Are Bastard Children Australian TV’s New Gay?

Thanks to Packed To The Rafters, Australian television is enjoying something of a domestic drama renaissance. This new breed of show centres around families and, depending in the show, a variety of extended family members and satellite characters. It makes a nice change from dramas set in police stations, hospitals and law practices, I must say, but with our TV screens inundated with so many dysfunctional – and entertaining – families, a new sub-trend, shall we say, has emerged.

It wasn’t so long ago that the inclusion of positive gay and lesbian characters in such shows was seen as progressive, but now that’s par for the course. Gay characters are so passé now. So, welcome to the screen a veritable bevy of unknown siblings, lost birth parents and traumatising progeny of pre-marital flings.

Coby Rafters

Thank goodness Coby got rid of that bogan hairstyle…

As you’d expect, the recently-finished Packed To The Rafters was the first out of the gate, with Dave (Erik Thompson) seeking out his birth parents Chel (Gillian Jones) and Tom (John Howard), and discovering a hitherto unknown set of unsavoury step-relatives, including the troublesome petty thief half-nephew Coby (Ryan Corr), who soon became part of the Rafters family unit, and underwent a character reformation (his art showed a softer side to the disaffected youth) and thankfully a style makeover, including a less-bogan hairstyle.

georgia flood

Teenage, pregnant and sulky. No wonder Phoebe had a character makeover.

House Husbands made it clear from the outset that Lewis (Gary Sweet) had an adult daughter Lucy (Anna McGahan) from his first marriage, but towards the end of the first season, he was joined by another daughter from a previous relationship, Phoebe (Georgia Flood), a pregnant, sulky runaway teen. Like Coby and the Rafters, she and her baby Gem were soon incorporated into Lewis’ home and family unit, and transformed into a much more likeable character.

 

Meanwhile, 60 years ago in A Place To Call Home, one of the many ‘scandalous’ secrets the Bligh family has been hiding has been recently revealed, and that’s the fact that George’s (Brett Climo) daughter, the thoroughly modern Anna (Abby Earl), who was pregnant to her secret Italian lover before a miscarriage, is actually his niece! Yes, on a trip to Sydney to consult her favourite aunt, Carolyn (Sara Wiseman), Anna discovers that she was the result of an unmarried affair, born overseas while Carolyn was travelling with George’s wife and brought home as their daughter. Of course, being a rather self-contained series, Anna’s real father isn’t just some random bloke Carolyn hooked up with, but someone very close to the Bligh family. Naturally. No one else in the family knows she knows yet, but when it hits the fan, it’ll give James’ gay lust for Harry a run for its money in the scandal stakes.

Anna Carolyn

To Anna’s complete surprise, she discovered that her favourite aunt was actually her mother. That explains a lot, she thought…

The Time of Our Lives is still in its early episodes, and so while no illegitimate children have been revealed yet, it may only be a matter of time. At least we have Luce’s (Shane Jacobson) oldest daughter Georgie (Elise MacDougall) from his first marriage to Maryanne (Anita Hegh) to act as half-sister to the younger twin girls and step-daughter to Bernadette (Justine Clarke). Maybe that’s enough steps and halves for the moment.

Phillip may not be a Proudman by name, but he's cetainly proud of his daughter, Nina.

Phillip may not be a Proudman by name, but he’s cetainly proud of his daughter, Nina.

Not too far removed from that in Offspring Land, Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie) leads a pretty complicated life as it is, but last year she discovered that Darcy (Jon Waters) wasn’t her real father at all, and that she was the result of a one-off fling between her mother Geraldine (Linda Cropper) and her doctor at the time, Phillip (Garry McDonald). She, of course, had to go and find him, and he is now back with Geraldine and an accepted and integrated member in the very messy Proudman family.

That awkward moment when the daughter you never knew you had meets the rest of your family...

That awkward moment when the daughter you never knew you had meets the rest of your family…

Winners & Losers is back for its third season, and starts off with Jenny Gross (Melissa Bergland) and her family – the wholesome, moral core of the show – dealing with the emergence of Sam (Katherine Hicks), a daughter that dad Brian (Francis Greenslade) didn’t even know about. No one’s dealing with it very well at all, to be honest, and as Brian tries hard to invite Sam into the family, son Patrick (Jack Pearson) isn’t having a bar of it, wife Trish (Denise Scott)is having trouble with the whole idea of it, and Jenny too is struggling to process this new information. And all of this is on top of Frances (Virginia Gay) finding her half-sister Jasmine (PiaGrace Moon), another recalcitrant teen whose bad behaviour has mellowed. Clearly it’ll only be a matter of time before Sam overcomes the Gross’ discomfort and becomes a part of the furniture, but not before the series writers milk it for all it’s worth.

