Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

The Dismissal and Australian Television

Stuart Cunningham

It is introduced to us with Network Ten's glowing self advertisement: 'the supreme achievement in Australian television.' The companion documentary, The Making of the Dismissal, calls it 'Australia's most ambitious television event.' Its budget amounted to approximately $2.6 million, the most expensive mini-series made for Australian television. The critics, almost without exception, have lavished praise upon it, The Australian's Tom Krause (1983) being perhaps the most effusive:

Australian television has come of age . . . The Dismissal . . . sets a critical standard to which all future Australian television programs should aspire. It is, quite simply, the best piece of television I have ever seen.

Despite the telecast of the programme being delayed twice, for avowedly political reasons, its ratings in Sydney (and the pattern was similar in other cities) made The Dismissal 'the television success story of the year' (Daily Telegraph, 17/3/83, p. 7) when it was screened in March 1983, immediately after the Federal elections. This success story confounded those commentators who registered the broad cast delays as probably delivering a body blow to the mini-series' chances.

It is worth speculating about this series of claims and successes. Australian television's representations of history typically have dealt in either the nostalgic or the epiphenomenal: on the one hand, history as radically other, the sealed past—a lost Eden of traditional values (eg. The Sullivans) or as a spectacle of alterity (eg. This Fabulous Century); on the other, history as utterly familiar, the banal quotidian (eg. news and current affairs programming). Both forms of representation obscure relations between past and present: in the former, historical mechanisms are displaced by closed narratives generated around the 'family romance'; in the latter, history is merely an indefinitely prolonged series of discrete phenomena. Analysis is superfluous in either form.

Considering this field of representations, then, it is not surprising that The Dismissal stands as arguably sui generis within Australian television practices. Terry Hayes, producer of The Dismissal, goes further in claiming 'this is the first television programme in the world which has dared to deal with politicians still in power' (quoted in Manning, 1983:43). This would distinguish it from such treatments of the Nixon presidency and Watergate as the mini-series Behind Closed Doors (1980) and the feature All the President's Men (1976), to which The Dismissal has been compared. Indeed, it gives substance to the already mythicized origin of the mini-series: Hayes' 'if we had any guts at all' anecdote, the 'irresistible challenge' of doing the Whitlam dismissal, when Kennedy-Miller Entertainment was casting about for an entry-point into 'high quality' television (1). Clearly, then, The Dismissal breaks new ground in treating a still highly volatile, very recent political issue.

But what are the grounds it breaks? The only filmic treatments of the events of 11 November 1975, Exits (Paul Davies, Pat Laughren, Carolyn Howard, 1979) and Home on the Range (Gil Scrine, 1982) circulate marginally as independent 'political' films, each with tangential, though significant, modes of intersection with the politics of the dismissal. Exits situates Whitlam's dismissal in terms of its existential impact on the lives of 'ordinary' people undergoing their own relational and vocational 'exits', juxtaposed somewhat incoherently, or, to gloss it positively, 'experimentally', with rhetorical gestures toward CIA involvement in the dismissal. Home on the Range does more than gesture toward such CIA intervention, indeed, it marshals a persuasive array of evidence linking the imminent expiry of leases on U. S. military and intelligence bases in Australia in 1975, the CIA, and Whitlam's dismissal. Comparing this analysis and what is offered in The Dismissal on the CIA is instructive.

The more appropriate institutional correlations should be made, however, with recent television practices. The Dismissal's closest relations, for different reasons, are with Against the Wind and Power without Glory, and, in some ways its relations to the former are more crucial than the more obvious precedent, in terms of the 'political' mini-series, Power without Glory. Against the Wind's scrupulous historical research, which has contributed to a revision of the historiography of early colonial Australia, was motivated by an engagement with the politics of historical reconstruction (see, eg., Jones, 1982). It was, moreover, originally scripted, not adapted from literary sources, the more usual sources of the historical mini-series. Power without Glory, despite its adopting a controversial expose stance toward what finishes as the recent past, is scripted from a single, literary source. It is a rather safe deployment of an already concluded controversy: Frank Hardy's roman a these of the same title can be, and has been, readily positioned.

