One evening in May 2010, David Campbell, the then NSW Minister for Transport, walked out of a private gay sex club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and into the viewing field of a video camera held by journalists from Channel Seven. In the United States or in the UK this would have been a simple, pathetic story; it might have been summarised in a red-top headline as ‘Minister Outed, Resigns’ and left at that. But because this was Sydney, there was always going to be a more complicated and perverse element. This city likes to put its own fingerprint on scandal and rub in the depravity. Adam Walters, the Channel Seven journalist with his finger on the shutter of the camera that evening, had been recently working as a spinner for — and had been sacked by — the same government, and he’d had an affair and fathered a child with another ex-minister, Reba Meagher. We can’t just be wrong on one side. Here, everybody has to be in the wrong: that’s the town it is.
Are you confused, repelled, titillated, or as Lili von Shtupp asked in Blazing Saddles, “are you just enjoying the show”? This is Sydney, and that’s how our élite do things. In another era, David Campbell’s private life would have been kept private by the old boys’ club of the print press, or the story would have played out much more harshly in a time when gay sex was criminal. The whole not-quite-scandal exposed everybody’s hypocrisies.
Walter’s sordid story of payback might be the best introduction there is to the ABC TV series Rake, which features Richard Roxburgh as Cleaver Greene, scumbag barrister, defending the city’s most reprehensible and morally compromised people in the courts, while entertainingly destroying his own personal life and looking good in three-day stubble and a suit. It’s a remarkable achievement in drama and comedy both, so far, if only for the pitch-perfect portrayal of the Balmain and Lower North Shore bourgeoisie, radiating good looks and confidence while at the same time universally and communally terrified in the knowledge that the next step could land them in disgrace, debt, prison, or worst of all: the Western Suburbs.
Season Two opens in the back of a limousine in which Greene is having sex with the conservative Premier of NSW (Toni Collette), who is sporting an inspired Premier’s haircut and a very accurately gauged sense of political speechwriter’s cadence. The episode continues from there, every character his or her own minor portrayal of gross hypocrisy. Roxburgh especially nails the accent of his character, the down-at-heel Balmain gentrifier, not only because he’s been in thorough contact with the alleged subjects of the script, but because Balmain is where Sydney’s NIDA educated cream of acting have also made their home.
The series is far less about the law or politics, though it does a very good job capturing the NSW Parliament, than it is about the close circles of scandal and mutual acquaintance of Birchgrove Road. Roxburgh is actually friends with Charles Waterstreet. Of course! It’s a big city, but in some circles it’s a very small place.
Now, this is all par for the course in terms of in-jokes, and for the genuinely funny drama of scandal which in Sydney, as historian Kirsten McKenzie wrote, goes right back to the earliest days of colonialism. That’s the town it is. As I write, the Ernie Awards are being finalised for 2012 — a set of awards that are simultaneously a condemnation of gross misogyny and chauvinism, and an empathetic response on the part of a professional class of feminist women that excess is actually what this city is about. There is every likelihood that tonight’s awards will go to future subjects of future episodes of Rake; whether they’re from the repulsive law firms scattered around our CBD, the chauvinist and blokey political parties who share the benches of parliament, the newsrooms of our media who stand up for the free speech of the telephoto lens in the bushes, or as likely as not, the residential colleges of our disgraceful sandstone universities which have now, at long last, run out of shame and pretexts to exist.
Channel Ten’s series Puberty Blues authoritatively mimics a very different Sydney, one that is definitely not élite, but that is depraved in its own intimate, personal ways. I’ve talked to friends of mine who grew up in the Sutherland Shire and they’ve told me that the producers have gone to the effort of sourcing period-accurate business signs, suburban phone number prefixes, and the cuts of the school uniforms of the girls, not to mention the 1970s slang. When it first aired, I’m told, women across a certain range of suburbs gleefully relived their childhoods, calling each other ‘ya moll’ for a week or two of communally re-enacted nostalgia.
What Rake and Puberty Blues do well, which is very rare in television, is to establish a sense of place and recognition of a city and a people. It’s a difficult feat to accomplish. David Simon in the United States seems to do it well in his series The Wire (for Baltimore) and Treme (for New Orleans). Other television does it just as well for other cities; Sex and the City for upper-class New York, Law and Order for the rest of New York, and 1990s The Bill for London. In Australia, even though there is no such place as Ramsay Street, Erinsborough, there is no other place in the world that Neighbours could possibly be set in than suburban Melbourne. The critical thing about the success of Neighbours over decades is its accurate mimicry of a Melbourne that exists not in physical blocks and cul-de-sacs, but in the imagination of Melbournites — and people around the world who would be, if given the chance.
Rake is contemporary, Puberty Blues nostalgic. They both succeed because of their appeal to a specific place and moment in time; in Rake, it’s the upper-class lawyer-bohemian we love to hate (but, as the slang goes, would “tap” given half a chance), and in Puberty Blues the genuinely heartbreaking coming of age of two young women. Nor is it coincidental that the basic subjects of both series is sexual hypocrisy, scandal, reputation, risk of shame and ruin, and gender double-standards: they’re a set of concerns that seem to be recognised by Sydneysiders as part of our Establishment, as well as our broader society. That’s the town it is.
Photo copyright ABC.