Funny, isn’t it, that all the surprise children are all female, aside from Coby (who doesn’t really count, because he’s not a direct son of an established character). Is that because illegitimate daughters are easier to accept just because they’re female? It’s certainly a lot more convenient for scriptwriters to crank up the femininity and ‘softer’ side of these characters than it is to polish the rougher edges of spiky and unwanted male characters, and that opens up a whole new can of worms about the representation of male and female characters in Australian drama, but let’s not go there right now.

Of course, love children storylines aren’t new – soap operas have been using them for years, and apart from adding new dramatic subplots to these dramas, it also reflects the complicated family lives many Australians experience. Let’s just hope then that this sub-genre doesn’t spread much more than it has now. Hopefully it’ll stay out of other current Australian drama series, because the last thing we need right now is to discover that Dr Lucien Blake is actually the illegitimate lovechild of Miss Fisher and the dashing detective Jack Robinson. Because that would be silly. And we can’t have silly television now, can we?

Adventures in Cabaret

Anybody who believes Melbourne shuts up shop in winter is wrong. In many ways, winter is when classy, cultural Melbourne wakes up and shows itself off. And the Melbourne Cabaret Festival is fast becoming another of our city’s popular winter attractions. This week I’ve seen two very different shows that really demonstrate the range of what’s on offer during the festival: one sublime, one ridiculous, both intentionally so, and both worth seeing.

Michael GriffithsSweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox is written and directed by Dean Bryant and performed by singer and pianist Michael Griffiths who gets under the skin of Annie Lennox and revisits and recounts her career as a singer-songwriter and her life of love and heartbreak. With just his voice and a grand piano, this sexy, dapper and slightly cheeky gay singer transports the audience back to the early ’80s when Lennox, along with her one-time lover Dave Stewart, were hugely successful as the Eurythmics.

Griffiths doesn’t try to to impersonate, or even ‘channel’ Lennox; he simply inhabits her life through her music and links it with first-person reflections, often dry, wry and witty (just the way we like reflections). And it’s this simplicity that makes Sweet Dreams so effective.

MICHAEL_GRIFFITHSWith his strong and clear singing and evocative and accomplished piano arrangements, Griffiths shows how timeless and poignant Lennox’s songs are, full of raw emotion – mostly pain, jealousy and self-deprecating irony. He weaves songs and anecdotes from different periods in and out of each other, and tells a compelling and entrancing story. You can’t help but find yourself reassessing those old Eurythmics songs and albums and hear them afresh.

Of course, Griffiths does justice to songs such as ‘Love is a Stranger’, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’, ‘Why’, ‘Who’s That Girl’ and ‘Little Bird’, but what he does with other songs is quite incredible. By stripping away the 80’s over-production, songs such as ‘Right By Your Side’, ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ and ‘There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart) sound new, gentle, even wistful, and ‘This City Never Sleeps’ is truly hypnotic.

It’s an emotionally charged show, full of joy, sorrow, bitterness and hope, all the more effective thanks to some well-considered lighting design and the occasional use of some retro reverb on the microphone. Even if the Eurythmics and Annie Lennox weren’t an important part of your teenage years and musical development, Sweet Dreams will haunt your waking hours and sit nicely in your subconsciousness as you sleep. It’s an inspiring show not soon forgotten.

Maybe a little more immediate in its tone and production is Trevor Ashley’s new adults-only panto, Little Orphan trAshley. While the show was originally called ‘Trannie’, objections from the transgender community and the producers of the musical Annie required the name to be changed, Ashley’s not letting that stop him. He drops in quite a few bitchy one-liners about it – and just about everything else, from the recent Labor leadership spill to Linden Gallery’s ‘pornography’exhibition hoo-ha and many other cheeky, crass and downright wrong comments.