The Dismissal demonstrates to some extent a willingness to engage with open questions concerning historical reconstruction, not least because its sources are not unitary, but an open field of contestation. Although it is obviously rather parsimonious in its attributions, Hayes' comment on sources—'we could never have made this series without three things, Gough Whitlam's book, Sir John Kerr's book, and hindsight' (2)—begins to indicate the variegated, openly polemical material vying for interpretative authority concerning the events of November 1975. While The Dismissal appears to have followed Paul Kelly's journalistic account The Unmaking of Gough (1976: interestingly, in relation to its status as source for the mini-series, re released in 1983 as The Dismissal to coincide with the programme's going to air), in terms of selections, emphases, and overall narrative structuring, this source is complicated and arguably contradicted by a reliance on Kerr's own self-justifications in Matters for Judgement. No doubt this reliance was encouraged, under the imperatives of scriptwriting for characterizations following the conventions of television drama, by Kerr's felicitous limning of his own dramatis persona.

A further point about The Dismissal's engagement with the question of historical reconstruction concerns the appropriate forms through which such reconstruction may take place. While the requisite anecdotalizations of the programme's pre-production work have lent an air of inevitability to the choices made—docu-drama, Method-style actor's workshops to simulate psychologization painstaking impersonation, omniscient narrational voice, deft insertion of archival footage to underscore dramatic intensity, obsessive authenticity in construction of mise-en-scene—there is significant evidence of possibilities considered and discarded. Actors agonized over the imponderables of impersonation- narration was substituted for a film-within-the-film structure (Dell'Oso, 1982); the 'almost impossible' balance between drama and documentary (Gammage, 1981) was often at issue.

All this suggests a sense of a highly and productively problematic text which should not be positioned too readily in the field of 'BBC standard', 'quality' television drama, such that co-producer Byron Kennedy could characterize The Dismissal's quality as making Brideshead Revisited look like Starsky and Hutch. (3)

The Vincent Report (the Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, 1963) called for Australian film production for television. However, the actual establishment of a government-subsidized film production sector in the early seventies was in part secured through the delineation of a space for a national (or nationalist) art cinema that positioned itself quite separately from indigenous television production. There were rare transfers, particularly of non-technical personnel and the conceptualization of forms of texts, across the boundary between film and television. In recent years, however, this boundary has been increasingly blurred. One of the main consequences of such rapprochement has been that the historical mini-series has come to occupy an arguably equivalent space as the period film—the film of taste, quality and (national) culture—did in the mid to late seventies (cf. O'Regan). Although rarely positing such a correlation, it has been within the regimes of taste, quality and culture that critics have generally lauded the proliferating historical mini-series, such that they are held to be 'raising the standard' of indigenous television production. The pattern of praise and disenchantment with the period film may even repeat itself in television, with no less a critic than John Meillon voicing boredom with the glut of 'period pieces' (quoted in Shelley, 1982:37).

It would be a mistake, as we have said, to position The Dismissal wholly within this field. Apart from its confounding of the conventions of television 'history' as either nostalgia or epiphenomenon the excessively hybrid form of the text renders it difficult to place simply within established conventions of television drama. The excessiveness of the prologue establishes a difficult stylistic asymmetry with the rest of the material: Gotterdammerung sequences lifted by Dr. Miller from Mad Max 2, a red Roadshow Australia swimming in a sea of cloud, a cosmic drama:

So many threads that were the fabric of our lives. The war in Vietnam. Days of protest. My Lai and Ke Sahn. It's 1972. Richard Nixon is in the White House. The sky above Hanoi is filled with the dust of shattered lives and Watergate is still a burglary away. But I want to tell you about our country and about something that happened then that tore it apart. This isn't going to be easy —it's still there, in our memory. For many Australians, bitterness is never very far away, but maybe now we can understand, and to understand is to forgive.

A left Labor stance, tantamount to calling for a radical reform of the Constitution, is tacked on at the end in the midst of further metaphysics about time's winnowing, and appears gratuitous given the ingratiating embodiment of, for example, Kerr:

The Constitution of Australia, which allowed the events of Remembrance Day 1975 to occur, remains unchanged.

A narrational distance worthy of a sadly omniscient deus absconditus is juxtaposed with tawdry power plays in smoky backrooms, such juxtaposition securing credence for the symptomatic contradictions manifest in statements like this, from Hayes:

I never wanted the series to lose its dignity. It would have to stand for all time, a piece of film-making made within the living memory of those events. If the series was seen to be biased, it would make it worthless. It had to find something beyond the politics, it had to transcend the politics . . . We didn't want to go down in history as the people who screwed up the story of the sacking of the Whitlam government (quoted in Dell'Oso, 1982:28).

