Australian Television: A Genealogy of Great Moments

Alan McKee,
Australian Television: A Genealogy of Great Moments.
Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001.
ISBN: 0 195512251
362 pp
Au$49.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Oxford University Press)

In both the title and the text (“This book is a genealogy”, 13) the author proposes that he is writing a “genealogy”, which my dictionary defines as a “pedigree” or a “history of the descent of families”. So Lorraine Bayley (as Grace Sullivan in The Sullivans, 1976-83) is placed in a genealogy – a line of descent – of female leads, which links her to Abigail (Bev in Number 96, produced from 1972 to 1977) and to Carol Burns (Frankie Doyle in Prisoner, which ran from 1979-86) (157). More commonly, however, the emphasis is on “families” of television programmes, so each chapter discusses one example of a genre: a topical variety show, a current affairs show, a police drama, a miniseries, a sensational soap opera, etc.. But it is also about “great moments”, that is, not the whole of the soap opera Neighbours (1985-present), but the episode in which Charlene married Scott, not the whole of Playschool (1967-present), but the episode in which presenter Benita
Collings appeared without a bra.

Most of these “great moments” are recognised through research in the “public archive”: they are readily or enthusiastically remembered by audiences, and are anthologised in television compilations or discussed in books. Sometimes their status is measured by popularity with the general public (the death of Grace Sullivan on The Sullivans), sometimes by the controversy the moment generated (the Four Corners episode on the Returned Servicemen’s League), sometimes by recognition within the academy (Frontline, 1994-97), sometimes by the author himself: Burke’s Backyard (1987-present) is certainly popular but is discussed here precisely because it does not have identifiable, controversial or sensational “moments” that register in the public archive.

After a “moment” is identified, the programme in which it occurs is discussed – both generically (as one of a “family” of programmes) and genealogically (in terms of its precursors and successors). Chapter three, for instance, takes as its “moment” the first episode of Homicide(1964-76). The programme is described in generic terms (“a police show, shot in Melbourne”), and readers are reminded of the length of the programme’s run (thirteen years) and of the main characters/actors whose names are associated with its success. Its place in the public archive is described: its representation in documentaries concerning the history of Australian television, and the way audiences credit it as a “germinal moment” (51). Though the search for origins was explicitly rejected in the opening chapter (13), the precursors of Homicide are noted as both Australian police serials on radio, and imported American television series such as Perry Mason (1957-66), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64) and The Untouchables (1959-63). Then the importance of the programme to the history of Australian television is discussed, in terms of introducing Australian audiences to home-grown television drama, with Australian locations and voices, so leading “directly to the creation of two other Crawford’s cop shows… and to the dominance of the police genre in Australian drama production” (66).

This allows the author to discuss each programme not so much in terms of what it might “mean” objectively, but rather in terms of how it was received at the time and how it is currently remembered. Such a discussion positions television as a vital part of Australia’s cultural heritage:

This book draws on evidence for collectively remembered elements of Australian television’s programming history in order to map the public archive of ‘great moments’ on the medium, and to propose that the evidence that these moments exist – rather than vanishing into an ever-moving flow of homogenous items – means that they might fairly be included in accounts of Australia’s cultural heritage. (15)

At the same time, the author offers this kind of analysis as a corrective to what he sees as gaps or mistakes in television analysis so far. For instance (as in the quote above), he rejects the concept of television as continuous “flow”, which he claims implies that “nothing is outstanding or distinctive” (312). This is a partial, even slightly perverse, reading of the theory which interprets television as daily/weekly cyclical and continuous programming, in which individual programmes may be embedded, so that discussion of each can inform the other in a hermeneutic circle. This is, in fact, what McKee himself does when he positions a particular moment (Graham Kennedy’s “crow call”) inside an episode of In Melbourne Tonight (1957-70), which is also discussed more generally (as a variety show, representative of its genre and its time). If the approach is to be through genealogy, this kind of embedding is surely inevitable.

He also positions his work in opposition to what he describes as the five ways in which most discussion of television in Australia has so far proceeded: in terms of political economy (ownership and regulation), public affairs (the representation of politics in news and current affairs), medium theory (how television organises time and space), audience research, and programme production. However, here too the distinction is not as great as McKee would have us believe, as he frequently draws these concepts into the discussion of individual programmes: for instance, the whole idea of a “public archive”, which determines the selection of the programmes to be discussed in terms of how audiences remember them, is actually an aspect of audience research.

Finally, his repeated claim that there is no substantive writing on Australian television programmes themselves is undermined by the frequent references he makes to the writing of others, and the number of such works cited in the bibliography.

So, rather than set up this book as an antidote to what has gone before, I prefer to see it as a worthwhile contribution to the field, extending discussion productively and provocatively. There are minor disappointments: the small size and poor quality of the illustrations, the inadequate proof-reading (“Cernelia” Francis was a particularly irritating example), and the fact that the weakest chapter is the first chapter (with a repetitive style, circular argument, and an assumption that readers don’t need to be told what Blankety blanks [1977] is). There is the perennial problem of writing about a moving target: it is, for instance, no longer correct that no major Australian drama series has a continuing gay character (in 2003 Stingers (1998-present) has undercover detective Chris, who also happens to be lesbian). But most of the time the argument is clear and insightful, and the approach through individual programmes allows some things to be discussed that are often glossed over.

The only substantive argument I have is with chapter thirteen, on the mini-series, in which I think that the claim of the generic difference of Return to Eden (1985) is exaggerated. Though my own researches support the proposition that the miniseries provided for many years the most thorough and continuing discussion of Australian history on television, there were in fact other examples of miniseries with stories contemporary with their presentation: Scales of Justice in 1983, Singles and City West in 1984, Glass Babies in 1985, Dancing Daze, The Girl from Steel City, The Body Business, Alice to Nowhere, Spearfield’s Daughter, The Great Bookie Robbery, Five Times Dizzy in 1986. What interests me, therefore, is why Return to Eden was so much more successful than any of these, and why it is remembered when they are not?

Perhaps Alan McKee could address that in his next book. Meanwhile, he invites others to take part in the debate he has started, and I hope they accept the invitation: Australian television is now rich and diverse enough to make such debate entertaining as well as fruitful.

Ina Bertrand
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →