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

An Audience for The Dismissal

Sylvia Lawson

The working concept of the audience is one of two dominant and interrelated problems in the telling of any history: the question of which history are you telling; to whom, for whom are you telling it? Which past are you claiming when you say, as the Kennedy Miller people are supposed to have said in a widely-repeated production anecdote, 'if we had any guts we'd make a series on the fall of the Whitlam government'? Do they mean the tale of Good King Gough and the wicked barons? Do they, at the other extreme, mean the high moral courage of the governor-general who did his painful duty? or the clash of the Titans and the fall of the flawed hero (which is more or less the version we've got); or do they mean something more to do with the anomalies of federalism and what those can mean for comparatively progressive governments?

Negotiating the question of which history you are telling depends crucially on your notion of who is the audience, who is being told this is the second question. Who is it that needs to know what happened then, why it happened and why it still matters? What follows here is an attempt to disengage some implicit notions of the audience from parts of the fabric of The Dismissal where I think they're legible, and also from certain places in the surrounding media comment. What, for instance, is the operative notion of audience in those dominant strategies of the series which have already been discussed—the mode of impersonation, the destiny-laden commentary narration, and along with those the infinite pains to replicate the trappings and setting of power (mace, carpet, spreading gardens, the interior of Parliament)? All these are parts of the choice of story, but they also raise a question of audience made explicit by Terry Hayes in an interview in the Age: Its success will depend on whether Australians want to sit down and watch six hours of stuff which is ... it's not Sons and Daughters. It will require concentration. There's a theory in television that people aren't into this sort of thing. Who knows ? We show politics can be as dramatic as anything else. This is about guys seeking to attain or retain power and a tragedy that occur red not only to some people involved but to this country (Age 3 March 1983; my emphasis)

Tragedy is held to be classical drama in its mode of greatest in tensity, that which not only holds you in your seat but might also do some good: catharsis. The logic here is that if politics can be offered as dramatic, and particularly as tragic, then people will be 'in to' it, but there's no question about what mode of drama or tragedy Brecht is nowhere in the offing; it must be the mode in which action and decision are focussed strongly in individuals so that identification is invited. Only 'drama' will bring this subject matter, politics into the category of entertainment.

Several commentators, including Denis O'Brien and Clement Semmler, talked about Greek Tragedy; one, Yvonne Preston in the Sydney Morning Herald's Guide pages, invoked Hamlet, and the sense of a stage littered with bodies as the drama neared the resolution of the downfall. These references collaborate with the implied concept of the audience as one which would pack out a visit of the Royal Shakespeare Company, an audience accustomed to, and requiring, the classic narrative in which the pivots are not politics, but fate and destiny.

This is also an audience concerned with fineness, with 'quality'. The appeal to that concern pervades our cultural institutions, appears constantly in the charters of film-funding bureaucracies, and the supporting rhetorics of the Australia Council. There is much in it that helps to account for the highly-fabricated artwork pretentions of certain better known Australian feature-films. It is an idea of the audience which, we might conjecture, manifests some persisting post colonial anxiety, so that the whole idea of 'quality' is posed insistently against the background of rejecting, disposing of colonial crudity. (On this point, I recommend attention to John Hinde's book Other People's Pictures, and his perceptive comments on the critical dismissals in the early seventies of the Bazza Mackenzie and Alvin Purple films.) The idea is that we do, after all, have a 'sophisticated' quality-seeking audience.