TrashleyWhich is what pantomime is all about, and as such, there is a loose, off-the-cuff feel to the show, but I don’t see that as a problem. In a nutshell (so to speak), it’s the story of Fanny (played, of course, by Ashley), an orphan left in the care of the drunk and nasty Miss Trannigan (played with wicked relish by Rhonda Burchmore, of course), but who is then ‘adopted’by millionaire Daddy Warhorse (Gary Sweet, having a great time, even if he looks like her has no idea of what’s going on – again, part of the point). But Fanny is actually transgendered and looking for someone to fund her gender reassignment surgery, and Daddy Warhorse fits the bill perfectly.

Naturally, the cast have great fun singing, dancing and swearing their way through the brisk parade of jokes and set pieces, held together tenuously by a bit of story, and while everyone is showing off their natural talents (Rhonda’s legs and stage prowess, Gary’s blokeyness and bald head, Trevor’s sharp tongue and comedic timing), Rhys Bobridge as the leathered-up dog Bullshit is the one who almost steals the show. Not just because he’s running around the stage on all fours yapping and whimpering like an excitable puppy with his bare arse in the air, but because he almost makes you believe he’s an actual dog.Rhys B

According to those who saw the show in Sydney, this incarnation is much tighter, which is a good thing. Pantomime can easily become self-indulgent and smug, but Little Orphan trAshley isn’t. It’s self aware enough to know when to leave things alone, when to milk what’s working, and when to change horses midstream if necessary. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of wrong fun, and another show worth seeing.

 

And… 12 months later, I’m back online!

Yes, apologies. It has been over twelve months since I last posted something here, and in that time, I’ve experienced my second trip to Bali (Seminyak, naturally) and my first trip to Europe (London, Cardiff, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Venice). Work fortunes have fluctuated and yes, I have seen plenty of theatre, comedy, exhibitions and films – most of it good, some of it questionable, but that’s the way it goes, really. I’ll be seeing some Melbourne Cabaret Festival shows this week too, so more of that later this week. But in the meantime, here are some thoughts about television, in particular new Australian drama and classic Doctor Who.

We’re being spoilt for choice with new Australian drama on TV, especially on Sunday nights. ABC1, after treating us with the two-part miniseries Paper Giants: Magazine Wars last month, is now indulging us with The Time of Our Lives at 8.30pm, a new series from the creators of The Secret Life of Us, Judi McCrossin and Amanda Higgs, all those years ago. It’s new territory, but familiar ground for them; it’s wonderfully recognisably Melbourne, mostly around the bayside suburbs, and is about an extended family of siblings in their 30s, maybe a little older, and the hurdles they face in their domestic lives. That of course includes being left at the altar, infidelity, separations, ex-wives and children, and it certainly has a ring of truth about it.

claudia karvan

Claudia Karvan as Caroline ponders her parenting skills in The Time of Our Lives

There’s also some fine acting talent here: William McInness and Claudia Karvan as the central couple Matt and Caroline, struggling with a dead marriage and a son who is developmentally challenged. Karvan as the uptight, controlling mother who believes her son is ‘gifted’, and isn’t dealing with her husband’s departure, plays her with just enough detachment and obsession for us to be able to sit back and comment on her self-delusion, but adds enough vulnerability to truly elicit sympathy. McInnes has his spent and callous, if not selfish, character down pat. Justine Clarke is a delight as Bernadette, new partner to Shane Jacobson’s Luce and stepmother to his 11-year-old daughter, and Anita Hegh is perfect as his slightly bitter ex-wife. I get the feeling that Stephen Curry’s character, the unofficial adopted son to the family Herb, still has some development coming, and it seems we’ll be seeing more of Michael Dornan as the jilter of real adoptive daughter Chai Li (Michelle Vergara Moore).

a place to call home

The Bligh family in a Place to Call Home has its fair share of secrets…

There’s more family drama on Seven in the same timeslot but from a different era in A Place to Call Home. Set in 1953 on a wealthy country property just outside Sydney, it’s dealing with privilege, racism and homosexuality in post-war Australia, and while it’s unashamedly in soap opera territory, terrific performances from Marta Dusseldorp, Noni Hazlehurst Brett Climo, Craig Hall and David Berry make it great Sunday night viewing. Oh, and some hot topless masculinity in the shape of the gay farmer/object of desire doesn’t go astray either.

place to call home 1

Not quite topless, but gay farmer Harry still gets James Bligh excited…

 

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Tim Campbell and Gyton Grantley as gay dads in House Husbands. Lucky Stella!

