Although it was episode three that pretty much worked, unlike the others, partly because of its many vivid characters (Keating, Abbott, Rudd, Julie Bishop) and tender emotional line (he thinks they’re getting engaged; she has misheard what he said, and is fixing him a government job), it was at its end that I realised what the trouble was.
The dog ‘Bill Shorten’ had peed on Julia’s leg, and she was bent over, her big bum towards the audience, cleaning up a urine puddle alone in the Lodge, and sighing a bit, and I realised we were in a genre, or a stab at a genre, that hadn’t previously existed.
For it wasn’t a situation comedy, like Spin City or Just Shoot Me or Frasier, since characters in that genre are always fictional. And it wasn’t a satirical comedy, like Yes, Minister or The Thick Of It or In The Loop or Dave, because characters in that genre are always fictional. It wasn’t a long-run political drama, like The West Wing or House Of Cards, because it had goofy jokes, and because people in that genre are fictional too. It wasn’t historical drama, like Rome or Deadwood or The Borgias, because its events didn’t parallel what really happened, or could have happened. The Prime Minister is not the Lodge’s cook. She never drives a car. She doesn’t have a pet dog. She doesn’t have sex in her office, which is full of people.
Nor did it resemble the original inspiration for it, the various Wharf Revue sketches in which Gillard, Rudd and Keating danced and sang in recapitulations of The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz, or Howard, Janette, Costello and Abbott revisited Downfall, the Hitler-bunker film. It had none of their cartoon-like Bugs Bunnyish levity, though some of Biggins’s much-loved Keating trickled into it; trickled down, you might say.
Nor was it like Max Gillies’s famed stage monologues, of Howard, Hawke, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and me. It had none of the suspenseful, gob-smacked pleasure of theatre performance, happening in the flesh before your eyes, and the recognisable tics of the victims paraded and illuminated and celebrated.
Nor was it like Mike Carlton’s radio sketches, those aural 60-second comic strips of recent events. Nor like a Patrick Cook column, nor a Bill Leak cartoon, nor a Paul Keating interview, crackling with one-liners.
It had no precedent, and that was the trouble.
What it did was try to impose a concept like I Love Lucy, or Kath And Kim, on the sitting Prime Minister and her live-in lover without any heed of the way they actually behave and amuse themselves. The Thick Of It, for instance, was a show that reproduced the political backroom, which I served in for 16 years, with startling accuracy and penetrating, foul-mouthed hilarity. Yes, Minister, for instance, Bob Hawke once told me, was ‘spot on’. Each series showed that verisimilitude was no hindrance to well-written comedy.
Why, then, pretend that this Prime Minister’s life is other than as it is? There are assistants harassing her at every turn. She has a chief of staff, a media manager, a chef, a butler, a driver, a ministry, a worried deputy, distracting hourly crises, an unremitting work schedule, and soldiers’ funerals to attend. She has doorstops to rehearse, big speeches to learn, Question Time to get through, and prepare for. She is busy.
So what is all this retirement village idleness we see her and the First Bloke in? In what chapter of the universe does it reside? Why call her Julia Gillard, and him Tim Mathieson, at all? Why not call her Jane Billings and him Tom Matthews?
There then arises the question of the privacy of Tim, a separated husband, with children elsewhere, living in a sort of gilded adultery with a nation’s embattled ruler, underemployed and constitutionally anomalous. Does he deserve to have demeaning untruths, however cuddlesome they at first seem, told about him too, as if he were also a public figure? I doubt it. A line, somehow, to do with the limits of the genre has been crossed, crossed, as Philip Ruddock might say, inappropriately.
Let us imagine a series about Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans and the difficulties of their adultery, humanistically portrayed and, as in this show, comically diminished. Leaders of different parties, meeting in motels, discussing national policy while undressing… A line would be crossed here too, wouldn’t it? It might work as a drama series made in 2025, but not as a comedy; never.
I myself have been portrayed satirically, by Gillies, Gerry Connolly, Drew Forsythe and Robin Ramsey, as an untidy, lecherous, opinionated, gravy-spattered, highfalutin buffoon, always at a very respectable level of intellectual attack, and I’ve winced but never minded it; returned as a rule to the theatre and seen it again.
If, however, my wife had been in the sketch, or venomously adverted to by ‘Bob Ellis’ the fabricated stage figure, she, I think, because she is a less public figure, would have been rightly upset, and so would I, her partner for 45 years, and our children.
This, then, roughly equates to the present, uneasy situation of Tim Mathieson, seen as National Headlice Awareness Coordinator in episode three when he is hoping to announce his engagement to Julia. I’m not sure he deserved this, although I laughed a good bit at his forlorn comeuppance, as did, I guess, the nation, unfairly in both instances.
And, yes, I admired Phil Lloyd’s performance. He has turned a meek, Graeme Blundellish fish-out-of-water bumbler into a somehow dignified and somehow admirable human being. I admired all the performances, the Rudd, the Keating, the gay disdainful assistant in the jewellery store, Amanda’s additional cross-eyed drunken turn as Julie Bishop…
This brings us to Amanda herself, the effective auteur, who has played a Marilyn Monroe I co-wrote in a staged reading so well that the audience sat up amazed. She may be the best revue actress in this hemisphere, in this millennium, and she may also, I think, when all the evidence is in, prove to be the best Australian actress of the generation between Judy Davis and Mia Wasikowska. She could have been a recording star (she can be both Sutherland and Streisand), or an Oscar-worthy movie star had she had the sort of management, and the sort of luck, Australians rarely get on this side of the Pacific. And she may be these things yet. And her Julia is an astonishing personal transmogrification, an inhaling of the actual person, and has been so for four years now; but…
But she mistook her ability to improvise monologues in the style of the Prime Minister, and to answer Fran Kelly in her conversation style, for the ability, and few have it, to write series comedy. She could have done a sketch show, with Tim and Julia and Kevin and Wayne in one segment, Tony and Malcolm and Joe and Julie in another, Albo and the independents in another, Laurie Oakes and Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan in another in a manner not unlike Little Britain, and with it repeatedly delighted an audience long accustomed to Fast Forward and The Comedy Company and Rubbery Figures, and easily prevailed on the excellence of the impersonations and some sharp joke writing, as well as her own.
But this… no, it was too hard a task. You cannot rewrite the rules of representational television satire in this way.
And it’s a pity.
The ratings will be huge, of course.
But it’s a pity.