Television: Postcards from Oz

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The Independent Culture
American Visions (BBC2, Sun), an attempt to explain "What we can tell about Americans from the things they have made", is made by an Australian. One of the things you can tell about Australians from what they have made is that they hate Australia. The finest Australian minds have no rivals when it comes to making their excuses and emigrating.

Our view of Australians has been coloured by their bustling media presence. Basically, in their high-falutin intellectual way, they have confirmed what we always knew about Australians: they're loud (Germaine Greer), they're abrasive (Robert Hughes), and they don't take anything seriously (Clive James). See your way past all the books they've read, and written, and you can tell they grew up in earshot of the same reference points as the grotesques of Sylvania Waters. This reductive view of Australian culture goes right to the top. In Neighbours - Tenth Anniversary Special (BBC1, Mon), a BBC executive explained that they bought the soap because films like Picnic at Hanging Rock "had established an interest in Australian programming".

It's almost surreal that of all the eminent Australians only Richie Benaud, clipped, diplomatic, unsmirking, contravenes the stereotype. Hughes has been taking stance lessons from Benaud. In his magnificent tour of American creativity, the critic swivels his eyes towards camera with his head turned in quarter profile, as the cricketer does when giving his unimpeachable verdict on the day's play. The pose is carefully chosen for the delivery of opinions which would sound too arrogant if fired off face on. It helps Hughes that he is physically in the bruiserweight division. If the stock intellectual figure remains someone you could knock over with a feather, this one could punch your lights out. Instead, he knocks you out with criticism that smacks of pectorals and biceps, preened to a smooth faultlessness like something off Bondi Beach.

For his first American vision, Hughes observed the Republic's attempt to create its architecture on the Athenian model. His presence was sorely missed down in Canberra, where Billy Connolly was stumbling in his own wee way to an understanding of the Australian capital. He spluttered the name of Albert Speer, as tourists do when confronted by triumphalist urban design. Parked statuesquely in front of a bust of Lincoln, Hughes invoked the same name. He explained how Speer hankered to harness television's potential for propaganda. If technology had allowed, Speer could have thrust the image of Hitler into every German home but, like Lincoln's spin doctors, had to make do with lionising him in marble.

Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia (BBCI, Mon) is a perfect illustration of that potential for image projection. Television, the laboratory of modern celebrity, will nowadays only allow its own creations to front peak-time programmes. No matter that Connolly knows no more about Australian history than anyone who has read the Rough Guide, he got the job. His series documents Australia in unenlightening exclamations. It was "brilliant!" on top of Sydney harbour bridge, "fantastic!" at the summit of the Opera House, "crap!"' in Canberra. And it was "shite!" with a comedian as guide.

Clive James's Postcard from the Melbourne Cup (ITV, Mon) was superficially more satisfying, because James comes home before he writes his jokes. But the two students of Australia are cut from much the same cloth. They both hit the road on a motorbike, buying into the cliche of free-spiritedness so central to the Australian myth. Like Connolly in Canberra, James was a foreigner in Melbourne reeling from the tedium of the place. "The pace of life is a casual walk," he said over a shot of him casually walking. "The dream of peace is still alive here." This is Jamesian for "when's the next plane home?".

Maybe it was just Melbourne that drew his sting, but his relish for being nice to people on camera only to shaft them on the voice-over is on the wane. He even got a part in Neighbours, a programme which as a critic he'd have flayed alive. (Connolly did better: on-stage in Sydney, he said he was surprised at Kylie Minogue's size; then, imagining they were joined at the groin, he span her tiny frame round like a Catherine wheel.)

With James transformed into a koala, you found deeper signs of subversion on Neighbours' own birthday celebration. Compiling all the deaths and marriages from the show's first decade, the editing had a subtle dig at the rhythm method of storyboarding in soaps. The actress who played Daphne explained how she died, "but that was great too because it brought her character full circle". You may recognise the steal from King Lear: "The sheila's come full circle."

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