On a scale of global excellence, the Australian miniseries sits somewhere north of our record in competition ice-skating but desperately south of the national refusal to develop renewable energy — a failure in which we excel. Which is to say, we are neither particularly embarrassed nor pleased by a tradition that probably peaks with Brides of Christ. (N.B. being largely deprived of both a believable moral framework and hot nuns, The Slap cannot claim this honour.)
We are rich in indifference to our television art and this unconcern peaks on Sundays. Anything that distracts us from the thought of Monday morning will be very welcome and it is against this backdrop of deluded unconcern we are able to watch something like, say, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart without laughing at the terrible wigs. Our expectations are lower even than the musical standards set by JD Fortune and our need for actually Australian stories seems to be desperate enough that we will believe that a woman who appears to have a crêpe on her head looks a bit like Kylie Minogue.
So, we were always going to enjoy last night’s Peter Allen bio, Not the Boy Next Door, which delivered a very respectable audience of 1.33 million to Seven. With an X-Factor lead in to the week’s most credulous hour, this already familiar story of a talent-against-the-odds was bound to succeed. That it did so largely with good wigs when it could have easily got away with bad ones is a credit to producers. On several counts, this show was not shit. Notably, it did not look like shit.
We are reliable producers of visual shit and period fetishists will find little joy on Australian TV. We fall hundreds-of-thousands of dollars short of the set dressing standards of a Mad Men or a Downton. When we do costume drama, we do it on a budget and in haste which is why Underbelly: Razor looked less like the bordellos of 1920s Darlinghurst and much more like a window display put together by a nervous Victoria’s Secret trainee. Puberty Blues looked less like the early Australian 1980s than much of the Gold Coast, and every time someone told me that Paper Giants was “so authentic”, I knew that if they had any direct aesthetic knowledge of the 1970s, they had successfully drowned this memory in Shiraz. Seriously. Lana Del Rey knows ‘70s dress better than that wardrobe department. For that matter, so does an average ASOS shopper.
It would be foolish to expect expensive visual perfection of the Matthew Weiner sort but it is not unreasonable to hope for some approximation of a period and Not the Boy Next Door has given us very decent simulation for several decades of style. The early Armidale adolescence of Allen, brought to engaging life by actual triple-threat Ky Baldwin, looks great — kind of half-way between an Arnott’s commemorative biscuit tin and Wake in Fright. A pair of maracas and a free trip to Rio to cinematographer Bruce Young whose golden-but-creepy rural centre gives us discomfort with Australia and whose Ladies Lounge, in which the young performer debuts to an audience of devout old ducks, makes us love it again.
This idea of repressed otherness as the centre of Australia is not especially new but nor is it especially explored on popular television. While the dialogue is pretty straightforward and drives an uncritically tolerant understanding of Allen’s life as something as simple as being “confused about your sexuality”, the visual and emotional impact of the micro-series, which concludes next Sunday, gives us something much more complex than well-meaning critics might perceive.
Here, it is not Allen who is “confused” but an entire post-war nation who victimises not only him for his perceived effeminacy but Australian masculinity itself. Dick Woolnough, Allen’s father and a returned solder whose suicide is documented in the sublime Tenterfield Saddler, is as “confused” as anybody.
I am especially fond of finding heterosexist fault in the culture, but there is little to be found in this legitimately queer document. Allen’s sexuality is not his defining characteristic, it is not something with which he has to “struggle” and it is not a thing to which he feels particularly obliged. A sex scene with Liza Minnelli, played with great vulnerability and eyelashes by Sara West, is intended to be erotic and not contrary to the lead’s “nature”. Here and elsewhere, Joel Jackson is almost as comfortable in Allen’s pansexual skin as the singer’s greatest and frankest imitator, Hugh Jackman. Not the Boy Next Door dares to depict Allen as he actually appeared in performance and in many accounts: as a guy who was talented and exuberant and not more especially fucked up by his “sexuality” than anyone.
Just as Allen is afforded more than the two standard dimensions of tragedy, so is Judy Garland. After a long break, the 1980s empress of Australian miniseries, Sigrid Thornton has returned to positively kill it with all of the bird-on-barbiturate mannerisms of the late-career diva. Anyone who has seen Thornton on stage will know of her willingness to expose herself to peril in the name of art, but it’s a taller and more intimate order to do the same thing on the telly. This actor works all the lines on her face and all the wrinkles of the self to bring an immense audience a fairly Judy Judy and even if you are not, as I am, an old queen who just loves a fallen chanteuse, you will love Sigrid for making this meticulous effort.
Little expense and few exertions have been spared to bring us something that is not utter bunkum. While this first episode will not transform either Australian TV or the tedious misapprehension that a social “struggle” IS a personal “struggle”, in this case with sexuality, it will mutate things a bit.This level of production and intellectual sophistication brings us nuance and, importantly, historically accurate outfits. The ABC should be shitting itself and working hard to reclaim its prominence as the best producer of the most artistically questionable form.
Not the Boy Next Door continues on Channel 7 next Sunday, September 20 at 8.30pm