The Ghan on SBS: a ‘slow TV’ experiment that connects to the heart and soul of the moving image

A cynic might say it was a sign of the apocalypse: 400,000 Australians tuning into SBS to watch The Ghan, a three hour ‘slow TV’ show depicting a long train journey, followed a week later by a 17 hour cut of the same thing (airing this Sunday). But that would not be in the spirit of things, the spirit being long and pensive slabs of oxygen-filled nothingness – with a shitload of trees.

If one were fishing for evidence of the end of times, a better place to look than the couches of the people watching would be the desks of those attempting to write meaningful pieces arguing for or against it. That is like studying the proxemic patterns of a patch of mud at the bottom of a sun-dried lake; The Ghan is what it is.

A review describing the Norwegian-inspired program as ‘boring’ or ‘like watching paint dry’ could’ve been written by my Google Home Assistant, who for the record, is knowledgeable about The Ghan, and happily answered my follow-up question after our chat about it – which naturally inquired about the meaning of life (“Somewhere between 41 and 43, she/it returned, referencing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Did Google’s algorithms ascertain that I am a Douglas Adams fan? Is this creepy or a coincidence? Also, can you guess what I got for Christmas?).

A ‘think piece’ championing The Ghan as some sort of ambrosial nectar of the gods – The Show We Need Right Now, Because Damn Life Is Fast In The Era Of The Smartphone – would be equally redundant. The program’s appeal is obvious to anybody for whom the idea of a lovely day involves sitting on a train, staring out the window at vast expanses of pleasant desolation, far from the tyranny of rush hour commuters, or any place dickish enough to play that godawful, ear-perforating song I Feel Glorious.

It’s nice to be inside on a slow moving train without Denzel Washington running on top of one, Gene Hackman chasing one, or Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in drag drinking inside one.

I am one of them. So it’s no surprise The Ghan accompanied me through my morning yesterday, while I went about my business – which may or may not have involved drilling my new assistant. Despite the buzz suggesting the show is au naturale and vérité, it has far too many contrivances (i.e. multiple camera angles, transitions to black and white, facts displayed via text on the screen) to fit a Warholian or Kaufmanian or Jaques-esque ethos: that performance is life itself, and vice versa.

I interpreted the program as moving wallpaper. Jerry Seinfeld once said of golf, “it’s just nice to be outside in a well-landscaped area”. A similar sentiment applies to watching The Ghan: it’s just nice to be inside, next to the window, on a slow moving train, with nary a ticket inspector or drunk bogan in sight, pushing aside recollections of such vehicles being used in more dynamic ways – i.e. Denzel Washington running on top of one, Gene Hackman chasing one, or Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in drag drinking inside one.

That is not to say, however, that the cultural precedents leading us to this point, of gazing at a train moving slowly across a landscape, are not rich, exquisite, and connected to the bedrock of the modern moving image. Trains capture two things synonymous with the heart and soul of film and television: the spirit of invention and the state of movement.

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In this sense perhaps it is not surprising that one of the earliest, pioneering works of the medium was 1896’s L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, the famous Lumière brothers film depicting a train arriving at a station. Another milestone was reached less than a decade later, in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, widely acknowledged as the first narrative film.

It inspired the legendary Australian director Charles Tait, who three years later premiered 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first feature film, containing a now lost scene involving a train, or at the least train tracks. Two decades on, one of the early masterpieces of the medium arrived in writer/director/star Buster Keaton’s 1926 Civil War-set chase film The General, containing long travelling shots of the slapstick genius in, on and around a locomotive.

I am not suggesting the makers of The Ghan (including director and executive producer Adam Kay) were directly referencing these works, especially given we know the show could have been set on the Spirit of Tasmania (sequel alert!) or a boat up the Daintree River. But precedents are important, and hat-tipping is only the most conspicuous acknowledgement of them. Other than equipment necessary for film and television production (cameras, microphones etc.), the train is the most significant machine in its evolution. Filmmakers continue to photograph it, and audiences continue to relish it.

In 2016, the influential virtual reality filmmaker Chris Milk showed a train on a different kind of track: the water. In what was at the time the largest collective VR viewing in history, Milk screened a VR film – deliberately referencing, in no small measure, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat – in which a locomotive defied the laws of physics and headed across a lake towards a new generation of besotted, gasping audiences.

In a sense, The Ghan is already behind the times. A virtual reality film could put us on board the train without removing us from the couch. Or, for those already on board, augmented reality apps/eyewear could have those text-based factoids appear before their eyes. But perhaps that is jumping the gun. Or maybe it is something to think about the next time you’re on (or watching) a slow moving train, clambering across a landscape looking out onto vast stretches of sweet nothing.

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13 responses to “The Ghan on SBS: a ‘slow TV’ experiment that connects to the heart and soul of the moving image

  1. Oops, missed it. Still, I’m sure it will be repeated in part or in whole…

    I had to chuckle at the whole “17 hours” excitement. It seems not many know this is the “new” Ghan, after the track was totally redone and finally extended to Darwin (or maybe Larrimah, I forget).

    In 1972 I caught the “old” Ghan in Alice Springs to return to Melbourne. Sadly, as happened many times in the past (and eventually spurred the re-routing and re-laying), the line was washed away. The train stopped in Marree. They offered me a job fixing the line (again), but considering the weather, the desolate terrain, my total inexperience, and my active desire to avoid any real work, I demurred.

