Saturday, February 25, 2006

That’s that, goodbye

“Then last week, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane”

When Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, the richest man in Australia (and owner of the National Nine television network and Australian Consolidated Press) falls off the twig, you can’t help but dredge up a line or two from Wells' quote-packed 1941 epic. The Packer send–off (parts one and two) also capped off a big viewing fortnight that included the final episodes of RAN (Remote Area Nurse) and Carnivale, as well as the welcome news a remake of Monkey was on the way.

Based on the work of Wu Cheng’en, a 16th century writer who transcribed and embroidered from a much older, oral tradition, Monkey (or Journey to the West) is equal parts Grail quest, folk tale and Jackie Chan actioner. Little Mr Square Eyes recalls Arthur Waley’s translation, the best-known English version of this Chinese classic, has the habit of sometimes finishing an episode with a three-word wrap (or rap perhaps) of the main character – e.g. wise old Monkey!

Packer apparently used the same trick – when asked for a comment on Frank, his brutal, bullying father, Packer offered “strict but magnificent”. Given what Packer really thought of his dad, the word 'arsehole' probably should have been in there. Given what some people thought of Kerry, it might also have popped up in one of the tribute shows the Nine Network screened. Given the amount of financial muscle and influence the Packer family hass, it’s not surprising it didn’t.

So much for the givens - neither highly polished Citizen Kane style dialogue, nor Eastern aphorisms got much of a look in during the three hours it took to farewell Kerry Packer via the medium he made so much money from. It started well enough with part one, the John Lyons produced special The Big Fella: The Extraordinary Life of Kerry Packer. Despite his faults as a journalist (the main one being an eye for detail so selective it could have belonged to Picasso) Lyons makes highly watchable television – although we seem to disagree about the meaning of extraordinary.

Using a bevy of sportsmen, politicians and media folk the content was massaged into a reasonable bio without commercials breaking the flow. The vision was what you’d expect – young Kerry with freckles, Kerry in a silly hat, Kerry on the back of a tiny, somewhat stressed polo pony that was attempting to gallop – all intercut with relevant interviews (i.e. relevant to portraying Packer as a terrific, knockabout bloke who just happened to be worth $7 billion dollars or so).

Some magic moments did arise but you had to look carefully: Jack Nicklaus offering his expert opinion - on cricket, Greg Norman not talking exclusively about himself during an interview, James Packer hinting Kerry was a civil libertarian. Next, they wheeled in that other wealthy transplant survivor Sam Chisholm, to give the tributes that had been piled on the televisual burial mound a final polish.

Chisholm noted towards the end it was clear Packer’s days were numbered but added, “you can’t just say, that’s that, goodbye”. Which might have explain why less than 24 hours later Nine broadcast Kerry Packer’s state memorial service from the Sydney Opera House.

Whether Packer deserved what amounted to a state funeral has been hotly debated but it does seem there should be some distinction between those who have done great service and those who were great at making money. It’s a useful talent right enough but those in the latter category usually have more than enough eager cup bearers left behind to see them right at stumps.

Master of Ceremonies Alan Jones opened the batting by welcoming the audience and immediately started referring to Kerry Packer as KP – which had the unintended effect of recalling some old McHale’s Navy slang for ‘kitchen patrol’. Jones, sometimes affectionately known as AJ (to those with strong stomachs and no higher brain function), was flanked by a large video image of Packer in a white panama style hat looking rather like an elderly Marlon Brandon revisiting Mistah Kurtz.

At this point, AJ in his role as MC, smiled wetly at KP’s trampoline-sized mugshot and welcomed the PM to the podium. Much has been made of John Winston Howard’s ability to dodge responsibility, politicise the public service, appeal to the electorate’s baser instincts by skilfully employing wedge politics, all while presenting himself as a great economic reformer but, as always, the truth is a stranger beast.

“I had,” said Howard recalling the final time he met Packer, “my last, late, face to face, one on one, meeting, discussion, lunch with Kerry Packer”. It seemed that the condolences of a nation was being delivered by a Kath and Kim aficionado with grooming tips from Kel thrown in for good measure. Then it started in earnest, a small torrent of words including genius, larrikin, sentimental bloke and “a remarkable Australian” who had enriched “the Australian argot.” Well, Packer did use the word ‘fuck’ a great deal.

In contrast, James Packer spoke with a certain amount of style, dignity and the obligatory Packer sledge at old enemies (‘the Costigan affair’ he referred to was actually a royal commission). Whether this was a clear sign of a son masterfully stepping into his father’s shoes, the side effect of having a battalion of wordsmiths on hand to help write the eulogy or the direct result of being an Operating Thetan depended on how sceptical you were.

What more needed to be said? Unfortunately, it turned out the question was not rhetorical and the answer was (i) a small schoolboy murdering Waltzing Matilda and (ii) Russel Crowe reciting Rudyard Kipling’s If with all the vivacity of a mechanical hippo at Disneyland.

Cue more over the top eulogies and Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler. It was one bit of tacky television you couldn’t blame on KP – he had been buried weeks before (possibly on the QT) and was tucked away peacefully in the grounds of his New South Wales country property – lucky old KP!

PS See Anonymous Lefty for a slightly more robust view of the Packer passing.

Tags: Australian Television,