The Guardian 10 August, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 14 August Sat 20 August


The problem with TV programs about theatre is that television (or film) and theatre are distinctly different media. Photographing a stage show does not have the same effect as watching it in a theatre or seeing a film version of the show.

George M Cohan was a giant of Broadway, but when the six-part documentary series Broadway: The American Musical (ABC 7.30pm Sundays) wants to show us what Cohan was like on stage they use only a few actual clips of him performing and considerably more and more effective clips from a feature film about his life (with Jimmy Cagney as Cohan).

Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the first episode, Give My Regards To Broadway 1893 To 1927, is fascinating, especially its coverage of the 1919 strike by actors. The public supported the actors, and then the musicians joined the strike, to be followed by the electricians and stage-hands. Two days later it was all over: actors would be paid for rehearsals, they would not have to provide their own costumes, they would get their fare back to New York if a touring show folded, and so on.

Apart from the difficulty of capturing the essence of famous stage shows, the series suffers from the common American fault of assuming that American culture is the acme of world culture, that American musical theatre was and is superior to anything anywhere else.

This results in a dismissive approach to forms such as European operetta which in fact had a very strong influence on the development of the American musical.

A new series of the light-hearted police show New Tricks begins this week (ABC 8.30pm Sundays). Amanda Redman returns as Superintendent Pullman who as disciplinary punishment has been made to head up a special unit of retired coppers re-investigating unsolved cases.

Her three experienced detectives, who have made her unit's clean-up rate the envy of the Met, are excellently played, as before, by Dennis Waterman, Alun Armstrong and James Boland. Roy Mitchell's scripts are are also up to their previous standard.

Each of the six self-contained stories in the new series Canterbury Tales (ABC 9.25pm Sundays) is a modern retelling of one of Henry Chaucer's famous bawdy tales.

This week's opener is The Miller's Tale, starring James Nesbitt (star of Murphy's Law), Billie Piper (Doctor Who) and Dennis Waterman (New Tricks). Nesbitt is the traveller who cons the publican (Waterman) out of a large amount of cash, shags his luscious young wife (Piper), cleans out a nearby shop while framing a trio of kids and takes shameful advantage of an old lady.

Whether they are motivated by greed, lust, ambition, loneliness or simply trust in someone they think is a mate, they are all left in the lurch by Nesbitt's character.

Without continuing characters, Canterbury Tales is rather like watching a series of neat one-act plays. The adaptation, by Peter Bowker, is very clever and the acting is first rate.

And, being Chaucer, we get to see a lot more of Billie Piper than we do on Dr Who!

Enemy Image (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) is this week's Cutting Edge documentary. The film traces the development of the image of war on American television from Vietnam to the present day.

Enemy Image uses outstanding reports and images from American wars of the last 30 years to explore the changing role of the war correspondent and the strange disappearance of dead bodies from the image of war.

Writer-Director Mark Daniels comments, "This film developed out of my encounter with the remarkable Vietnam War reporting of Wilfred Burchett and Roger Pic. They witnessed and reported that war as no other Westerners could, and their body of work remains an historical treasure.

"Their films opposed American images of technical and material power with images of revolutionary solidarity, improvisation, and sacrifice. With the War in Iraq, journalists 'embedded' with American and British forces brought sights and sounds from the battlefield to the living room, live.

"But where was the tragedy? Where was the cruelty? Where was the heroism?"

The great Soviet war cameraman and documentary director Roman Karmen (1906 1975), is the latest to get the anti-Soviet, anti-communist makeover that is now more or less obligatory for all cultural figures from former socialist countries.

Karmen filmed the Long March in China, Ho Chi Minh at the time of the liberation of Vietnam and Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra. He also filmed the Spanish Civil War from the Republican side, the Japanese invasion of China, the Siege of Leningrad, the horrors of Nazi occupation and the Nuremberg trials.

His well-known images of war have shaped our memory and constructed our collective vision of the 20th century. His prolific career is the subject of the profile entitled Roman Karmen: The Filmmaker of the Revolution (SBS 10.30 pm Tuesday).

Regrettably, the film also attempts to discredit Karmen's honesty (he "manipulated" his images, the dastardly fellow). And of course it paints him as a tragic figure who "slowly saw his ideals crumble one by one".

Vietnam Minefield, screening in the Storyline Australia timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Thursday), is the story of a wartime disaster that resulted from assuming that Asian peasants were helpless against Western technology.

Between April and May, 1967, on the orders of Brigadier Stuart Graham Commander of the Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, Australian sappers laid a minefield 100 metres wide by 11 kilometres long, containing 21,048 US M16 Jumping Jack mines.

The Vietnamese forces began breaching the minefield between as early as May 1967. By December of that year, the Australian engineers reported that the enemy was lifting the mines at will, and the best estimate is that by 1970 they had lifted some 8000 of the mines.

The mines were then used against the Australian troops, causing over 57 percent of causalities between September 1968 and February 1970. During this key period casualties from the Australian mines far exceeded those by gunshot wounds.

Road To Tokyo (ABC 8.30pm Thursday) reminds us that Australia had a greater proportion of men and women in uniform in WW2 than either Britain or the USA (one million out of a population of only seven million).

Written and directed by film historian Graham Shirley, it covers Australia's military and political involvement in the War, the horror of Japanese atrocities against POWs, labour shortages and material shortages at home (with much footage I've never seen before), combined with interesting and often emotional reminiscences.

Not surprisingly, these days, Shirley credits the A-bomb with ending the war and never mentions Potsdam or the Allies insistence on Russia attacking Japan, an act which dashed Japan's hopes of fighting on, using its Kwantung Army in China after the home islands fell.

If you enjoyed the recent series on the Blues, or if you enjoyed the soundtrack to the Cohen brothers' film Oh Brother Where Art Thou, then you should get a kick out of the last of this week's new series, Lost Highway: The Story Of Country Music (ABC 10.10pm Saturdays).

When I was about ten, every radio station ran "request" programs, but I remember those on the North Coast of NSW used to stipulate "No hillbilly music". Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger might view this music as authentic American folk, but that nasal twang was not welcome on commercial radio here.

Today, of course, the bluegrass songs of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the distinctive banjo and guitar rhythms that go with them, are not only recognised as part of America's folk heritage, they have spawned an industry and a genre.

It does seem a pity, however, that through the power of broadcasting and the record industry, this American form has so completely displaced Australia's own folk music. Today, Australian country singers seem to find it necessary to fake an American accent even when their song has an obvious Australian subject.

Back to index page