Despite the possibilities for melodramatic extremity in, for example, the Cairns-Morosi relationship or in the allocation of political good and evil, there is an extreme tact, 'a conscious decision not to be prurient, not to be voyeuristic about it' (Hayes, quoted in Dell'Oso, 1982:27). This may be productively compared to the unreconstructed melodrama of Behind Closed Doors, where the title itself registers prurience. Despite the much publicized desire for telling detail—the $3,500 mace, the silk-screened carpet—there is an overall, and more telling, spareness and repetitiveness of corridor, chamber, backroom. There was an excessiveness, for Australian television standards, of acting protocols. Actors were intensively prepared in an expensive eleven day workshop. Acting styles appropriate to traditional television drama, to stage, to film, were integrated. Method-style crises were precipitated: 'Liberal' and 'Labor' actors were separated, John Meillon was isolated from the rest of the cast in order that he might interiorize Kerr's 'keeping his own counsel'. Each actor in a principal role was encouraged to account confessionally for his or her relation to their character. Lessons were learnt, humility followed hubris.

The Dismissal's Circulation

Such an excessive, problematic text might be expected to attract considerable debate, as, in a sense, it has. However, whereas The Dismissal at least attempts to experiment with and indeed exhaust certain textual possibilities, the debate over the programme has in general tended to subsume it under arguments about historical veracity, formal arguments over the ethics of docu-drama, or 'faction', or bury its however confused politics under the stasis of civics lessons.

Each tendency—respectively, of memoirs of the original protagonists, of certain journalistic critics, of the curriculum package produced by Network Ten — refuses the productivity of The Dismissal, the questions that remain, after The Dismissal, concerning the 'production of the past'. The program precipitated a range of personal testimonies from certain of the original protagonists, who were asked if The Dismissal correlated accurately with their own memories of the events. These took the form of nit-picking about minutiae, or of a superficial potpourri of grabs (4). Or, in the case of the reminiscences of John Wheeldon, senator and Minister for Social Security in late 1975, it took the form of a downplaying of the significance of the events (Wheeldon, 1983:1). It was used productively, however, by some, as an opportunity to take up the politics of the programme and of the dismissal itself (eg. McLelland, 1983, and Cameron, 1983:7).

The 'historical veracity' position, also used to obfuscate debate about other 'progressive realist' television such as Days of Hope and Against the Wind (5), fixes the dynamic of the text not so much at the level of the historical but merely at the level of the unilinear perspective of a memoir of events, which can pass mistakenly for the historical, which is at least more than the sum of innumerable memories. Journalistic discourse which focuses on properties of docu-drama or on this docu-drama in particular (for example, protocols of performance), on the other hand tends to identify these formal properties or production details as ends in themselves, not as contributory stratagems for a productive engagement with the politics of producing the (political) past. Thus, this area of debate around The Dismissal tends to be fixated at the level of opinion concerning successful or unsuccessful impersonation or impression, as if this means of representation was anything more than what it is, a means, among others available, of representation. So also, from the evidence of the accompanying documentary The Making of the Dismissal, we could be expected to regard the programme as largely an exercise in sub-Stanislavskian triumphs of performance. And certain reservations voiced about the docu-drama format such as Dennis Pryor's 'one of the dangers of staging recent history is that the television version tends to replace reality' (Pryor, 1983:12) forgets that 'reality', and most certainly this reality, is always already structured as 'drama'.

Network Ten's The Dismissal Curriculum Package (6), by setting up The Dismissal as a convenient springboard for teaching advanced civics lessons, neglects both history and textual narrativization and dramatization of history. It invites the mistaken possibility, by guiding consideration of The Dismissal into the static structural 'balance of powers' topography of a timeless Constitution—'Prime Minister', 'Leader of the Opposition', 'Governor General'—that one could take a position on the events of 1975 that was other than partial, other than historically determined.

Thanks to Marie Barton, Eric Halliday, Nancy Wahlquist, Australian Film and Television School, for material assistance, and Tom O'Regan, Griffith University, for discussion.

Griffith University


1. From the documentary The Making of The Dismissal.

2. Quoted in Manning (1983:43). Whitlam's and Kerr's books are The Truth of the Matter (Ringwood: Allen Lane, 1979) and Matters for Judgement (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978) respectively.

3. Kennedy, quoted in McCarthy (1983). See also Hayes' remarks in The Making of The Dismissal and Hayes (1983:21).

4. Eg. Game (the Herald journalist who found Khemlani) (1983:4), and Gawenda and Honybun (1983:11).

5. See, on Days of Hope, Bennett et al (1981), and, on Against the Wind, Jones (1982).

6. Written by Peter McGregor, Victorian Education Department curriculum Centre, comprising 'Teacher's Guide', 'Prime Minister', 'Leader of the Opposition', 'Governor General', 'The Media' .


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