Let’s think for a minute about all the strong films based on real lives that Australia has produced over the years. It’s a list that goes from Breaker Morant and Shine right up to Rabbit Proof Fence, Mao’s Last Dancer, Tracks, Lion and Hacksaw Ridge.
At their best, they’re compelling emotional stories about people who weren’t well-known when these films were being made.
Then let’s consider the commercial television equivalents. Samuel Johnson’s lively performance as music guru Ian Meldrum was the best thing about the mini-series Molly. And, after the patchy Hoges on Paul Hogan, House of Bond, about Alan Bond, was another disappointment.
Despite plenty of talent both behind and in front of the camera, the popular genre of dramatising famous lives has rarely risen to any great heights. It includes shows about Bob Hawke (Hawke), Graham Kennedy (The King), Ita Buttrose (Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo), Kerry Packer (Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War and Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story ), INXS (Never Tear Us Apart), Peter Allen (Not The Boy Next Door), Gina Rinehart (House of Hancock) and Mary Donaldson (Mary: The Making Of A Princess).
It’s hard to be optimistic about coming shows on Olivia Newton-John, Shane Warne and the Easybeats.
Dramatising lives should be incredibly rich material for both the big and small screen.
Every year bio-pics and stories based on real people compete for best picture at the Oscars. This year the semi-autobiographical Moonlight and Hidden Figures were nominated alongside those two Australian films, Lion and Hacksaw Ridge.
Recent years have included such solid films as American Sniper (Chris Kyle), The Imitation Game (Alan Turing), Selma (Martin Luther King), The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking), Bridge of Spies (James B. Donovan), The Revenant (Hugh Glass), 12 Years A Slave (Solomon Northup),Philomena (Philomena Lee), The Wolf of Wall Street (Jordan Belfort), Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln) and Moneyball (Billy Beane).
When film-makers deliver a good bio-pic, there is vast difference from what screens on Australian commercial TV. Even if they fictionalise elements of the story, they aim to say something truthful about their subject – the flaws that fame reveals, their internal conflicts, their struggles, their courage against the odds or the gap between the public image and the private person.
But the likes of Molly, Hoges, Never Tear Us Apart and House of Bond largely dramatise the myths about famous personalities.
They trade on nostalgia and curiosity rather than going deep into the light and shade of real lives.
The so-called golden age of television came about because American cable channels challenged what the traditional networks were doing.
Instead of seeking a mass audience who watched free, they chased smaller audiences who were prepared to pay for quality. Rather than familiar ways of making shows, they let stories breathe – hiring great writers, giving directors a decent budget and focusing on cracking stories.
Instead of homogenising these stories so families could watch them together, they pushed them into adult territory. The result has been shows that viewers around the world talk about.
With the federal government scrapping the commercial networks’ licence fees, it’s time for them to step up. Time to aim for world-class dramas that work for audiences here then sell internationally on the strength of the storytelling.
What about more TV dramas about ordinary Australians who’ve had extraordinary lives? Lion shows how stories like that can really strike a chord around the country.
Unless there’s a cracking yarn – the dark side of an icon or a genuinely inspiring tale – let’s just forget about the rich and famous for a while.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.