TV

The House That Hancock Built: ‘Molly’ And The Rise Of The Very, Very Bad Aussie Historical Miniseries

So many. So terrible.

While it’s tempting to not take the bright, brassy line of historical TV miniseries pumped out by the commercial networks seriously, it’s hard to argue with their popularity. Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War on Cricket and House of Hancock both pulled in close to two million viewers each, and when that many people in a country are watching the same four hours of TV, something important is happening.

The problem is, that something might not be very good. The stories popularised by the recent explosion in soft-historical biopics and dramas feed us versions of our history that aren’t exactly plumb with the truth, and by watching them, we’re asked which version of ourselves and our past we’d like to prioritise. With Channel Seven’s Molly Meldrum miniseries Molly beckoning on Seven this weekend, and Ten’s version of the life of Peter Brock due later this year, it’s a good time to break down where these commercial ‘historical’ miniseries come from, and how they’re working to shape how we see ourselves.

The Decline Of Australian Historical Telly

Longform and historical Australian TV is hardly new; there’s a long and innovative tradition of miniseries retelling moments in Australian history. Unsurprisingly enough, the beginning came in the wake of the Whitlam era, as the stranglehold of Anglo storytelling began to splinter at last. As historian Meaghan Morris tells it, Australia was an “amnesiac society” before the ‘70s, not only unwilling but chronically resistant to remembering all of the past. “Then, a generation of Aboriginal activists and intellectuals said, ‘Whose amnesia? We didn’t forget,’” Morris says. Along with migrant, female and queer voices, these stories began to emerge in mainstream discourse, and the key genre with the widest impact to this end was the historical miniseries.

Gently sidestepping the irony inherent in getting rose-tinted about the past when it comes to criticising historical TV, there’s a long but chronically understudied history of these shows in Australia. Series like Kings in Grass Castles, Bangkok Hilton and Brides of Christ began to confront the Big Themes in multivalent ways; Aboriginal dispossession, colonialism and multiculturalism, the Dismissal, the traditional Anzac myths of empire and glory. There was definitely some hot trash around, but imperfect as they were, the miniseries of the ‘80s were collectively a hotbed of self-examination, moving towards an increasingly unflinching look at Australian history. Growing up without any books in the house, my parents would make references to these shows and show us the videos as if they were History. It was there that our true stories lived – complex, unhappy, full of flawed characters, and pointing to an uncertain future.

In the decades since, the ABC has diligently continued this tradition of providing counter-historical narratives to the comfortable beer, brawn, bush and babes way of knowing ourselves. To name a few recent series, ANZAC Girls and Paper Giants both self-evidently rewrote and reclaimed the masculinised spheres of war and publishing through demonstrating the essential and silenced contributions of women, in strong and gripping fashion.

However, the commercial miniseries as we know it today – typically spearheaded by Channel 9 – plays like Chris Franklin’s iconic ‘Bloke’ next to ABC’s Midnight Oil. Invariably billeted as the summer viewing events, they are positioned as definitive takes on the big, rousing dramas of our time. Coming hot on the heels of Invasion Day, at the start of the new ratings season, this brand of historical miniseries has become an annual event close to a very public but invisible, silent, and self-confirming ritual of celebrating the easy way of viewing the past.

Rewriting History: How We Tell The Stories We Want To Hear

As any cultural studies professor will tell you, the lure in a postcolonial society of experiencing the ‘true story’ of an event that’s shaped us is pretty irresistible, especially to those with anxieties about the validity of the whole national project. Tales that legitimise myths, talk about core elements of the national character and silence other ways of knowing the past tend to strike. Looking back at House of Hancock and Howzat, we can tease out how the new commercial approach differs.

Any gloss of HoH couldn’t go without a pass (or blanch) at the opening scene, which saw Peta Sargent‘s Rose Porteous burst out of the wings of Prix D’Amour performing ridiculous karaoke, already caricatured to us as a gold digging, woman of colour villainess as if that was the key plank the series, and the story of the Hancock dynasty, rested on. Having sat down deciding to live tweet the whole episode, I was too stunned to move my thumbs.

