JILLY BOYCE KAY
For somebody who is doing a PhD in television history, I seem to watch very little television. I say this not as some kind of brag – on the contrary, it’s something I feel I should do far more of, and particularly when I’m teaching students who know a lot more about contemporary television than I do. Like lots of others in a similar situation, I just don’t have the time (or, indeed, the energy – watching television is a tiring business). To take an example, I am currently researching the BBC debate programme Question Time. Last week, I didn’t have time to watch Question Time, the reason being that I was too busy researching Question Time. Moreover, when I do watch something, it is usually for work purposes. So, to counter this rather gloomy-sounding relationship I have with TV, I decided to watch some of it for fun.
Australia with Simon Reeve, a three-part series on BBC2, seemed the perfect occasion for some dedicated television watching. It was broadcast on Sunday evenings at 9pm, which always feels like a legitimate time to be watching television. I am a committed Austra-phile, and always try to watch, listen to or read anything about Australia that crops up in the British media (which increasingly seems to happen these days. The Guardian newspaper, for example, just recently launched an Australian edition of its website). This particular obsession may or may not stem from the fact that I am married to a Tasmanian, and that I know more than I ever expected to know about the intricacies of Australian Rules Football, Tasmanian state politics and marsupial mammals.
Simon Reeve’s programme was framed in its promotional materials as an offbeat adventure series; the impulse of the programme seemed to be to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes that have long abounded in Britain about the land ‘down under’. On his personal website, Reeve comments:
“So much of what we think we know about Australia is wrong. I loved having a chance to challenge pre-conceptions about the country and the locals on this adventure. We used to think of Australia as a quaint European backwater on the other side of the planet. But Australia’s changed. It feels fresh, new and diverse. And rather than being cut-off, it’s perched on the edge of Asia, the most dynamic region of the planet. Australia has just the right balance of familiarity and exoticism to make for an endlessly appealing adventure. I was bowled over by the confidence, the humour, and the optimism of the country.”
In the opening to episode one, he indicated this angle with the tagline: “It’s not just cricket and kangaroos!”; in the trailer for the series, iconic images of the Sydney Opera House, koalas, surfers and the national flag are juxtaposed with those of asylum seekers held prisoner-like in detention centres, and destitute Aboriginal towns; images of pristine natural wildernesses are cut with bush-fires and mining-sculpted landscapes, with biker gangs and a military tank heading directly towards the camera. “You think you know Australia? Think again”, the trailer both concluded and promised.
The very choice of Simon Reeve as the presenter suggests a left-field, unorthodox perspective – he is primarily associated with television travel programmes in politically obscure, ‘exotic’ or dangerous countries; for example, Meet the Stans (BBC2, 2003), in which he travelled around Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan; or his exploration of ‘breakaway states’ in the critically acclaimed Places That Don’t Exist (BBC2, 2005). He is a very likeable presenter whose enthusiasm is often quite infectious, and you often get the impression that he is far more politically astute than he lets on.
If the choice of presenter was (deliberately) unconventional, the idea of having a well-known, charismatic presenter ‘explore’ a country – and ‘challenge’ our assumptions about it – is now an established part of our television culture. Indeed, it seems now inconceivable to have a travel documentary or series in which the presenter is not central to the very premise and identity of the programme: think of Paul Merton in India (Channel 5, 2010), Joanna Lumley’s Nile (2010), or any of the (rather brilliant) Michael Palin programmes, to name but a few.
So why this programme, and why now? Australia with Simon Reeve seems to me rather similar to many other travel programmes about the ‘emerging economies’ made in recent years – about places like Brazil, China and India. Like these other series, Reeve’s series suggests an urgent need to understand an economically important country, to know it, to come to terms with it. The emergence of these kind of programmes is possibly best understood within the context of Britain’s decline as an imperial power on the one hand, and its increasingly entrenched economic crisis on the other. These televised travelogues are as much to do with Britain as they are with the countries explicitly under scrutiny – they are attempting to negotiate the shifting character of British identity in a politically precarious time.
