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  Issue No 101 Official Organ of LaborNet 06 July 2001  




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Shit is a Four Letter Word

Australian TV drama is lame and gutless just look at the ABC's Love is a Four Letter Word, says Tony Moore


Tony Moore


Take an inarticulate, wrung-out Keith Richards lookalike called Angus, who runs a pub in inner-Sydney Newtown with his girlfriend Albie, a pouting yuppie publisher. Add her feral, bastard-loving kid sister and a John Polsonesque wastrel who fancies himself as a bit of a pants man. Throw in an evil multinational publishing lackey, a poker machine touting cockney brick of a dad, his young chick (pregnant to Keith) and a bald work-experience kid inexplicably dying of cancer and you have the ABC's latest excursion to Youff Land, Love is a Four Letter Word.

Youff Land is a magical kingdom that, like Disneyland, springs from an old bastard's idea of where the kids are at. In Youff Land the camera angles are a bit wacky, old guys in their late 30s are big spunks who pull young chicks, and the kids all seem to live together under one roof like the Waltons. The heroes are suckers for an idealistic cause, like keeping live music in pubs, publishing true art or running a public radio station. So 80s! Just in case the kids don't get the message throw in Gary McDonald (the north shore's Bill Hunter) as a loony old writer, just to show the Gen Xers how a true rebel from the Sunbury generation does it. So 70s!

Like Walt's kingdom, the ABC's Youff Land is all facade and no substance, populated by wind-up androids who have only a passing connection to the real world. The pub in Love is a Four Letter Word is some sort of surrogate hippy commune where staff come and go as they please, do a bit of work while they're pissed, and dance to a band at the end of every episode. Take it from me, Albie's publishing gig is about as true to life as one of those Z-grade 50s movie mad scientists clutching test tubes of dry ice. How could a somnolent, paternity dodging alcho like Angus scrape together $500,000 for a hotel liquor licence? This lame portrayal of real life would be okay if they camped it up, but sadly it's all presented as an authentic look at the exotic denizens of inner-city bohemia, National Geographic style.

There is no attempt to deal with the energy, sensations, thrills and surprises that come from being young in a big city _ these characters could be on Gilligan's island for all it matters to the story. Whereas British drama of this genre _ such as The Buddha of Suburbia or even The Bill _ plays with differences and conflicts in youth culture such as class and ethnicity, the ABC's Youff Land is homogenised, peopled by Anglo-Saxon student types who don't seem to know any Wogs or blue-collar workers. And notice how no one watches TV or goes to the movies or even talks about music they might like.

Given the title, Love is disappointingly antiseptic. Despite a bit of sweaty dancing and pashing in the dunnies there is no dirty sex in Youff Land. No low-down, filthy, kinky behaviour, or even smutty talk. Albie and her mates refer to their dangerous off-screen liaisons, but I don't recall her once getting her gear off. It's all very proper, really. Considering that Love is a Four Letter Word is basically about infidelity, it's surprising that the show is totally devoid of the wonderful ironic comedy of human sleaze and weakness that we've come to expect from The Larry Sanders Show, South Park _ and even its one-time bedfellow, A Many Splintered Thing. Sly old Angus just sprays around like a randy labrador that any girl will forgive once he lays on his back and pants.

Love is a Four Letter Word falls between two stools, like a paralytic drunk who won't shut up. What 20-year-old would watch a show about old farts in a pub flogging some 80s live music dream? No one older would sit through the lame script. The creative team seems to have been impressed by Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Train Spotting and gone for a youthful, grungy, inner-city feel. Some of them are apparently in Machine Gun Fellatio and know a thing or two about being groovy in inner Sydney. But Love is basically Neighbours with quirky camera angles and more privileged angst. The direction, camerawork and editing are all very good, but the script is a turkey, marred by implausible, twee storylines, characters talking plot development and contrived dialogue. I gave up when Angus started exhibiting symptoms of his stepmother-to-be's pregnancy and Albie's evil corporate publishing boss demanded that the dying work-experience boy write a death diary for the firm to publish. To be sure, there's drama in Newtown, but it ain't that.

