one of his classmates reports to the principal, “Mr Gormsby is trying to bum Bastabus!” When the true culprit is revealed the weeping, traumatised boy is gently sent on his way with, “Sit down, Bastabus. I wasn't going to roger you. This isn't a Catholic school.”

Thinking about it, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby has something for everyone -- the left will see it as more evidence of a resurgent, culturally insensitive right (with all the attendant opportunities to whinge about it that this entails), while the right will enjoy its “defiantly politically incorrect stance, skewering the foibles of social engineering” (or some shit like that, but just how they’ll link this to the “majesty of the free market”, as they always do, is anyone’s guess).

The rest of us will have to be content with the news that a second series of the program is currently being shot in New Zealand. The one place it's unlikely Gormsby will lose his 'min-tell in-tent-city'.