Stuff not really within the HoH universe, like the distorting power of wealth, the abuse of Indigenous workers and peoples in Hancock-prospected areas and the exploitation and theft of their lands, the malign influence of mining on government, and the weird horror of dynasties, is glossed over or ignored entirely in favour of sweeping views of the pristine North. PerthNow resorted to saying that the show “made a great advertisement for the Pilbara”, which just about sums it up.

With Howzat, the history of the structural transformation of the national pastime became a knees-up boys club where the women were bedraggled PAs or supermodels, and success for the blokes was a dead cert from the go. Not mentioned: the casualisation of labour, the neoliberal industrialisation of sport, or the Jabba-the-Hutt grimness of Kerry Packer’s impact on the Australian media landscape.

Beyond the inherent limitation and jingoism of the narratives, the viewing experience works to take history out of the equation. Visually, they’re equal parts terrorism fridge magnet and Underbelly. It’s a type of living history that uses the same framing and visual language as the Lara Bingle tourism campaign, and as such fails in the telling. Polishing and bringing the past up to date neutralises our distance from it, and from understandings of the complexities and difficulties of another time, reified instead as something easy to swallow. In a world where Lang Hancock walks down the aisle to ’Lovefool’ — or where a dramatic miniseries about Schappelle Corby exists — nothing can be taken seriously or changed, then or now.

Also, the commercial requirement for well-recognised actors has the weird, Brechtian distancing effect of making it seem as if the entirety of Australian history happened over the same weekend in Sydney in 1983, ping-ponging between Lachy Hulme’s forehead, Mandy McElhinney and whatever tailored suit Sam Neill is wearing.

Infantilising The Past

So what does this all mean? Treating history apolitically on TV, as if history was just about a few people talking to one another, is just about the most political approach of all. The logic of this television is to elide the history of struggle, class, gender, whatever into a contest of personalities; to make our past not one of inequality, violence and dispossession, but of strong and powerful people disagreeing, and venally at that. It’s to say that history is simply a drama; a drama that vindicates certain characteristics in people, like brashness, deceit or strength, which at brass tacks is a pretty Randian way of looking at being alive.

It’s not the same as fiction: these shows exist in a separate and alterior universe, where the movers and shakers live, where nothing like reality can penetrate. By existing as a celebration of oversimplified narratives when the reality transformed the lives of Australians in untoward and stark ways, we are called to see ourselves as products of other people’s virtues and bravery, rather than the forces they controlled.

These series are a celebration and a confirmation of the anxieties of post-Howard Australia, one where people remember only what they choose to, whether it’s Gallipoli celebrations or an #istandwithgayle sign at the cricket. More to the point, in these programs history remains to be made and owned exclusively by great, white men, with no room for anyone outside the mould.

Nostalgia, that longing for the other which cannot be reached, moves dangerously towards becoming the only game in town. At the same time, a miniseries is expensive. With more cuts to the ABC, the chances of the commercial miniseries becoming the predominant way in which we hear our own stories told back to us is a frightening prospect.

Now with Molly around the corner at Seven, we’re at an interesting flashpoint. As well as being a step away from the sensationalist and self-congratulatory stories told in previous years, Meldrum’s fascinating, long and interdisciplinary life is one that lives at the intersection of a panoply of crucial issues; the challenges and transformations of LGBTQI liberation and identity over the period, the transformation of youth culture via postmodernism and neoliberalism, the development of Australian identity through local music and art, the trauma of sudden, life-changing injury, and the tragedy of following St Kilda.

The Countdown documentary on ABC went some way to exposing raw nerves, but is this going to come to grips with the fascinating depth of his life, or become a hi-res scroll through an eternal summer where no one gets hurt? Will that ugly, homophobic 2003 roast, which also happened to be on Channel 9, be addressed? Like any story you tell yourself, the difficulties you try to leave out tend to be where the actual tale lives. At least in Molly‘s case, we can be certain of one thing: the soundtrack will be wall-to-wall bangers.

Molly will be on Channel Seven, Sunday February 7 at 8.30pm.

Alex Griffin is a freelance writer, editor and economist specialising in Australian marginalia. He presents on RTRfm and tweets @griffreviews.