We should not be surprised that TV critics have raved about Love is a Four Letter Word, but this is naked emperor stuff. As with Australian movies and music, our TV columnists think it their duty to talk up the industry and don't expect much. If a show is set ``on the streets'' with a cool soundtrack it will be exalted as groundbreaking by younger critics who had begun to think Diver Dan was hip. But despite the rapture of The Sydney Morning Herald's otherwise sharp Ruth Ritchie, I have found no one outside the media who admits to liking the Albie and Angus Show. As Bob Ellis would say: ``Prove that I lie''. Who is standing around the nation's tea urns on Wednesday mornings fretting about Albie's ghost-written book or Whatsisname's chemotherapy?

Unlike silly Milly and the hopeless Egg in This Life we just don't care about the characters who drink at Angus's pub. There are no daggers of dialogue to tear at our soft underbellies, as happened every time Bruno Lawrence opened his mouth in Frontline or when Larry Sanders condescendingly oils a studio guest. And worst of all, Love is not funny ... ever.

If the shithouse writing of Love is a Four Letter Word was a one-off we could all have a laugh and write it off as learning on the job, but it's only the latest in a procession of disasters in publicly funded Australian TV drama, headed by the mother of all bow-wows, Dog's Head Bay. Up its rear, so to speak, come Something in the Air, Secret Men's Business, Raw FM, Head Start and Heartbreak High. Like Love, these shows all have cut-out characters condemned to mouth cliches in a tiny enclave cut off from a wider world _ no videos, no mobiles, no pointless jokes, no conversation, no baggage ... like Dad and Dave on their selection, the people of modern Australian drama are cut off from the global cultural whirl that so distracts Bart, Gerry, Mulder and Scully from the imperatives of plot.

The biggest problem with recent TV drama is the absence of good stories. Instead of engaging narratives that take us on a ripping yarn we get endless navel-gazing about relationships and abstract issues such as masculinity, divorce, the bush and youth. That's how its sold to the ABC _ as a concept rather than a story. This stuff is drama by numbers and is designed by committees. I know because I've sat before one that quizzed me about what people were like in the western suburbs _ they even contemplated hiring a tour bus to go out to Campbelltown, on the outskirts of Sydney, for a stickybeak.

Why doesn't the ABC employ writers who come from the western suburbs, who know how we talk and look? And why don't we make TV drama based on Australian novels, history and biography _ there's a century or more of great published stories just waiting for some talented writers to adapt them Hollywood-style. More to the point, why aren't novelists recruited to write TV drama and films, as they are overseas.

Let's stop throwing away taxpayers' money on half-baked and half-arsed scripts, even when they come from corporate darlings like David Williamson. The ABC has commissioned some screenplays of real genius, such as Ian David's Blue Murder and the Frontline series, and can do so again. From the credits it seems that Love is a Four Letter Word is the work of an ensemble, but the view from my couch says that the ``look'' was the priority and the script an afterthought. For too long funding bodies have been dazzled by directors and the visual, romantically believing that the auteur was responsible for the product, to the detriment of good writing. What we've reaped is style over substance, as a herd of short film-makers have been given too much rope. But there are few Orson Welles, and TV drama and cinema must hang on a script. As they say in the Good Book, in the beginning was the Word.


*    Visitt Strewth!

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 101 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: A Little Knowledge
Labor's science spokesman Martyn Evans was the Opposition's key player on the Knowledge Nation inquiry. He fills us in on the process.
*  Education: Theory and Practise
Whether or not you agree with the priorities for of Barry Jones’ Knowledge Nation Taskforce, Julie Wells argues its boldness has to be admired.
*  E-Change: 1.1 Email Nation
In the first of a series of articles on politics and the new economy, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel argue network technologies are reshaping the fundamentals of society.
*  Economics: Banking on the Goodwill
Given their history, Evan Jones wonders whether banks can really claim to be "just like any other business"
*  International: A Deathly Struggle
In this dispatch from PNG, a trade union leader briefs us on the situation following the shooting of seven students at an anti-privatisation rally.
*  History: Enlarging Human Personality
Mark Hearn argues that Lloyd Ross's post-War approach to Workplace Democracy seems contemporary by today's standards
*  Satire: Shit is a Four Letter Word
Australian TV drama is lame and gutless just look at the ABC's Love is a Four Letter Word, says Tony Moore
*  Review: Tribute to an Artist
Dalgarno painted the seagulls circling the seafarer like flies buzzing around the face of a bushman. Thus did the artist depict the maritime worker.

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»  Activist Notebook

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»  Mate Against Mate
»  Disconnected from Reality
»  Applause for the Ton
»  Unions Online? Not Yet!

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