Sunday 11 December 2016

Excavating a major work by Tim Burstall - A DESCANT FOR GOSSIPS viewed at the National Archives of Australia

When I previously wrote about Tim Burstall and his 1983 television mini-series A Descant for Gossips I said a few things which have proved to be not quite as expected. So, start with a correction. The script was co-written by Burstall and, according to the credits, Robert Stead. Now if you say that latter name quickly you might get “Ted Roberts” backwards. If you consult IMDb you’ll find it credits Roberts with work as a writer on the mini-series. Why the author’s real name was hidden at the time may be lost to us. Roberts died in February 2015. Perhaps he was moonlighting from his contract work on either Patrol Boat or A Country Practice. Perhaps working for the ABC was a no no.

A Descant for Gossips
I also said, “But there have been no revivals and my inside information is that the material is not likely to be in any condition to be shown on a modern TV set without some fairly major restoration work.”  Well, having viewed the existing material I have to say that that may not be entirely true especially when you consider just what does get shown on TV, especially on the back channels and on cable channels that I always have trouble believing anyone but an asterisk is watching.

I’m not sure what sort of preservation work has been done but a viewing this week at the National Archives of Australia where the three eps were screened from a digital file that contains a transfer of the original series, is most informative. The series was shot on both 16mm film and in the studio where it was recorded on videotape. The editing is quite seamless with even small shots and sequences from both sources inserted and edited together. This is far beyond the older and no doubt cheaper technique of an exterior establishment shot on film followed by the rest of the scene recorded on tape.

The colour shows no particular fade, certainly no more than plenty of those old BBC series that you see endlessly on the BBC cable channel devoted to its classic library. Similarly, the academy ratio, with its pillar box frame is similar to much that goes onto the back channels. All of which means that, in my completely unsophisticated view, there should be little difficulty involved in getting the show ready for re-screening and for publishing on DVD. A number of the principal actors are all still alive and hopefully might give their story.

I am told however that such things are not likely to be possible, not just because of the restoration needed, but because there would be rights issues. Everything that was signed off back in 1983 which lead to the program ending with a claim for copyright by the ABC could now be up for re-negotiation in the light of modern day developments which especially may require additional royalty payments to all concerned. This might include the author’s estate, the actors and the various technicians, living or dead. Among the living are the composer of the music score George Dreyfus who on frequent occasions throughout the show produced little orchestrated interludes involving tinkly variations of “Kookaburra sits on the old Gum Tree” a song which has only recently been the subject of a closely-watched copyright claim for its use by the band Men at Work.

But why get excited? Well for starters the series represents some of the best work that I have seen from Burstall. He had a chequered career in which he made all sorts of films to keep himself in work and the wolf from the door. I’m not going to name the ones I would so designate from his quite extensive filmography but they constituted more than a few. He shrugged them off though occasionally the shrug might be accompanied by a rant about critics and the so-called intelligentsia who looked down on such things.

More importantly the film, set in small town Australia in 1957,  pierces into the bedrock of conservatism and ignorance that characterised the nation in those Menzies years and which, never far from the surface, shows signs of re-emerging with even more ferocity than it had way back then. There are some moments that are re-created with complete exactitude – the mother going off to a church group and dressing in a manner that today is only seen at the Melbourne Cup, the observance of so-called propriety when it comes to spending the night under the same roof, the kids who egg each other on until disaster (minor as it might mostly be in the great scheme) strikes, the drunken father located in a dive pub sitting in a corner with a crone female next to him, both staring into the distance. The capturing of the bigotry and moral superiority is finely done. Only one character, played by a then young Bill Garner, stands up at all to the wash of intolerance.

The casting of Peter Carroll and Genevieve Picot is also terrific. He’s a decade or more older than her. She’s his last chance. She’s ambivalent. And the young Kaarin Fairfax making her debut brings much gravitas. I wouldn’t know how much the high pitch squeak of her voice was hers alone or had some dialogue coaching but it is/was perfect. As for the themes running through the drama – bigotry, intolerance, ignorance, bullying by and of the young, sexual ignorance, the limited visions of family life – they are fresh up to date.

It’s time. ....But I’m told it may be simply impossible to retrieve this and bring it back to a new audience. A premiere at the Sydney Film Festival should definitely be a prospect. I’d love for that to be tested and for someone at the ABC to check it out and let us know. Perhaps it can be the start of the excavation of drama from an earlier era.

That's a good idea in fact. There must be people around who have spent their lives watching these things and keeping records and who should be able to rattle off the names of a hundred or more similar things that have been made over the last sixty years and deserve another moment in the sun. Time for someone in the ABC to be thinking backwards as well as forward and for this to be done with some system and not by one off lurches into whatever void looms.   

Additional Note: After booking in and filling out an online application, the three episodes were set up for me to view in the Reading Room of the National Archives of Australia, NSW office, which is actually at Chester Hill, some 37.2k from Bondi Junction not as the crow flies but as the M5 and various byways wend. The staff at the NAA were terrifically helpful. The tour of the building was a mind boggle for a number of reasons I wont go into.

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