In Australia, Simon Reeve meets a British expat, Steve, who used to be a bin-man in Hull. He is now earning a very decent salary in Perth as a lorry-driving instructor, along with many other blue-collar workers in Australia. “We’re living the dream,” he tells Simon as they drink a beer together. Australia has been called the ‘lucky country’ since at least the 1960s, and this idea, although not explicitly expressed in the programme, resonates particularly strongly in this telling of Steve’s story. The depressing context of recession and the large-scale loss of blue-collar jobs in Britain provide the symbolic grounds for this utopian idea of Australia to be expressed upon.
The tension between prosperity, consumption and economic growth on the one hand, and the impact on the environment on the other, is central to the programme. Across the three episodes, Reeve visits coal plants, mines, fisheries, and wineries that produce bottles of plonk on a hyper-industrial scale. Against this, he also visits farmers who are fiercely resisting the encroachment of mining on their land, and the Great Barrier Reef under threat from the proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish in the polluted ocean water. We bear (sanitised) witness to the culling of three different species across the series – the starfish, the ubiquitous and poisonous cane toads, and some of the three quarters of a million camels that roam wild in Australia. The culls take place in the interests of conservation of the indigenous flora and fauna. These particular environmental issues – along with climate change, the depletion of natural resources, bushfires and water shortages – are presented as enormous and pressing challenges, but are nonetheless contextualised within the national ‘story’ of Australia as an optimistic, resourceful and forward-looking country. The upbeat soundtrack and sweeping, panoramic shots of awe-inspiring landscapes lend themselves to this overarching narrative of progress.
The tone and pace of the programme shifts markedly, however, in its treatment of what is constructed as the ‘Aboriginal problem’ of the country, or the “dark aspect of Australia” as Reeve names it, as he drives into an impoverished Aboriginal settlement in western Australia. Before we even meet an Aboriginal person (three-quarters of the way into episode one) their existence is symbolically expressed to us through close-ups of burnt-out, upturned cars with smashed-in windows. Later, in episode three, Reeve visits another Aboriginal town in the Cape York Peninsula. Whilst Reeve is clearly sympathetic to the population of this town, riven with social problems and violence, his analysis of the solution is frustratingly simplistic and depressingly ahistorical: “Blame for many of the problems afflicting Aboriginal people today can no longer all be pinned on the white establishment”, he says; Aboriginal communities have “their own ingrained problems”. Welfare-dependency is constructed as the key problem for this community – I found this piece of neoliberal logic particularly disheartening.
On the other hand, I was much more encouraged by Reeve’s visit to one of five detention centres for asylum seekers in Darwin. Rather than interview asylum seekers in the facility – which would have entailed allowing the immigration authorities to censor their tapes – Reeve and the crew decided to speak to detainees through the fences of the facilities. The images of children’s hands reaching through the fence, and the undeniably prison-like characteristics of their existence, were a particularly powerful illustration of what detention in this context really means. I don’t think that interviewing people within the facility would have been able to articulate this in such a moving and affective way, even if this would have involved getting to know individuals’ personal stories much better. For me, this scene ‘humanised’ the detainees precisely by showing the inhumanity of their existence within an ostensibly free and democratic country.
I also particularly liked the part in episode three where Reeve travelled to Cronulla beach in Sydney – the scene of sectarian violence in 2005 – where a group of young Australian Muslim women had formed an Aussie Rules football team. It seemed to be a rather visually effective way of challenging ideas of who gets to be an ‘authentic’ Aussie, as well as the notion that ‘Muslim culture’ and ‘western values’ are two discrete, incompatible systems. His presenting style is affable and enthusiastic, and in this case also quite nuanced.
The shift away from seeing Australia as a “quaint backwater” (read: culturally backward, politically insignificant, economically uninteresting) – to a dynamic, progressive, and, crucially, rich country; a force to be reckoned with, and an entity that demands to be understood – can be clearly identified in programmes such as Reeve’s. It does seem that the impulse to explore and profile an entire country – particularly one the size of Australia – inevitably means that certain stories, such as that of Aboriginal dispossession and poverty, are only afforded a despairing footnote in the overall narrative, because they do not fit with the ‘national story’.
And he didn’t go to Tasmania. None of these programmes ever go to Tasmania. But that is a whole other blogpost for another Austra-philic day.