    Consequently I lived in a railway carriage, similar to the infamous “red rattlers”, for 3 days. Every few hours they would shunt my carriage around the yards. Eventually the line was repaired (again), and we proceeded without further incident to Port Pirie, from where I (briefly) travelled on the Indo Pacific. What a contrast even then!

    I still have the pocket knife I bought in the Alice for preparing my food. No dining car on the “old” Ghan! Not for hippies and hitchhikers anyway.

    So, 17 hours, pffft. Dining car! Sleeping berths! Air conditioning! Looxury!

  2. Just came from tuning in and out of the ‘long’ version of this all day Sunday. Of course, I didn’t watch the whole thing end-to-end (I’m actually curious now if anyone has…), but it was nice to tune in through the day and just be able to glance up from reading; since Sunday TV is usually utter trash anyway.

    And I liked it. The view was nice, and I really liked the aerial shots, the stabilised footage, and the views over the river as it neared Darwin were something I’ve never seen before. I mean when do we ever hear or see anything about Darwin, besides cyclones and crocodiles.

    I’m surprised a few folk have come on here to trash it – like someone mentioned, that’s what the ‘off’ button is for. It’s not meant to excite you – for me, I’d much rather watch The Ghan than a football game, for instance, or Question Time – so there’s actually already some quite boring things on TV, to me at least.

    It’s verbatim television – not even reality television, just verbatim.

    Not sure if 17 hours is warranted – I think all up I probably had it on for about four hours while I did other stuff. Of course there was lots of repeating scenery, but a part of me kept waiting to see something out of the ordinary, like a skeleton by the tracks or something…

    I don’t know how something like this could be ‘improved’. But with so, so many free-to-air channels simply running cooking shows from 20 years ago and infomercials in 4:3 format from 1996 (no joke, I saw one last week), I’m not complaining at all about something different.

  3. I watched and recorded the 3 hour event and thought it was breathtaking in many respects. A trainspotter would only be able to get the “standard views” of the train, I.E. from a bridge or trackside, so I thought all the other perspectives were innovative, picturesque and unique.

    The only criticism I have is about the soundtrack, specifically the lack of realism with the locomotive sound and gave no clue as when the engines were working or just rolling. I like the sound of diesels but all I heard was what seemed to me to be a generic (Musak anyone?) sound track.

    It is however a trainspotters wet dream!

  4. Great if you are in the driver’s area.
    If not you are looking out through a window the size of a TV screen.
    Only those over 70 are allowed on board.
    A great demonstration of why it’s MUCH better by 4WD

    If you like train travel I can recommend:

    A Japan: a long shinkansen journey: 300+kph through fabulous scenery in complete comfort. The difference from air travel is profound.

    B India: second class sleeper from Delhi to Trivandrum. 3+ days through rural India – plenty of interaction with the locals as you travel slowly through the “other / real” India.

  5. I was really looking forward to The Ghan, despite the bad reviews, but it was really really boring. As Judith above mentioned, many clips of the underside of the train – fascinating, ho.hum. I have been on The Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs, really enjoyed it, great food,a small but comfortable cabin, and a mixture of people. One drawback, it left Adelaide at about 10pm, so saw nothing until the next day. there was a shot in the film of the galley kitchen, unloading the dishwasher, fascinating, and the shot of the lounge and bar that was taken from so far away that you would have no idea what it was like, and it is actually very pleasant.
    I didn’t make it to the end, wondering was this a government funded film, pathetic is all I can say.

    1. Doug, I want the TV to entertain me, not bore the shit out of me. Thats what the off switch is for. I dont experience the TV I just watch it.

      I leave experience of things to the higher beings.

  6. George, if you can’t open yourself up to a different television experience, at least try tolerating the existence of alternatives that others may enjoy. Take a plane instead, I think airline TV would suit you.

  7. Didn’t expect too but loved it.The birds eye view from the front did it. Side windows would be such a let down. The silence was so welcome.Think 3 hours was perfect but know I’ll have it on Vice this Sunday!

  8. I didnt watch it. I’m 64 and I only have so much life left. I think slow television is an oxymoron. I dont know what rthe hell they were trying to say, a whole night or , God help me, 17 hours of it. What nexts, paint drying on the dunny wall at SBS ? I dont know how quick it went but its a tourist train, NOT an intercity train.
    In the early 70’s I travelled from Melbourne to Sydney by train a lot. It was about 12 hours then, night and day trains, and now with the XPT – 2 Paxman Valenta turbo diesels ( destroyer engines ) its still about the same. That train on the East coast in England regularly runs at over 100 MPH, 160 KPH.

    When I last got the XPT, about 3 years, ago it zoomed to Sydney at 48 MPH average, thats about 78 KPH. I dont know if the track is trash or they are saving fuel but its a bloody embarasment in 2017.

  9. I waited with great anticipation for the Ghan TV program. What a bore. How many clips of the underside of the train/railway tracks does one need! Information panels that were difficult and, at times impossible, to read. I have always wanted to go on The Ghan. No More! I’d have to be bound and gagged to get me aboard. A good editor would have done wonders for the program..

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