Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries, Clive James; feminist, art critic, comedian, polymath. These are the four subjects of Rebels of Oz, the two-part documentary made by Independent columnist Howard Jacobson, which concluded on BBC4 last night. For Jacobson, who moved to Sydney in 1964, the connection between these four Aussie exiles must be almost intuitive, but he’s aware that the rest of us require further justification.
While making this case for an Australian cultural moment, the programme also revealed unexpected links. Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry was an obvious choice to discuss Robert Hughes and the impact of his documentary The Shock of the New, for instance, but it was nice to also discover what he makes of Dame Edna Everage. Interestingly, Greer didn’t think much of Barry Humphries’ ever-evolving alter-ego, and Humphries was accordingly unenthused about The Female Eunuch – although Edna claimed to have inspired it.
Often these connections were more of a stretch, but Jacobson’s narrative skills proved limber. He added intrigue to four already fascinating life stories as generously as if they were characters from his own novels. This was most useful in the cases of Robert Hughes, who’s sadly no longer around to make firebrand speeches of his own, and the multi-talented Clive James, whose many achievements are so effortless as to be almost inexplicable. “Since I could do it, I did it,” he said of his move from print journalist to talk-show host, words that also applied to the rest of his career.
Barry Humphries was a more rewarding challenge. He always seemed to have a mischievous smile dancing about his lips and, to Jacobson’s evident amusement, an interest in teasing his interviewer. Michael Parkinson, he said, now there was an interviewing pro. “Unlike yourself, he could submerge his personality... there’s a lesson here somewhere.”
Were Humphries and co liberated by being so far from home? Or did the Aussie uncouthness give rise to an expressive freedom lacking in Britain? These plausible explanations and more were mooted, but ultimately there was no need to reach a conclusion. If Jacobson’s whole documentary project had been just an excuse to engage lively minds in interesting conversation, you could hardly blame him. These guys were surprising right up to the end. Where would Germaine Greer like to be laid to rest, Jacobson wanted to know. “Would I want to be buried?” she replied sharply. “I might want to be eaten...”