This audience, as it turns out when you consider the sets and locations used, is operating more than one kind of snobbery. The action of The Dismissal is confined largely to Parliament and its offices; apart from those there are only the grand room sets with attendant butlers, full-length drapes, chandeliers and cut-glass; beyond them, manicured gardens. These place the series, and us, in the discourses of quality TV as elaborated in many years of BBC prac tice; the audience is positioned as one which seeks to be regaled by tales from above, on how the 'other half', or more strictly the ruling minorities, live. This is the watching audience for magnificent weddings and funerals, for the noblesse oblige of A Horseman Riding By, for Upstairs and Downstairs (with its aborted politics) and of course for Brideshead Revisited, which was boring partly because it was all Upstairs without any Downstairs. Garrie Hutchinson in the Age rightly attacked Peter Carroll, as the narrator, for evoking Brideshead in that elegiac tone, but he also said: The dawn photography of Parliament House as an antipodean Brideshead, a kind of remote, cut-off battleground where great events could transpire without the interference of the real world is probably closer to the truth than is comfortable (Age, 17 March 1983) The notion of an audience which has to be ritually admitted to the corridors of power (again, Upstairs) is also that of an audience which is by definition quite powerless, and which can have no other than a vicarious and compensatory role. Its members are in want of 'intelligence', in the old sense; they are assumed to be needing enlightenment. These assumptions sit squarely framed by the Australian liberal tradition; the school kit prepared for use with the series is offered (or seems to be) in an amazingly wide-eyed faith that young students will be able to learn about the workings of parliament, to accept the rhetoric of 'impartiality', and to believe that a large and complex conflict can be posed as a question with exactly two sides to it. The audience may be waiting for instruction as much as diversion, but in any case, it's presumed to be passive.

So, in another way, is the audience implied in the structuring, the setting-up of certain episodes. These concern the relations of Dr Cairns and Junie Morosi, and the part played in amplifying them by the tabloid press; the role in the loans affair of Khemlani, and then the pursuit of Khemlani in late 1975 by the journalist Peter Game for the Melbourne Herald. That list sounds banal, and is; it's a selection of old headlines, and nothing could be staler or more banal than that. What's to be noticed now is that in assembling the old headlines and telling the story out of them, the makers of the series are assuming an audience which was exactly that assumed by the headlines themselves, back then; here The Dismissal works in a curious backward spiral. Although there was a claim that the media were being treated as parts of the story, the presentation of the in dividual journalist (who interviews Junie Morosi) as shallow and opportunistic does nothing to modify this odd complicity with bygone sensationalism; some representation of proprietors and controllers, and the reasons for the whole job they did on the Whitlam government, would have been more to the point. (So would some reference to the kamikaze courage of those Murdoch journalists who went on strike, for reasons of professional principle, that November.)

If the media were to be shown as agents in narrative, some distance would have to be taken on the versions they offer; instead, the headlines come spinning towards us, in a graphic device which seems to confirm their own claims to power, and the makers of the series buy into their version of what took place. Another construction of the audience is offered here: the population whose lives are presumed to be flat and colourless, needing shocks, shots and fixes in indefinite succession. This construction, like the others, also presumes passivity.

With all that, there are a few moments and elements in The Dismissal which complicate and undercut the implications I have tried to identify. There is, for instance, the moment where Peter Sumner as Bill Hayden rings Whitlam from a public phone-box to tell him as a matter of urgency that he believes the governor-general is preparing to sack them. In the PM's office Whitlam doesn't believe him, pooh-poohs the idea. In the phone-box in the street, seen in medium long-shot, both closed-in and isolated, Hayden is helpless, ineffectual in his attempt to convey a vital warning. Here, and also in a couple of the shots of Bill Hunter's massive Rex Connor thrashing about in hospital, there is the beginning of a visual dialectic between power and political impotence.

Those points connect with the curiously sparse quality of the interchange between Kerr and Barwick where Barwick is not properly seen, a mid-long-shot profile half-turned away. Here we are plainly concerned, not with knowable persons being impersonated, but with public figures in the strictest sense; they are functioning in their public roles, and they are merely figures. There is no question either of empathy or antipathy; we are watching the operations of power, quite severely and impersonally conceived.

At these points, The Dismissal invites and implies another sort of audience: one capable, for example, of grasping politics apart from the rise and fall of individual agents. Some extension of this more complex conception might have resulted in more recognition within the drama of that kind of ordinariness typified by a public phone-box; and of the populations which had strong interests in the outcome, and operated their diverse kinds of power at rallies and in voting.

Gough Whitlam made some important contributions to the theories of audience. 'No one knows what the Australian people are capable of,' he said in 1972.

Griffith University


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