Just two channels away on Nine is House Husbands, a surprise hit for the network, especially since it features a gay couple very prominently in the mix. In many ways, House Husbands is very safe viewing, with its focus on more Melbourne domestic scenarios and popular names such as Gary Sweet. Julia Morris, Rhys Muldoon and Firass Dirani, and that’s why it’s both a surprise and a delight to see the gay couple Kane and Tom, played by Gyton Grantley and Tim Campbell (read my interview with Tim for Time Out Melbourne), as such an important part of the show without being tokenistic or stereotyped.

 

 

offspring - season 4

Patrick is worried that Nina’s Post-It notes are multiplying…

Wednesday nights is Offspring night again, and continues its slightly heightened treatment of its familial dramas to great effect. Witty, well-written and wonderfully performed, it’s encouraging to see Australian drama can do this sort of programme well. And I guess all of these shows have a debt to Packed to the Rafters, which is calling it a day. Maybe it should have pulled the plug about a year ago, but it’s still sad to see it finish.

I’ve also been celebrating Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary by re-watching stories from its Classic days (1963-1989) in a random fashion. Covering all seven Doctors and all 26 seasons (The 1996 TV Movie will get its own one-off viewing soon), I’ve been selecting stories least watched and remembered, and that’s provided some very interesting viewing indeed. From the remastered Hartnell story, The Reign of Terror, now with animated missing episodes, to the unfortunately dull and earnest Colony in Space, Pertwee;s first trip in the TARDIS, the camp double-dealings of Tom Baker’s The Androids of Tara, and the slightly homoerotic Davison story, Planet of Fire.

doctor_who__planet_of_fire_beach

Turlough is exhausted after saving Peri from drowning. Well, that’s the ‘official’ story…

Homoerotic not just because Mark Strickson strips down to Speedos as Turlough rescues a drowning Peri (Nicola Bryant in a very brief bright pink bikini) off the coast of Lanzarote, and subsequently spends the rest of the story in short 80’s shorts, but because the not unattractive, for once, male natives of the planet Sarn run around in even shorter shorts and their leader Timanov, played by Peter Wyngarde, wears heavy eyeliner, and new companion Peri’s stepfather Howard’s first appearance is topless, in tight denim shorts and a fetching bandana around his neck (this is 1984, after all). Howard was played by Dallas Adams, who was 37 at the time, and is best known, it seems, for receiving the then-biggest palimony payout from his former boyfriend. He also died, apparently from AIDS, in 1991, aged 44.

dallas adams

Peri had no idea that her new stepfather was much more interested in hauling phallus-shaped artefacts out of the sea…

Eye candy aside, Planet of Fire isn’t a great story. It had a lot to do, what with introducing Peri as the new companion, writing out Turlough, while explaining his murky past, and getting rid of failed robot companion, Kamelion. Oh, it also killed off the Master – again; something of a habit in the 1980’s Master stories. But that’s no excuse for wooden acting, bad dialogue and that old ‘alien visitor worshipped as a god’ scenario.

Which, strangely enough, rears its head again in the story I’m watching now: The Trial of a Time Lord parts 1-4, also known as The Mysterious Planet. While the whole concept of an on-screen trial to mirror its off-screen troubles must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and there are some astute self-aware asides about censorship and screen violence, it does feel forced and very contrived as an umbrella for this 14-part, four-story 1986 season.

glitz and dibber

Glitz and Dibber didn’t understand why they were taken captive. No one told them their facial hair was offensive, clearly…

It’s also sad to remember that this is Robert Holmes’ last full story for Doctor Who – he died not long after writing this and before he finished the last episode of the season (that confused mess was penned by Pip and Jane Baker, desperately trying to pull everything together), and it’s not one of his best efforts. The galactic criminal duo Glitz and Dibber give the story some much-needed relief from the clunky robots and unmemorable supporting characters (apart from a dreadfully over-acting Joan Sims), and Colin Baker, who is trying way too hard. He is, I’m afraid, still my least favourite Doctor, and while it’s good to see he and Peri aren’t bickering as they were in their previous season, his brashness still grates.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated with other developments and reviews soon. Or I’ll try to…