The Guardian July 30, 2003


TV programs worth watching
Sun August 3 Sat August 9

Question: Are historical dramas improved by using improvisation? 
Personally, I don't think so, unless you believe that actors can actually 
make up on the spur of the moment better dialogue than professional writers 
can produce after hours or days of thought and labour. Improvisation is much 
favoured by a certain type of stage director who thinks it gives a 
performance the effect of naturalism. But as a ploy for television 
production it is much over-rated.

The British historical drama The Other Boleyn Girl (ABC 8.30pm Sunday)
"was developed through improvisation" we are told as though it was
something to brag about. Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel of the
same name is one of those "historical" works that uses history simply as
a peg on which to hang a plot, gayly taking liberties with fact to improve
the story. In this case the story is of Anne Boleyn's elder sister Mary,
supposedly mistress to King Henry VIII before he married 
Anne. Although there is no evidence to support it, the novel and the 
program happily postulate that Mary had at least one child by Henry.

When a novel is described as having been "adapted" for television,
you can usually assume that the adaptation is moderately faithful to
the original work, allowing for the difference in medium. If however,
the TV production is "based" on the novel, it is often rather less faithful.
The Other Boleyn Girl is not even "based on" Gregory's novel,
but "inspired by" it. If you're a fan of Gregory don't say you weren't warned.

To add to the historical ambience, no doubt, the program has been shot
with a lot of the currently fashionable "video diary" style passages,
which I find simply jarring. Why don't they have her putting down her
thoughts on her trusty sixteenth century computer? It makes as much
sense as talking to a sixteenth century TV camera. To make the
"you are there" live Tudor TV camera approach seem more real,
they actually resort to wobbly, hand-held cinima-viriti style photography!
I ask you.

The combination of gambling with greed and very large amounts of money 
leads to crookedness. I'm sorry but it almost always does.And for crooked 
gambling on a grand scale you can't go past the New York Stock Exchange. 
Everybody knows this, but capitalists still seem shocked when examples of 
stock market crookedness actually come to light. How could this happen, they 
proclaim, wringing their hands in anguish. And pillars of capitalism like 
Time and the US Public Broadcasting Service can be relied on to produce 
detailed reportages of how this, that or the other financial disaster came 
about on this occasion.

The Wall Street Fix from PBS, screening in the Cutting Edge slot
(SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) recounts the most costly business scandal in
American history  the spectacular failure of the telecommunications giant
WorldCom. While analysts and brokers hyped the telecom boom and pocketed
enormous profits, millions of investors were taken on a catastrophic
ride ending in US$2 trillion in losses on WorldCom and other telecom
stocks. New York State Employees Pension Fund has sued Wall St banks
to recover the US$300 million the Fund lost on WorldCom. The 
program focuses on the relationship between WorldCom, brokerage firm 
Salomon Smith Barney and Citibank, Wall Street's biggest bank.

In 1998, Salomon Smith Barney merged with Citibank, and Travelers,
an insurance giant, to create the nation's first "superbank".
It's a corrupt tale, in which Travelers gave WorldCom's CEO Bernie
Ebbers a personal mortgage for US$1 billion which he used to build a
personal business empire. In addition Citibank gave Ebbers another
loan that he used to finance ownership of a 500,000-acre ranch in Canada.
But these things are inherent in the system, a view that the program
is careful not to raise.

My father used to sing in the bath. He only had two songs: one about poaching
("For it's my delight on a starry night in the season of the year") and one
about Ned Kelly. The latter ended: "But when I look around at the people I
know and the prices of things that we buy, I say to myself it just goes
to show, Ned wasn't such a bad guy. "Ned Kelly and his family were Irish
immigrants, battlers trying to earn a living from a small property in Victoria.

Typical bush larrikins, they augmented their meagre income with a bit of cattle 
duffing, an act of rebellion against the local squatters and the mainly 
British-officered police (the hated "traps"). Like the slightly earlier NSW 
bushrangers Ben Hall and Frank Gardner, the Kellies epitomised the 
downtrodden forced into a life of crime by an oppressive bourgeois 
state. They were perceived by ordinary people as being in a continuum with 
Robin Hood, Dick Turpin and sundry other "good badmen" bandits, highwaymen 
and buckaneers.

However, Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly, screening on The Big 
Picture (ABC 8.30pm Wednesday), attempts to legitimise a ruling class 
portrait of Ned Kelly: "little more than a horse thief, a bank robber, a 
cop killer, a colonial terrorist, a murderous thug".

The fight game, especially in the US, has always been notorious for being 
crooked. In more recent years, with movies like Rocky, Hollywood has 
glamourised the grim business of punching people in the head until they 
fall down. Some feminists think that having women slug at each other in 
boxing gloves somehow extends the boundaries of women's rights. Actually it 
merely extends the opportunities for a damaging "sport" that should be as 
passi as bull baiting. In the 1940s and '50s there were a number of powerful 
Hollywood productions that exposed the corruption and general rottenness of 
the "fight racket".

One of the best and most potent was Robert Wise's The Set-Up (ABC 
10.15pm Saturday). Made in 1949, it is actually based on a poem. One-time 
boxer (and superb actor) Robert Ryan plays a washed up boxer who does not 
realise he's had it. His handlers promise a local racketeer that he'll lose 
his next bout (they confidently expect him to get knocked out). "Director 
Robert Wise matches the 72 minutes of screen time to real time, building 
tension and authenticity. The world he creates  the boxer's cheap hotel 
room, the carnival-like street scene, the dingy, overcrowded dressing room, 
the hostile arena  is atmospheric and believable. "And you'll not soon 
forget his portrayal of fight fans, each more monstrous than the other."

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